Skirmishes switch off lights on cohesive, long-term energy policy for Ireland

Parish pump politics is threatening our gas, oil and electricity security

Reports that Britain is just two days away from running out of natural gas may seem a bit sensationalist, but they do serve to highlight just how wrong-headed the energy debate in Ireland has become.

Instead of focusing on the key long-term strategic imperatives of security of supply and price, the debate here is driven by local interests often masquerading as environmental concerns.

The nature of our political system seems to compound the problem, as the incentive for politicians and their parties lies in supporting the local interests rather than taking them on and implementing whatever Government policy lies behind the controversy. The opposition of the day can always be relied upon to do their bit to make sure that the national interest gets lost in the fog of war.

It is not a phenomena restricted to energy projects and the current brouhaha over plans for a €60 million fish farm off the Aran Islands is a textbook example of how the game is played.


Local interests centred on the salmon angling industry have opposed the project on the basis that it will have detrimental effects on the wild salmon population on which they depend for their livelihood. They appear to be supported in this view by Inland Fisheries Ireland, which is responsible – for among other things – managing the stocks of wild salmon.

The scientific arguments are confused and, crucially, the State agency promoting the project, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, seems to have lost the initiative and the opponents of the scheme are setting the agenda.

The latest twist in the tale involves Fianna Fáil agriculture spokesman Éamon Ó Cuív turning up the heat on Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney because Coveney asked him to try and rustle up support for the project among the Aran islanders who would be the biggest long-term beneficiaries of the project. They would – if they chose – be a very powerful local voice in the debate.

In Ó Cuív’s view, Coveney has compromised his position by indicating he is already in favour of the project.

The question that has to be asked of Ó Cuív is why he is in any way surprised that a Government Minister is actively supporting a project undertaken by a government agency that reports to him and which he has either expressly or implicitly sanctioned. He is in effect accusing Coveney of doing his job.

We cannot answer for Ó Cuív but would speculate that his comments imply a completely different view of the role of a Minister. In this world view, Coveney is meant to be some sort of honest broker between the actions of the Government department whose policies he sets and the public at large.

Ó Cuív can be forgiven for thinking this because the sad fact of the matter is that, when it comes to controversy, that is exactly the position most Government Ministers try to engineer for themselves. Instead of accepting that they are the owner of the policy in question, they try to be the referee and engineer short-term political advantage.

While rather worrying, it is not surprising Ó Cuív was quick to reference the Corrib gas controversy in his criticism of Coveney. He said the project could be as divisive as Corrib in what was presumably a warning the local interests plan to go the distance and Coveney better watch out.

It will be interesting to see what Coveney does next. The good news is that if he caves in, the only losers will be the people that might have directly benefited from the project. However, when it comes to energy projects the stakes are far far higher. All of the various local fights around oil and gas exploration such as fracking in Leitrim and drilling off Dalkey Island will look a bit foolish if we find ourselves without any gas or paying truly enormous prices for it to Russia.

Political economy of energy
Something has to change. This is not the same as saying there are not serious issues around energy policy – particularly the balancing of the risk/reward equation for exploration. The basic point remains that securing energy supplies for Ireland is as serious a responsibilty for any government as paying the national debt. Mess up on either front and the lights go out.

It follows then that Ministers should be actively promoting an exploration policy aimed at energy security and not waiting to referee the local disputes it will inevitably cause. Hopefully Britain will not have to run out of gas first.