Mallon’s decision on the interconnector ought to be the thin edge of a positive #Reset wedge

Interesting development earlier this week as Nichola Mallon approved the new North-South interconnector from Tyrone to Meath, not least because of the cacophony of noise arising not just from rivals but even from within her own party.

The BBC reports

The approval is for the building of a single circuit 400kV electricity line consisting of 102 towers over 34.1kms in length from Moy in County Tyrone to Crossreagh in County Armagh.

The first application was lodged on 15th December 2009. It has faced a Judicial Review which knocked it back on a technicality. Eleven years later there’s been a decision. Mallon’s colleague Justin McNulty fears it may kill his party in Armagh. But burying it in the ground likely means it won’t happen at all.

Remember, this is just a green light for the start of the line, not the whole thing. A mere starting pistol cannot deliver the full goods until the line in the south, which is being volubly opposed by individual Fianna Fáil TDs, regardless of what their own government’s shared island unit may say, gets the nod.

Sinn Féin is not opposing the line per se, but their Ard Fheis has endorsed a position which means they want it all buried two meters underground.  Not only would this escalate the implementation price, but it restricts the ability to run spurs to the west to (and from) counties like Longford, Sligo, and Mayo.

It’s clearly much easier to pay lips service to the idea of a shared island than to take the sort of political risks Ms Mallon has in order to give it some material reality.  But, whilst some believe that the deficit in energy security may be slightly exaggerated, that’s largely a reflection of present limited ambitions.

We know what we can do to meet targets over greenhouse gas emissions, the starting point for which is an increased capacity to generate and distribute renewable energy sources like wind, tidal, and solar. It’s even key to exploiting NI’s hydrogen ready gas distribution system to the maximum.

Our unremittingly inward gaze has led to poorly joined-up thinking. If the eleven-year lag is an indictment of north-southery, the reduced supply through the interconnector across the Sea of Moyle (Sruth na Maoile in Irish and Scots Gaelic) speaks volumes about poorly resourced relations east-west.

A recent House of Commons report noted…

..restrictions placed on the Moyle Interconnector in Scotland, reducing the capacity of the interconnector to 300 MW, and scheduled to reduce further to 80 MW in October 2017. (More here) This restriction has limited the ability of Northern Ireland to export surplus wind generation to the GB market, increasing costs for users in the Single Electricity Market.

About a year ago it was thought to be at about 300 MW. As with the north-south interconnector, the problem lies outside Northern Ireland with deficits in the Scottish grid.  To take full advantage of the 500 MW capacity of the interconnector, it requires…

…UK-driven investment in the Scottish grid and policy decisions from Ofgem, National Grid and the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This again highlights the need for more joined-up thinking and a collaborative approach between the UK Government and the NI Executive on electricity policy.

You could, if you were to chose to, see this in terms of the two parties which have dominated the NI Executive as a weakness in their ability to turn aspirations into material improvement for the people of Northern Ireland. But it’s more useful to examine the issue in terms of the future benefits available.

Despite Mallon’s decision, it’s far from over. When both the DUP and Sinn Féin (under whom this ball first began rolling under the then Minister for Regional Development Conor Murphy) leaped on the minister for not announcing the decision in the Assembly, even though planning decisions never are.

The Department of Infrastructure presser highlights that 6,000 letters of objection to the original proposal and 3,500 objections have been since the submission of the consolidated Environmental Statement. Paradoxically these objections arise largely from nationalists rather than unionists.

Pollster Ben Page of Ipsos Mori often refers to this kind of compartmentalised response as cognitive polyphasia. In respect of people wanting a united Ireland but unwilling to sacrifice their indvidual rights to make it happen the words of St Augustine come to mind… “Lord, make me chaste – but not yet!”

Although it may often feel like it, most Northern Ireland folks do not live in the same bubble as the standoff politics of the dominant duopoly. If there is to be a better future, these paralysing paradoxes need turning on their heads.  The Belfast Agreement embodies a totality of relationships, not just NI.

The polyphasia is partly a result of politicians and governments not anteing up the full picture of what’s needed in order to make the sort of progress that voters are often desperate to see for their children and grandchildren. What’s needed in the sort of adult to adult conversation Richard referenced yesterday:

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Future Anglo Irish (and even Scottish) relations (arguably at their worst point since the Thatcher/Haughey era) can only be improved by tighter cooperation on bringing Northern Ireland society, its economy and its climate closer both to the rest of the island, and mainland UK.

This is a contradirection to the new politics of anger, which as Profs Collier and Kay say in their new book,  “thrives on grievances some well founded, others imagined or manufactured; its resentments and triumphalism are tearing societies apart”, even those they purport to want to pull together.

One ‘brave’ decision does not a summer of future investment make. But, it’s a start. It may even force others to examine their consciences. To turn Northern Ireland from a political liability into a political asset we need to use all our external relationships to improve the lives of future generations.

If you would like to get involved in #TheReset with Ulster Bank 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.

Photo by anncapictures is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA