Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 14 December 1998


Presiding Officer’s Business

Natural Gas (Areas Outside Greater Belfast)

Hospital Service

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (The Initial Presiding Officer (The Lord Alderdice of Knock) in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Presiding Officer’s Business


The Initial Presiding Officer:

By virtue of paragraph 1 of the schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, it falls to the Secretary of State to determine where meetings of the Assembly shall be held and when. I have received from the Secretary of State a letter directing that the Assembly shall meet at Parliament Buildings, Stormont at 10.30 am on Monday 14 December until 6.00 pm on Tuesday 29 December.

Members will appreciate from the Order Paper that it is unlikely that we could complete the business in one day. I have therefore indicated that this will be a two-day sitting of the kind referred to in draft Standing Order No 12.

It may be helpful if I clarify in advance how I intend to rule on the timing of any amendments, as referred to in the initial Standing Orders, which require amendments to be lodged

"at least one hour prior to the commencement of the day’s business".

If there are any amendments, I shall rule that lodgement will be required not one hour prior to commencement of the business on the Order Paper but prior to "the day’s business".

As this is a two-day sitting, I will treat each day separately. That means that any amendments for today’s business should have been lodged by 9.30 this morning, and any amendments for tomorrow’s business must be lodged with my office before 9.30 tomorrow morning.

During the course of business today, tomorrow and in the future, Members may see me using headphones when Irish is being spoken. This is to provide me with an English translation so that I can fulfil my function of ensuring that all contributions, whether in English or in Irish, conform to the rules of the Assembly. The facility is available only to me and the Clerks. It does not pre-empt a decision on the question of simultaneous translation facilities for Members. That will be a matter for the Committee on Standing Orders and for the Assembly.

I intend to use Erskine May for guidance on matters which arise during business in the Assembly or other matters on which I am asked to give a ruling and where the Initial Standing Orders and the draft Standing Orders are not clear or are insufficient.

At the Assembly sitting on 9 November 1998 a Member expressed concern about the accuracy of the Official Report of the proceedings of 26 October 1998 in respect of a speech by another Member. I conducted a full, formal investigation. I interviewed those concerned, including the Editor of Debates, and reviewed the video recording and the notes made by Hansard staff. I am satisfied that the Official Report, as published, gives a proper account of the speech in question.

Natural Gas (Areas Outside Greater Belfast)


Motion made:

To call attention to the lack of provision of a natural gas pipeline outside the Greater Belfast area; and to move for papers. — [Mr A Doherty]

Mr A Doherty:

There is an apparent lack of will in certain circles to correct this inequitable situation.

"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet".

That appears to be the philosophy that has directed so much of the strategic planning and regional development and which has brought Northern Ireland to its present confused condition. The signs are widespread, and the results are unfortunate, to say the least. Rail links have disappeared or been allowed to run to seed. A rail journey from Derry to Belfast is a depressing and lengthy ordeal. Motorways radiate in all directions from Belfast but come to a sudden halt after 20 or 30 miles. A motorist leaving Northern Ireland’s second city has to drive up to 50 miles before reaching a motorway. This could not happen in any other part of Western Europe.

We who live in the north or the west have to be content with an odd half-mile or so of dual carriageway or with a promise that in 10 or 20 years, if we behave ourselves, we will have a bypass or, in the case of Strabane, half of a bypass. The only power station in the whole north-west sector of this island is under sentence of death in the name of progress.

That is just a taste of a condition that has been allowed to develop or even, some might say, actively promoted for a long time. The consequence of this infrastructure deficit, and of other factors that do not need to be stated here, is that a very large part of the north and west of Northern Ireland is seriously and unjustifiably disadvantaged. In respect of unemployment, poor health, poverty and social need, the constituencies and council districts of the north and west regularly come bottom, or close to bottom, of the list.

If inward investment happens, it is in spite of the existing infrastructure and some inertia in high places. It is more often the result of the efforts of dedicated individuals or bodies that have consistently promoted the talents, skills and energies of people who have proved time and time again that, in spite of political turmoil, violence and neglect, they can match the best if given the chance.

We are entering a new era of equality, equity, fairness and level playing fields. Northern Ireland is rising like a phoenix from the ashes — and the simile is deliberate. On the television set we see advertisements from a certain company extolling the virtues — efficiency, environmental friendliness and cost — of natural gas for homes and factories. What we are not told is that natural gas, with all its benefits of cost, cleanliness and efficiency, is not for us. The best we can expect is that we will be provided with more overpriced electricity — which we do not need — from an expensive, distant source.

Equality — how are you? Fairness — cad é mar a tá tú? Level playing field — hoo aboot yeh ?

The exclusion of so much of Northern Ireland from the benefits of a natural gas supply raises serious questions of equity. If this persists it will cast doubts on the Government’s sincerity in declaring their concern about targeting areas of social need. This need will not be satisfied by the implementation of proposals to import electricity to Northern Ireland by way of a Scottish interconnector. People better informed than I have called this an anachronism. The reasons put forward to justify it are like John Cleese’s parrot — gone, dead, passed on, obsolete, defunct, over and done with. Would that it were, for it is a non-project.

Unfortunately, the dead parrot is being resurrected. The unnecessary project has been given the kiss of life by a British Minister — whoever pulls his strings — and revived by a Labour Minister whose argument is that market forces will bring prices down. All things being equal, that might be so. However, all things are not equal.

I hoped that we could have this debate before the recent announcement about the interconnector. That did not happen, and it is now all the more important that the Assembly and the country be made aware of the likely consequences. We must look this gift horse in the mouth very closely. There will be a slight reduction in the price of electricity — but at what cost? It is virtually copperfastening the inequity of the present situation.

Coolkeeragh, which as a natural gas power station could produce cheaply all the power we need, may be allowed to die. Industries, which for the first time could compete on almost equal terms, will suffer continuing injustice, and a large part of the North of Ireland will be left to wither while others prosper. That is too high a price to pay for a drop of imported Scotch.

Having made the announcement about the interconnector and received a measure of support for it from some quarters, the Government may be happy to rest on their laurels, but they must not be allowed to do so, for Government laurels are all too often a bed of thorns.

There are very convincing economic and environmental reasons for extending gas provision. I have already mentioned the Coolkeeragh power station, which, if converted to use natural gas, would provide a substantial, anchored client base that would greatly improve the viability of the project.

The Government make much of the necessity to target areas of social need and of the need for policy appraisal and fair treatment. I would like to think that they are doing more than paying lip-service to those ideals. Up until now there has been little evidence of this in their reaction. A Cabinet study examined the question of wider provision of natural gas, but its brief was very narrow, being limited to consideration of the commercial feasibility of such an enterprise, and it concluded that without public funding it would not attract much interest from a commercial operator. I, with no commercial or business experience, could have said that.

Government intervention is essential. Before proceeding further, the Government must carry out a comprehensive cost-benefit and socio-economic analysis that is wider in scope than the Caninus study — an analysis that takes account of all factors: economic, environmental, energy, equity and social need.

10.45 am

The absence of provision for gas puts a considerable section of Northern Ireland at a serious disadvantage in terms of attracting inward investment. Many established industries cannot compete on equal terms with more favoured eastern industries. Those living in regions with the highest level of social deprivation, with the highest unemployment and the lowest per-capita income, suffer further from having the most expensive fuel. It is not unreasonable to demand that the needs of less favoured areas in Northern Ireland be met in spite of the financial cost.

According to the Caninus study, commercial operators would put profits before philanthropy, but there are very strong reasons for the Government to show wider concern and subsidise the extension of natural gas beyond the Greater Belfast area. It is common world-wide for gas and other pipelines to be heavily supported by Governments. That is what happened with the pipeline from Scotland to Larne, and the gas network in Greater Belfast has benefited from EU grant aid. One argument for an extended pipeline is the recognised environmental, social and economic benefit that would be brought to an area which accounts for one fifth of the region’s population.

I close by drawing the Assembly’s attention to the commendable work of Group 22. Group 22 is a partnership of district councils along the northern corridor stretching from Ballymena, through Ballymoney, the Coleraine triangle area, Moyle, Limavady, Derry and Strabane to Donegal. The partnership also includes business, industry and community interests. It transcends all divisions and is united in its determination to pursue this matter to a successful conclusion. It is supported by Northern Ireland’s three MEPs and leading economists and has enjoyed the encouragement of OFREG.

We expect a similar partnership of the various interest groups in the Assembly to act jointly and with determination on a matter which affects the well-being and the economic survival of a substantial proportion of the population across all social and political divides.

Mr McClarty:

As an elected representative of East Londonderry I am perturbed by the lack of provision for a natural gas pipeline outside the Greater Belfast area.

The big argument, of course, is that it would not be economically viable for the rest of the Province to be served without subvention. But it was not economically viable to bring the pipeline to Northern Ireland in the first place without subvention.

The Government Paper ‘Shaping Our Future’ stresses the importance of developing the northern corridor. Such development must obviously include economic development, and without the provision of natural gas to the north-west, the people there will be seriously disadvantaged as industry moves to where energy is cheapest. The supply of gas to the northern corridor is inextricably linked to the future of Coolkeeragh power station. Coolkeeragh will close between 2002 and 2004. Given the time necessary for planning and constructing a pipeline, it is clear that the decision on any future generation activity at Coolkeeragh cannot be delayed much longer.

If a new station is to be constructed, it is critical that a decision on the extension of the gas network to the north and north-west be made now. The decisions about the gas pipeline and the power station depend on one another, and I urge those with influence to reach those decisions at the earliest possible date.

Many of Northern Ireland’s unemployment black spots are in the north and the north-west, and without the provision of natural gas the situation can only worsen. The area I represent is happy to compete with any other area for inward investment, but the competition must be on an equal footing so that we in the north and the north-west are not seriously disadvantaged.

I wholeheartedly support the motion.

Mr Hay:

I support what has been said by Mr A Doherty and Mr McClarty, who represent East Londonderry. As a Member for Foyle and Londonderry, I come from an area which is socially deprived — indeed, it has the highest unemployment in Northern Ireland.

It is a pity that the Minister is not here for this debate. If he had taken all the issues on board, the decision on the Scottish interconnector would not have been made. So many Ministers are leaving so much to the Assembly that one wonders why he did not leave this decision to us.

Everybody knows the history of natural gas coming to Northern Ireland. It was very much decided by Europe and, of course, by the Government. Europe has provided almost £45 million, and the Government £14 million.

I want to thank Group 22, for it is the engine that has driven this matter forward. Natural gas in the north and the north-west would affect 300,000 people. It is sad that only after Group 22, which represents eight councils in Northern Ireland and a wide range of businesses in the north and north-west, and after a group of industrialists had submitted a report, did the Minister and Department of Economic Development decide to have a feasibility study carried out.

When one looks at how that study was initiated, one sees that the Northern Ireland Office broke every rule. Indeed, it even broke some European regulations when it decided to go ahead. The Northern Ireland Office looked only at the financial and economic implications; it did not look at the wider economic issues that the north and north-west of the Province will face if natural gas does not come.

At this moment the Government have no plans whatsoever to connect the rest of the Province to natural gas. But at least Group 22 has set the bandwagon rolling by getting them to produce this study. However, we all knew that the study, because its remit was so narrow, would tell us that it would not be economically viable to bring natural gas to the rest of the Province.

Unfortunately, only part of the report was made public. Part of it remains secret to this day, for whatever reason. It would have been interesting for the Members of the Assembly, as public representatives, to see the full report as Caninus, the company employed by the Government to conduct the economic reappraisal, initially stated that it would be important, both environmentally and financially, for natural gas to come to the north and north-west of the Province. However, Caninus was not allowed to consider the wider issues. This is clear when one examines the report.

The proposal to bring natural gas to the Province was supported by the eight relevant district councils represented here, by the three Northern Ireland MEPs and by several Members of Parliament. This is an issue that has cross-community support in the north and north-west of the Province, and it has the support of all the political parties. It is a voice that the Government cannot silence. It is important for economic, social, environmental and other reasons that natural gas come to the north and north-west.

It is very important that Group 22 be allowed to continue its work. The Department of Economic Development is currently considering a further Group 22 report, which answers some of the points raised in the report of the Department of Economic Development. I welcome this development and hope to see a very quick response to Group 22.

Another serious issue is the gradual rundown of Coolkeeragh power station, which is to close by the year 2004 when its contract runs out. I am afraid that Coolkeeragh will close before 2004. An important related issue is that of jobs. Although Coolkeeragh is being run down, no one in the plant knows exactly what is happening. Coolkeeragh is the only large power station in the north-west, yet the Department of Economic Development did not allow Caninus to look at the possibility of its being changed from oil to natural gas, as happened at Ballylumford — a change which was welcomed by everyone.

If Coolkeeragh were changed from oil to natural gas it could easily take 80% of the load that is coming through the pipes. Such a change was not considered by the study undertaken by the Department of Economic Development. It would probably take £73 million per year for the natural gas pipeline to be run from Belfast to the north and north-west.

One has to ask why the Department study did not consider all the main issues. Coolkeeragh could become the main beneficiary of natural gas coming to the north and north-west. Why did the Department not consult with the major industries and business people in the area? One can only assume that it was because of other issues.

It is important for the life of the power station, for the workers there and for the whole industry that the Government reconsider these matters and come up with ideas that have the support of Assembly Members. It is morally right that natural gas should come to the north and north-west of the Province, as well as to the Greater Belfast area.

Mr McLaughlin:

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. I reiterate my complete support for the comments of Colleagues in addressing this issue and in particular for the activities of Group 22 in bringing the matter before us.

11.00 am

The proposed natural gas line to the Greater Belfast area raises serious concerns which should engage the attention of Northern Ireland Office Ministers.

I am baffled as to how the decision could be justified in terms of social and economic disparities and against policy appraisal and fair treatment and targeting social needs criteria.

Do not the domestic consumers of the northern corridor have an equal right to gas-fired central heating and to cleaner fuel and cheaper energy? Clearly they do. Do not schools, hospitals, business, industry and manufacturing concerns in the north-west have the same absolute right as similar concerns in Greater Belfast? Clearly they do, and we must ask how this decision was taken.

Any region can suffer economic decline and deprivation, but disparities within regions, and particularly in a region as truncated as the Six Counties, are often a consequence of deliberate policy and practice. That must stop. If the peace process and the Assembly are about anything, they are about stopping practices which have created the disparities between regions that are less than 25 miles apart.

It is not an accident when proximate areas have widely varying statistics. Unemployment in some areas is among the lowest in Europe while 25 or 30 miles away there is a region with the highest of unemployment in western Europe. The disparity between the areas east and west of the Bann is so well documented that no one would attempt to deny it. There is an incontrovertible need for an end to programmes that have created such conditions.

Coolkeeragh power station will be closed in the next few years unless there is a change of policy on power generation and energy supply in the North. Coolkeeragh is coming to the end of its useful life, and it needs conversion and investment programmes. A decision to extend the natural gas pipeline to the north-west would provide both impetus and economic rationale for conversion to a gas-fired turbine generation plant. The future of the plant and that of the highly skilled workforce would be secure.

The options have not been fully explored, and there has been no credible explanation for that. The fact that a feasibility report has been kept secret fully justifies the concerns of my fellow Assembly Member for Foyle. There is no good reason for the Government not to share their political and economic intelligence on this matter. The issue is controversial. It is important for the north-west to have a level playing field that will enable us to help ourselves and rebuild the economy.

The case for the provision of a natural gas supply has been well made. The difficulty is that it has been made in a selective and preferential manner that will perpetuate the process of disadvantage between the areas east and areas west of the Bann. I welcome the cross-community and cross-party support for reversing that policy.

As well as proposing the delivery of a natural gas supply through the Greater Belfast area, we could consider the existence of a natural gas supply on this island. If we were to discuss the possibility of bringing both projects together we could address many of the concerns about the cross-border elements of economic strategy for the north-west region.

The Assembly should take the opportunity to call on the Minister to defer a definitive decision on the matter and to order a full, open and transparent reappraisal of all the options and report back to the Assembly. Fair play demands that. I hope that the Assembly will support Group 22 in its efforts; will support the workforce in Coolkeeragh; will support the communities in the northern corridor and the north-west; and will support links between east and west and between north and south — namely, a gas pipeline that has its conjunction in the north-west area.

