In the often mundane world of Assembly questions a recent response by the Minister for the Economy, Gordon Lyons is remarkable in its implications. First among these is the potential for a re-run of the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) situation whereby taxpayers continued to make good bad financial and policy calculations on a massive scale.
In response to a question by the Green Party’s Rachel Woods, the Minister for the Economy, Gordon Lyons, stated that:
‘I am not in a position to take action to impose an immediate moratorium on petroleum licensing … my Department has taken legal advice on the matter, and has been advised that such a course of action would most likely be subject to challenge’ [AQW22661/17-22].
Despite an October 2020 Assembly motion (sponsored by Woods, Philip McGuigan, Claire Sugden and Jim Wells) calling on the Executive to acknowledge ‘its responsibility to protect public health and the environment … [and] instigate an immediate moratorium on petroleum licencing’ the Department for the Economy has admitted that companies involved in petroleum exploration may have a lien on government.
Ms Woods and Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit have been at the forefront of the attempt to get some degree of clarity and accountability on this issue. But they have been running into two related blockages: Firstly, there is the apparent contradiction inherent in Minister Lyons’s articulation of policy: For instance, his department has commissioned a research report by Hatch Regeneris into a range of options, ‘including a baseline scenario of no exploration and development’.
The discrepancy between commissioning a report to look at ‘no exploration and development’ while admitting that such an option is moot is explicable in relation to the second blockage: The fact that the Department for the Economy has still not released that report.
A cynic might conclude that rather than facilitating political cover, the report (which was begun in October 2020) has been overtaken by the realization that the companies concerned will initiate litigation if the Executive attempts to enact the wishes of the Assembly.
The legislation on the area dates back to 1964, when Brian Faulkner was Minister, and is essentially permissive rather than prohibitive – in effect, creating the situation whereby companies making applications to the Minister under strict guidelines of commercial sensitivity.
Two applications are currently under consideration by the Department, which also advises that ‘[a]ll of onshore Northern Ireland is available for Petroleum Licence applications’.
Coming on the back of the decision to greenlight underwater gas storage at Islandmagee, there is a real fear that government inaction has facilitated a take-over of natural resources by petro-industry.
This situation has occurred under the watch of the Department for the Economy, which has yet to give a full account of its policy-design process. Instead, Mr Lyons has indicated that he hopes ‘to be in a position to present policy options to the Executive later in the year’.
The Executive could force Mr Lyons’s hand and demand he makes good on his hopes. At that point, presumably, a financial calculation would be made regarding what the costs of blocking, stopping or blocking licensing and exploration might mean in terms of litigation.
This being Northern Ireland, such intertwining of the personal with the political should surprise no one – particularly after the RHI scandal. The emerging debate chimes with concerns voiced frequently on these pages regarding the limitations of the vetocracy that is the consociational system of governance in Northern Ireland.
It reveals an underappreciated aspect of that system: Although parties may state that they oppose certain options unless they positively decide against those choices then the veto is not exercised.
The Ronseal nature of the veto means that it only works when it is made to work. If a policy is not brought forth and decided upon (rejected or permitted) then the veto is like a bluff, or a bargaining chip. In other words, unless politicians actually decide what they want, capitalists will exploit the gaps.
The petroleum licensing issue, then, reveals yet another way in which democracy can be hollowed out. The issue gives rise to the scenario of a zombie democracy, which can characterized by the following rhetorical question: If our politicians cannot take action to face-down petroleum barons then what will they do or what are they good for?
Of course, the argumentative reader, in which this site abounds, will already have pushed ahead: This is not simply a debate about consociation or technocracy – this issue exceeds financial and legal calculations, it is primarily to do with quality of life and health, the right to a clean and green environment and the basic demand that our political representatives protect us from the intrusion of interests that would do harm to those aspirations.
Should Minister Lyons bring this issue to the Executive before the end of the year, I hope that the veto of his colleagues is exercised with an eye on the mistakes of the past.