27. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of the North-South interconnector project; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 41712/17 asked on 04 Oct 2017)

Deputy Niamh Smyth: I ask the Minister the most up-to-date status of the North-South interconnector and to make a statement on the matter.

Deputy Denis Naughten: I am taking Questions Nos. 27, 52 and 53 together.

The 2012 Government policy statement on the strategic importance of transmission and other energy infrastructure states “The Government does not seek to direct EirGrid and ESB Networks or other energy infrastructure developers to particular sites or routes or technologies.” On 19 December 2016 An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for the North-South interconnector project in Ireland. The decision concluded a lengthy planning process which included an oral hearing completed over 11 weeks from March to May last year. My Department has been involved in one of two judicial review proceedings that have been brought against this planning decision. On 22 August this year the High Court upheld the development consent granted by An Bord Pleanála for the interconnector. A second judicial review is scheduled for hearing later this month.

Following the motions calling for an updated independent study that were passed by Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann earlier this year, I have commissioned two independent studies designed to address the main points of the motions, as well as key concerns expressed by parties opposed to the development of an overhead line. The first is an independent study to examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the interconnector. I have approved the appointment of independent experts to carry out this study and their work commenced in August. The consultants are Bo Normark who will chair the group, Professor Ronnie Belmans and Professor Keith Bell.  The independent expert group is expected to deliver its final report by the end of next January. I have also commissioned a study of the levels of compensation provided for land and property owners in proximity to high voltage transmission lines in a European context.​ Work is also under way on this study and its results are expected in the first quarter of 2018.

In September 2017 the ESB published a tender notice for works related to the project, including the design and testing of equipment. These works have very lengthy lead-in times and I understand the procurement process will take a minimum of nine months to complete and can be cancelled at any time. The results of both commissioned studies will be published prior to the conclusion of the procurement process.  In addition, no work will be commissioned during the procurement process. The planning process for the section of the project in Northern Ireland is ongoing, following the conclusion of an oral hearing on 27 February 2017.

Deputy Niamh Smyth: We have not yet had an independent review with support across the Chamber, but the key to any review of this thorny and important matter is public acceptance. We do not have that. Eirgrid has recently published its latest magazine and sent it to all the landowners in the area saying what is happening in autumn 2017. As the Minister well knows, a Europe-wide tender for the design and manufacture of 400 pylons was issued recently, exposing the intent of Eirgrid to plough on with its project in its current form. Hundreds of land owners and concerned residents from Cavan, Monaghan and Meath attended a meeting in Aughnamullen community centre in County Monaghan on Monday. There certainly is no public acceptance of the project in its current status. Those people feel that Grid Link and Grid West know that the project is not accepted in its current state, and they feel very aggrieved to see this type of literature being sent out.

The Minister spoke about his review and the issue of compensation. There is not a landowner in counties Monaghan, Cavan or Meath interested in compensation.

Deputy Denis Naughten: The Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Humphreys, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Doherty, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee, and the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English, have all spoken with me about this issue, particularly on the publication of the ESB tender. A very lengthy process has to be gone through. The notice in the European Journal was published. That has to be given one month. The issue tendered to interested bidders, and that will take a three month period. The post-tender evaluation and negotiation will take four months, and then there is an approval and cool-off period for a month. That brings us up to June 2018. That allows for the planning process in Northern Ireland to be completed. The processes that we are involved in relating to independent studies will also be completed. The independent studies, particularly the study concerning compensation, were raised with me by the public representatives when they met with me in my office last July, and on foot of that we decided to investigate the situation across Europe on it and to see what information came from that investigation.

Deputy Shane Cassells: The Minister has said that Eirgrid has put out the tender for the design and testing of the 400 pylons, each carrying 400,000 volts for the North-South Interconnector project. The deadline for submission is 20 October, which is this month. This moves Eirgrid into conflict mode with the people of Meath, Cavan and Monaghan. The Minister knows this full well. It confirms that public acceptance is irrelevant to Eirgrid’s strategies and plans, and it puts Eirgrid and the ESB on a clear path towards direct conflict and confrontation with the landowners and communities in the north east. I am sure the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Doherty, has said that to the Minister. She has said it often. What the Government is saying and what the tender confirms is that the feasible and acceptable alternative of undergrounding will never be properly examined by Eirgrid. The provocative placing and timing of the tender is a clear confirmation of its determination on this project and its attitude of unaccountability to democratic process.

How is it that the tender for the 400 pylons includes the 100 pylon towers for Northern Ireland even though the project is still going through the planning process in the North and is awaiting decision?

How is it that the Fianna Fáil motion in February, supported by the majority of the Dáil and Seanad, calling on the Government to ensure that no further work is done on the interconnector until this analysis and a full community consultation has been completed, was blithely ignored by this Minister?

Deputy Denis Naughten: The works that are being proposed have a very lengthy lead-in time. We are trying to appoint someone to look at it. The design phase has not been agreed to. Deputy Cassells is correct that this does include the pylons on both sides of the Border. As he knows, we are still in the planning approval process in Northern Ireland, so we cannot go ahead with the design phase until we have a decision on that. This is about looking at interested parties that would actually carry out this work. It can be withdrawn. There is a cooling off period next June. That will allow time for all of the issues, including the planning application in Northern Ireland, to be decided upon. It would not make sense to sign any contract to go to the design phase until we have that aspect of it concluded.

Deputy Niamh Smyth: The fact that the Minister is talking about compensation is acknowledgement of that there are worries when it comes to health, land devaluation, heritage and the landscape of the area. The word “compensation” would not come into the conversation otherwise. Is the Minister really asking us to believe that the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Humphreys, who is from my constituency, sat down with him and said that it was okay to plough ahead with this project in its current guise? It is simply not allowable.

Deputy Shane Cassells: Is the Minister saying that Eirgrid is flagrantly ignoring the democratic process and that it does not have his or the Government’s tacit approval to proceed in this way? The people in my county and the north-east pylon pressure group want to make it clear to Eirgrid that it may dictate to the Minister, the Government and Department officials how it plans to proceed with the interconnector, but when it enters the real world it will not dictate any of its discredited plans to the affected landowners or communities. The ESB should also wake up the damage that will be caused to its reputation by aiding and abetting Eirgrid in supporting direct confrontation with the farming community, the landowners and the ordinary decent people of Meath, Cavan and Monaghan.

Deputy Denis Naughten: To clarify, the 2012 Government policy statement states that the Government does not seek to direct Eirgrid, ESB Networks or any other infrastructure developers to particular sites, routes or technologies. That was adopted by my predecessors, not by me. I am working within the confines of the rules that were laid down in the process and had been laid down long before I came in. I want to put on the record that I am the first Minister since Deputy Eamon Ryan that has actually met with the groups and genuinely listened to the issues.

On 16 May, when we met in my office in Leinster House, the issue of compensation was specifically raised. On foot of that I asked my officials to see if we could find out what is happening throughout Europe on that. Deputy Smyth raised the issue of heritage. The reality is that local tourism, health, landscape, agriculture and heritage all had to be taken into account as part of the An Bord Pleanála assessment and as part of the oral hearing that took place at that point. I as Minister have an overarching duty that unless lawfully challenging a decision I have to accept the decisions of lawfully established bodies. An Bord Pleanála is the statutory process, and whether it is the decision made here by An Bord Pleanála or in Northern Ireland, unless lawfully challenging it I cannot interfere in that.