The Assembly should make clear to the mandarins in the Northern Ireland Office and the civil servants responsible for this pernicious decision and for the policy which has affected the region for so long — that Members are not pleased and want the matter re-examined.

Mr Ford:

On behalf of the Alliance Party I welcome this motion. Perhaps the issue should have been discussed a few weeks ago, before Mr Ingram’s decision. However, I am pleased that Members are discussing it and that cross-party consensus has been achieved. For once, I agree with 90% of what Members have said, though it is a pity that they are all from the north and the north west. I believe that this project will have an impact beyond County Derry.

I am concerned that the Minister decided so speedily to proceed with the Scottish interconnector, just when a lobby seemed to be building up for other options to be looked at. Every other serious issue which has arisen in recent months has been "parked" by the appropriate Minister. The Assembly will have to decide on education reform, the future of health and personal social services, waste management and the regional plan, but this decision was rushed through as if it could not be left for the Assembly.

The decision may well be in the interests of power generators in Scotland, but I am unconvinced that the electricity interconnector is in the interests of people in Northern Ireland, especially those living in the most deprived areas.

Mr Doherty and others highlighted the interests of the north-west. In the context of this pipeline, let Members remember how far the north west extends. I represent South Antrim, which some people think is suburban, yet two thirds of South Antrim will not have natural gas under the current proposals.

If I have one criticism of Group 22 it is that they seem to have forgotten that Antrim also exists. It is the gap on the map between Belfast, where there is gas, and Ballymena, where they want to put it; Antrim is a fairly substantial town.

There is no doubt that the option to upgrade Coolkeeragh would ensure the viability of a pipeline for all of the north and north-west. I want to see both Derry and Letterkenny benefiting from the jobs which would be created, but I also want to see that benefit in Limavady, Coleraine, Ballymoney, Ballymena, Antrim and maybe even Ballyclare, depending on the route taken.

There was news last Friday of the potential loss of 1,000 jobs resulting from the takeover of Daewoo. The factories in Antrim and Carrickfergus are under threat. Therefore, when talking of the needs for economic development, Members must ensure the focus is not too narrow. Areas which are supposedly doing well also have considerable need.

In that context, the pipeline will benefit 20% of the population of Northern Ireland, not just the 10% who live in the north-west.

Mr Ingram’s decision to support the plan for an electricity interconnector will have three effects. It will damage the environment in east Antrim, which already has a higher than normal number of electricity pylons per acre; it will damage the economy, especially in the poorer areas of the north-west, but also in Northern Ireland as a whole; and it will undermine the whole idea of a strategic energy supply, for the whole Province will be relying on three sites situated within a few miles of each other — two in Islandmagee and one at Kilroot.

This decision does not represent the best economic option, for it will require a vast amount of EU funding. By contrast, the proposed gas pipeline to Derry would help to improve Coolkeeragh power station, would produce a real diversity of energy provision — certainly for Northern Ireland and, possibly, for the whole of the north of the island — would create jobs at Coolkeeragh and, indirectly in other industries, and would be less harmful to the environment.

Last week, the regional strategic plan was launched. Among the key objectives of this report are plans for the development of core centres. But this plan has undermined all of those objectives. People in Westminster and Whitehall spoke recently about "joined-up Government", but we seem to have the least joined-up Government imaginable. One Minister seems to be making a decision which totally contradicts the plans to be announced by one of his colleagues in a few weeks’ time. We will not have joined-up government until the Assembly takes on proper powers.

Mr Ingram has agreed to meet a delegation to discuss the Coolkeeragh option in a few weeks’ time. When he meets that group I hope that he will take the opportunity to remove his blinkers and look at the real energy needs of Northern Ireland.

Mr McCartney:

I fully support the motion. There should not be any difference in the supplies of fuel or energy to any part of Northern Ireland. My constituency of North Down could be seen as forming part of the Greater Belfast area. The extent of roadworks in the Holywood area suggests that that is where the pipeline is to be, and no doubt my constituents will benefit from it.

