Newton Emerson has a nice piece in the Irish Times in which he demonstrates the tight hold NIMBY lobbies have on either side of the border, even on parties who’s main policy plank are in favour as something as seemingly important as the all island electricity market…
He starts with the question:
Would Electric Ireland be putting prices in the Republic up by 3.4 per cent if the new cross-Border interconnector was in place?
The answer, he says, is that…
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.
So what’s the problem?
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.
The political culture north and south has diversified massively over the last 100 years, but in one respect they share a problem routed in the localism generated by the STV PR system. Councillors on the ground are a law unto themselves:
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.
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Since a deal was excluded from the restart agreement, the burden of delivering a beneficial long term project (which potentially severe short term downsides) falls on to the back one politician only, the SDLPs Nicola Mallon…
…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.
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.
It would help if more than just Newton recognised the scale of the political challenge here. Generally, in the past, politicians who have taken risks to improve outcomes have either been ignored or leapt upon from a great height when it does go wrong.
The result is our market for lemons political arena in which no one gets punished for delivering subs standard product. With youth unemployment thought to be at about 25% in NI and even higher in the south, the fight back for better outcomes has to start now.
As our old friend The Dissenter says wryly at the end of a brilliant post on the realities of infrastructure mess…
Instead of laughing at Boris’s bridge, or indulging the idea as having great merit, perhaps step one is banking the idea that infrastructure is essential and can be transformative.
However, to imagine something transformative, we need to get address fundamentals. If there is to be investment in infrastructure, in Northern Ireland it needs to start with the basics.
If you would like to get involved in #TheReset, either as an individual or as part of an organisation, please do get in touch by emailing us at [email protected] with an idea for inclusion in a range of articles or events over September and October.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty