Pat Leahy: Power cuts would pull the plug on the Coalition

Any winter plunge into darkness will test popular support for Green energy agenda

Try as they might, they couldn’t land the fish. The opposition dangled the bait in front of the Taoiseach’s nose in the Dáil during the week, but he wasn’t taking it. Again and again in the Dáil (as Morning Ireland did with Eamon Ryan earlier) they tried to get him to take the bait and declare unambiguously that there wouldn’t be any power cuts this winter. Again and again the Taoiseach, and Ryan before him, wouldn’t bite.

“Will he guarantee that the lights will stay on this winter?” asked Labour leader Alan Kelly. “It is a fairly simple question.”

The Taoiseach’s response was simple, too: a simple evasion, worth quoting as a classic of the genre.

“First of all, I thank the Deputy for the question, because it is a very important issue that is facing the people of the country today. [Translation: Yep, this could be big alright.]


“As the Deputy outlined, it is the responsibility of the CRU [Commission for Regulation of Utilities] and EirGrid to ensure the right balance of electricity supply and demand. [Translation: Of course, this has nothing to do with me.]

“When they briefed me and the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications on Monday night, they assured us that everything necessary is being done to guarantee supply.” [Translation: They’ve told me it’s in hand, but remember it’s not my job.]

Kelly continued to press him. The Taoiseach continued to avoid saying: I promise the lights won’t go off.

“As Taoiseach, I am saying to the Deputy that the Government will ensure every effort will be made and that everything that needs to be done will be done.”

Later Mary Lou McDonald had a go. She got no further. And later the press had a go when the Taoiseach faced them in the afternoon. “I don’t think it is going to come to that,” he told reporters who asked about blackouts.

Micheál Martin has been around for long enough to spot a trap. Ryan had plenty of time to ruminate on the mistakes of the Green Party the last time it was in Government during the years he spent first out of the Dáil and then in opposition. At this stage of their careers – maybe the last spin for both men in a position of real power – they are wily politicians.

Generating capacity

Clearly, there is a reason that neither the Taoiseach nor his Minister will declare unambiguously that there won’t be power cuts in the winter. And while officials have assured them that it is a remote possibility – and the addition of further generating capacity is due soon – it is not something that they are prepared to rule out 100 per cent. The Opposition knows this, which is why they spent so much time trying to get Martin and Ryan to say: “I promise there won’t be power cuts.” And why Micheál and Eamon didn’t.

The global politics of energy are complicated, ruthless and sometimes violent

The global politics of energy are complicated, ruthless and sometimes violent. Witness how Russia uses its energy leverage for political purposes. See how oil has shaped the geopolitics of the Middle East. The decarbonisation of energy in the decades ahead will make it more complex and volatile still.

At a domestic level, the politics of energy are simpler: people expect the Government to keep the lights on and to keep the price of power affordable. The first is a sine qua non; if the lights go out – very unlikely but not entirely impossible – it will destroy people’s confidence in the competence of the Government to fulfil its basic responsibilities. It’s a shipkiller. It would be hard to see any government recovering from it.

Most people do not, let us continually remind ourselves, follow the day-to-day business of politics as avidly as some of us do. But they have certain basic expectations of government, all the same: security; sane management of the economy; a reasonable level of public services; and keeping the lights on. Nothing bespeaks an administration that has lost its ability to do the basics so much as the lights going off. If that happens, no amount of finger-pointing at Eirgrid will get the Coalition off the hook.

Energy costs

Controlling the cost of energy is a less binary question, but the politics of it are going to get harder for the Government. Prices are going up, and will continue to do so. That can’t be good for a government already under pressure on the cost of living, long an issue that pollsters say has been bubbling away under the surface. And remember, the Government itself is going to add to the cost of energy in the budget with increases in the carbon tax. At the very least, you can expect some “winter of discontent” Liveline action/newspaper headlines in the not-too-distant future.

Allowing data centres to be built without making sure there are sufficient energy sources is another example of the chronic lack of planning and foresight

Ireland is not alone in experiencing a looming energy crisis, of course; it’s happening all over Europe. And banning any new data centres in the future isn’t going to avert the danger this winter. But allowing data centres to be built – indeed, actively pimping for them – without making sure there are sufficient energy sources in place for them is another example of the chronic lack of planning and foresight that so often lands us in trouble that is entirely avoidable.

If energy shortages lead to power cuts this winter, it would deal a pretty hefty blow to public support for the Green agenda. The scale of changes to the way we travel, heat our homes and produce our food that will be required to decarbonise the economy is only beginning to be appreciated. If the lights go out and the heat goes off, Eamon Ryan and his coalition colleagues might find that public support for climate action is rather less robust than they hoped.