That does not prevent me from supporting the calls by those who represent other areas of the Province, particularly those with high unemployment where people need cheaper and more efficient forms of fuel, and where it would be beneficial to the local economic infrastructure to have cheaper and more efficient fuel supplies.

I wish that, when there is some cross-community consensus on an issue, some of the other parties would stop wallowing in paranoiac victimhood based on what has happened in the past. If the east of the Province traditionally had better levels of employment, it was because, during the 19th century, heavy industries, such as shipbuilding or the manufacture of equipment for the weaving and spinning industries, such as was carried out at Mackie’s factory, were all based in the areas of highest population density. It had little to do with whether communities were Nationalist or Unionist, but was based on the location of specific industries, the availability of imported steel, and other factors.

Let us stop wallowing in the past, rolling about in our victimhood and ascribing all sorts of natural and economic phenomena to some paranoiac vision of people plotting to disadvantage others. We should act together for the benefit of every citizen.

11.15 am

We should ensure maximum equality of treatment in the provision of both fuel facilities and services, but stop this nonsense of assigning them on the basis of some ancient wrong, some wound that must be kept open by being constantly picked at. We must start directing our minds to the most effective and efficient way of tackling the problems of the entire Province, regardless of nationality and political aspirations, and do the best we can.

We are now reaching the stage where, as in the past, so in the present, industry, big business and entrepreneurial activity are all dictating where certain operations are created and the areas they are intended to service. I have no doubt that the Greater Belfast area was chosen for natural gas because it has the highest concentration of people who can be serviced easily and quickly, and so it can provide the most efficient return to those investing in that business venture.

It is the Government’s function to control big business and operations such as this to ensure that they are not permitted purely to exploit that which brings the biggest profit and to ignore the social, economic, industrial and employment requirements of the entire Province.

For those reasons the Assembly must look after the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. And in this regard, since this pipeline is coming into Belfast, I raise again the question of the Belfast port. I refute the suggestion that we can have improvements to our roads and transport system if we sell off the port at a cut price — once again, to entrepreneurs and businessmen who, behind the scenes, are already lining up substantial profits for themselves — regardless of whether it is in the best interests of the entire community.

Mr Neeson:

Mr McCartney has raised a very important point regarding the sale of Belfast harbour. Does he agree that it would be in the Assembly’s best interests to use researchers to put forward a case to counter the arguments of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners?

Mr McCartney:

I agree entirely with Mr Neeson’s suggestion and would be happy to participate in such an exercise.

The basic point of the motion is to ensure that we limit and control business and entrepreneurial exploitation of the Northern Ireland market over a range of matters — for example, supermarkets, the supply of gas, the supply of transport systems, the ports and the regulations that will control the rates to be paid on imported goods. We must do that on the basis of what is best for all the people of Northern Ireland and not on what, in immediate terms, serves the interests of the profiteers.

Mr Leslie:

At the risk of breaking up this very cosy and welcome cross-party consensus, I will introduce one or two caveats to the debate.

Mr Doherty stressed, quite rightly, the desirability of cheaper electricity, but that is not necessarily what we would get by extending the gas pipeline. We must look ahead a little on this subject.

Current estimates are that the United Kingdom will become a net importer of gas by 2010 at the latest. There are other sources of gas in Europe, but they are in places such as Siberia and Algeria where the level of political instability leaves our problems some way behind. I am not sure that we should put so many eggs into that particular basket. No significant finds of gas have been made around these islands, and that takes into account the drilling off the Skerries near Portrush.

Another fuel is readily available to us — lignite, or ‘green coal’. Members may not be surprised to learn that the main source of lignite is near Ballymoney, in my constituency. The key point is that the cost of generating electricity from lignite is about 2.7p per kilowatt, while the current average cost of electricity in Northern Ireland is about 4p per kilowatt. Extrapolated into the future, the supply of green coal is expected to last for at least 100 years. If we have to start buying gas from places further afield in Europe, we will have no real idea what the price is likely to be. We would be hooking into a source of fuel for our electricity whose price we could not control.

The proposal to open-mine green coal was made eight years ago by Nikitara Minerals. Originally it was looking for considerable Government assistance for the project, as is the case with the proposal for a north-west gas pipeline. However, the company recently formed a partnership that would allow it to finance the project itself. It is no longer looking for a subvention to get the project going.

