The politicisation of the Covid-19 pandemic was unsurprising and widely predicted, but that did not lessen the damage it caused to cross-Border, intercommunal and Anglo-Irish relations. Some of these tensions arose reflexively in reaction to stress and to events. However, there were people who set out quite deliberately to exploit the crisis for partisan ends.
Statistics were misrepresented, false comparisons were made and dark rivalries were fostered between North and South, the UK and Ireland, and unionists and nationalists. Stormont’s health policies were aligned with Britain or the Republic according to constitutional preferences, or there was no such agenda but parties were accused of it anyway. The Republic promised cross-Border co-ordination, then withheld it. Even when the UK offered extra vaccine supplies the apparent condescension only caused further upset.
Now it is all about to happen again over winter energy supplies. On paper the pain of any shortages should be spread fairly across the UK and Ireland. In reality there is no chance this can pass without tension and troublemaking.
The Republic gets three-quarters of its gas through one twin-pipe interconnector with Scotland. Northern Ireland obtains effectively all its supplies through a spur off the same interconnector; there is also a cross-Border pipeline.
The operator of Britain’s gas grid says the interconnector will be treated as an integral part of its system, with any reduction in supply applying evenly across the network. The UK government repeated this commitment last week, saying supplies to the interconnector will be “curtailed equally”.
Even if the UK sticks to this pledge it will not be uncontentious. People in Britain may resent it, or be encouraged to resent it. If this resentment does not distinguish between Ireland and Northern Ireland it will antagonise unionists, partly because nationalists will be sure to point it out. Alternatively, the UK might congratulate itself on its generous support of plucky little Ireland, while still charging full price, causing Irish resentment. There will still be fears and calls for Brexit or protocol-related “revenge”. This is the best-case scenario.
Writing in The Irish Times last month, economist John Fitzgerald raised the prospect of the UK halting supplies to the Republic, only for the Scottish government and Northern Ireland executive to use their devolved powers to try keeping the interconnector and cross-Border pipeline open. This would be a doomsday scenario from a British and Irish perspective. Any Northern executive that existed by then would promptly tear itself apart, as it did at the outset of the pandemic over synchronising school closures with the Republic. If the gas shortage were bad enough to warrant a UK export embargo and Scottish nationalists attempted to break it, there would be a devolutionary showdown in Britain.
Perhaps the best guarantee against any of this is relative scale. Although the Republic accounts for half the UK’s gas exports under normal circumstances that is equivalent to just 5 per cent of domestic UK gas consumption. The political, commercial and reputational damage of cutting Ireland off is very unlikely to be worthwhile. Of course the British public might hear messages to the contrary.
The UK and Ireland both generate half their electricity from gas but trade little electricity directly. Two interconnectors across the Irish Sea are mostly used to smooth out prices rather than to keep the lights on.
Arguments over electricity are likelier within Ireland thanks to Northern suspicions of the single electricity market.
EirGrid bought Northern Ireland’s grid operator in 2008. For years the DUP warned this was pushing up prices in the North due to furtive manipulation by an Irish state-owned company. These claims were dismissed by nationalists and many others as unionist paranoia – until last year when they were seemingly confirmed by the Northern utility regulator. EirGrid is currently challenging its findings.
So the stage is set for suspicion as prices soar. Worse is to come if there is any form of electricity rationing, as the British and Irish governments have separately considered, although both hope to avoid power cuts to households.
Accusations of one part of Ireland “stealing” the other’s electricity will be absurd – even if it were attempted the cross-Border power lines could barely manage it. But such accusations are inevitable and will be difficult to debunk due to the incomprehensible structure of Northern Ireland’s privatised electricity system.
The looming crisis has been apparent since February – an unusually long notice period for disaster. In 1973 Saudi Arabia turned the oil off literally overnight. London and Dublin should spend the remaining months clearly explaining their plans to each other and their populations, with honesty about when the national interest must come first. It would be appalling negligence not to do so. Ideally some trust and solidarity could be rebuilt in the wake of Brexit. The pandemic shows that is a courageous hope.