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Political cowardice in Stormont adding to Republic’s electricity bills

Media pandering to tinfoil hat nonsense delaying new North-South interconnector

Would Electric Ireland be putting prices in the Republic up by 3.4 per cent if the new cross-Border interconnector was in place?

Apparently not. The company is blaming the increase on, among other things, single-market and system costs that the planned power line from Co Tyrone to Co Meath is designed to address.

Projections show the line would cut the total bill to homes and businesses, north and south, by 1 per cent immediately, with more savings in subsequent years. We should be in those years now, as the interconnector was meant to be operating by 2017.

Growing use of renewables is further increasing the urgency for the interconnector and similar projects. Eirgrid’s last report on the subject, from 2018, showed 6 per cent of wind power was lost across the island of Ireland because the grid could not cope, up from 4 per cent the year before.

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Officials approved the northern section in 2018 during the collapse of devolution

The need for cross-Border trading is already three times the capacity of the existing interconnector between Co Armagh and Co Louth.

Arguments for and against the new line are well rehearsed. They reached their legal conclusion in the Republic in February 2019, when the Supreme Court upheld planning approval for the southern section. Campaigners had been trying to reverse the approval since 2016, first by judicial review then by appealing when that was rejected.

The hold-up north of the Border remains, with a quirkier Stormont flavour.

Officials approved the northern section in 2018 during the collapse of devolution. Campaigners took this to court on the grounds the decision should not have been taken in the absence of a minister. They won, the bureaucracy was paralysed until Stormont was restored and the decision was dropped into the in-tray of new SDLP infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon.

In June, it was reported officials would give her their recommendation “within weeks” and she would make a determination. Pressure will escalate once Stormont reconvenes from its summer break next Wednesday. Business groups describe the new line as the most important infrastructure project in Ireland.

If Mallon grants approval, as expected, it would be courageous to assume that will be the end of the matter. Political cowardice and opportunism around the issue has been extraordinary and there could still be protests on the ground if construction goes ahead.

Local campaigns

In the Republic, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael supported the interconnector in the Dáil while objecting to it in councils and backing local campaigns against it. Exactly the same has happened in Northern Ireland.

Special mention must go the UUP for grandstanding for the project in Stormont while its councillors opposed it and to Sinn Féin for boasting about the “all-Ireland electricity market” in elections while opposing its vital physical kit.

Although Stormont was restored in January with tighter requirements for collective responsibility, the nature of the decision facing Mallon still leaves her unusually exposed. It is inevitable that other parties, perhaps including parts of her own, will fail to support her.

One incontrovertibly absurd claim against the new interconnector is that it is dangerous but would be safe if buried underground

The 2018 court challenge was mounted by 6,000 land-owners and residents in Co Armagh and Co Tyrone – too big a voter bloc to ignore.

The Irish and British governments should not escape criticism for omitting the interconnector in January’s deal to restore Stormont, despite mentioning every other piece of cross-Border infrastructure they could think of.

As the issue finally comes to a head, the media could ask itself some timely questions.

This story has featured claims about the danger of overhead power lines that should never have been indulged as simply one side of an argument. It would be more appropriate to approach them like claims against 5G and vaccination.

Science can never say anything is completely safe – that is the basis of the scientific method, not a loophole for journalism to humour tinfoil-hat nonsense.

What science can say is that a century of study into the health effects of overhead power lines has so far failed to show any danger, which would hardly be difficult to spot, as hundreds of millions of people have lived underneath them (myself included – the existing cross-Border line ran directly over my childhood home.)

One incontrovertibly absurd claim against the new interconnector is that it is dangerous but would be safe if buried underground.

Electromagnetic field exposure is hundreds of times higher from a cable two metres beneath your feet than 60 metres over your head and the magnetic element goes straight through soil and rock, not that this would be dangerous either. This is secondary-school physics.

The real objection to the interconnector is aesthetic, often from people whose house in the countryside has interrupted the view already.

They may have an honest complaint about visual amenity and the design of pylons could be made less intrusive but that is the extent of their case. Nobody’s interests, including their own, have been served by pretending otherwise.

The media should do better for the decision Mallon is about to make, and all the similar decisions ahead.