Before privatisation, Northern Ireland Electricity’s stated aim was to generate electricity from one third oil, one third coal and one third lignite. Since privatisation, those parameters have been changed, and the proposal to use green coal has been dropped. The planned interconnector with Scotland actually enhances the argument for using green coal. In that situation, Nikitara Minerals could sell the excess electricity to the grid and it could be sold back to Scotland when Scotland has a supply shortage. There is a complementary circle in that method of providing electricity.

The other factor, which I think motivated Nikitara Minerals in its most recent proposal and in its joint venture with Meekatharra, is that from next year EU regulations will enforce a free market in electricity. Northern Ireland Electricity may find it more difficult to propagate its current cosy monopoly. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland need more electricity; the supply is uneven. It is a question of when electricity needs to be pumped into the grid. An efficient grid is required so that electricity can be moved around.

One of the main objections to the opencast mining of green coal is environmental, and everyone needs to focus on the way in which environmental arguments are advanced. The environmental lobby has been very effective. Mineral extraction companies now know that they can no any longer get away with the slash and burn approach that they have pursued for many years. Environmental concerns are expected to be uppermost in their calculations, and they are constantly required to repair the damage that they have caused. When they finish, they have to leave the environment as good or better than it was when they found it.

This is entirely clear to Meekathurra Minerals. The firm knows that it cannot just lay waste to a huge swathe of land between Ballymoney and Stranocum and do nothing about it. It feels that it will be easily able to afford to replace the terrain and to blend in the area where there has been extraction with the natural environment. It would be ridiculous to grant it a licence to mine without very strict stipulations about that, and the firm expects that to be a part of the negotiations for its licence.

In the Moyle part of my constituency there is over 15% unemployment, and unless we get better weather or more tourists, this figure can only go up. We have just lost jobs, as have Members representing the Londonderry area, in the manufacturing sector. Unfortunately we are in a global market, and one of the key costs, apart from labour, is the supply of energy. It is critical that we find the best way of providing cheaper electricity on a lasting basis in order to preserve manufacturing jobs, wherever they may be.

It would be a great boost to the area that I represent to know that we had 1200 construction jobs for three years to build an electricity generating plant, and then in the region of 200 or 300 jobs to carry out the mining. That would enable us to provide a constant supply of electricity at a price which could be negotiated in such a way as to be fixed for a protracted period.

While the pipeline is worthy of detailed examination, and may well prove to be a worthwhile venture, the most pressing need at the moment is to find a method of providing cheaper electricity. And we could do that much more quickly, and at no cost to the public purse, if we were to give our support to Meekathurra Minerals to develop the green coal site in the Stranocum area.

Mr McMenamin:

To enable us in West Tyrone and in the north-west to have a thriving society we must have proper infrastructure in place, and one priority is to have a choice of energy supply for industry and the domestic user.

I represent one of the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland, and we have to bring gas to the north-west, West Tyrone and Strabane in particular — the unemployment blackspot of the North of Ireland. We have to be able to offer any company setting up the option of gas or electric energy. That is why I am calling for gas for the north-west.

At the moment we, as taxpayers, are subsidising the Belfast area. For too long the people of the north-west have been treated as second-class citizens. Now, with proper representation within the Assembly, we will make sure that West Tyrone and the north-west get a fair share of the cake.

I support the motion.

Mr Campbell:

I support the motion. Mr Leslie’s speech was an interesting diversion, but we need to come back to the real world and try to ensure that we have an adequate energy supply across the Province — and not only an adequate energy supply, but one that is within the reach of the entire community.

I want to dwell on two central issues. A number of people have mentioned the population that will be excluded if the interconnector and the gas pipeline reach only the Greater Belfast area. The numbers are approximately 300,000, about 20% of the population of Northern Ireland, which just happens to be approximately the population of the city of Belfast.

I do not contend that the population of Antrim, which, as Mr Ford has reminded us, is in the northern corridor, right through Ballymena, Ballymoney, Coleraine and Limavady to Londonderry is of the same density as that of the city of Belfast. Of course, it is not, but numerically it is roughly the same.

11.30 am

First, can you imagine the outcry if the city of Belfast were to be excluded from the provision of a natural gas pipeline? Of course, it would not be contemplated. Secondly, Members should put down a marker to the Minister regarding the rationale for this. If an interconnector were up and running and there were a marginal reduction in the price of electricity to all domestic and commercial consumers, that, of course, would be welcome.

The regulator, Mr McIldoon, has made a considerable effort to keep prices down, but obviously there are factors outside his remit that have prevented prices being reduced even further.

In addition, the Greater Belfast area would have an alternative energy supply — natural gas — which would be just as competitive. Many argue that it would be even more competitive. Inward investors would have an option.

We should not try to divide the Assembly. I and other Members who represent the north and the north-west do not decry the Greater Belfast area for getting a natural gas pipeline. It is commendable that that should happen, and as many people as possible should make use of it.

However, if the Greater Belfast area can provide inward investors not only with cheaper electricity but also with the option of cheaper gas, it follows that it will have an even greater commercial advantage.

If it is difficult to attract industry to, for example, Coleraine at present, it will be almost impossible to do so if there is an option to go to a location where a natural gas pipeline offers an even greater incentive.

Reference has been made to the document ‘Shaping our Future’, which I am sure the Assembly will analyse and pass judgement on. If that is used as the base, a natural gas pipeline is a prerequisite for places in the northern corridor such as Ballymena, Coleraine and Londonderry to prosper, improve economically and become viable units for the people who live there. But this cannot be done if an interconnector offers an unnatural disadvantage to only one segment of the population.

I support the motion and hope that, in the near future, Members can persuade the Minister to provide the wherewithal to extend a natural gas pipeline beyond the Greater Belfast area.

Mr McElduff:

A Cheann Comhairle, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, Ba mhaith liomsa mo thacaíocht don rún seo a chur in-iúl. Is ábhar fíor-thábhachtach é seo, agus cuirim fáilte roimh an seans an díospóireacht a fhorbairt.

As a Member for West Tyrone, I commend this motion and add my voice to those arguing for the provision of natural gas to the north-west and to other areas outside Greater Belfast. I see the need for this debate to transcend the narrow confines of energy policy. Wider economic, social and equality arguments must be allowed to influence this decision-making process.

Sinn Fein believes that social and economic need must govern the decision. Ivan Barr, the chairperson of Strabane District Council, contacted me about this on Friday, and he outlined how important it is to residents in that area also.

The north-west, which includes at least Derry, Strabane, Fermanagh, Omagh, County Donegal and Limavady, has long been characterised by social and economic disadvantage. Unemployment is comparatively high. The region scores badly on deprivation indicators across a spectrum of moral, social and economic variables, of which unemployment is one. It is not a figment of our imagination — and on that I take issue with Mr McCartney, who is not in the Chamber. The area suffers from a legacy of peripheral and economic discrimination, which was very real in the nineteenth century and has continued in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Ar an ábhar sin, tá fadhb an-mhór againn sna ceanntracha seo ó thaobh dí-fhostaíochta de, chomh maith le gnéithe sóisialta eile, agus caithfear rud éigin a dhéanamh faoi seo.

The proposal to extend the availability of natural gas to the north-west must be considered under agreed policy objectives such as targeting social need, cross-border co-operation and local economic development.

The stated priorities of TSN are to target resources on people and areas in greatest need, to reduce differentials, remove inequality and give people equal rights. The inequality between the north-west and the north-east would undoubtedly be increased if natural gas were confined to the Greater Belfast area. The former would suffer further disadvantage and peripherality if gas were made available only in Belfast.

There is a social and economic imperative and a direct connection between the availability of suitable energy supplies and the competitiveness of an area with regard to inward investment and economic development. Natural gas would certainly bring benefits to the north-west. It would enhance the area’s competitive position and help immeasurably towards creating real jobs.

However, if gas is not available the area will suffer decline in business and job numbers. It will be ruled out in terms of attracting some types of industry, particularly large energy users. The denial of a supply would place the north-west at an even bigger disadvantage in relation to other parts of the North and the island as a whole which have the benefit of gas. It would seriously reduce the area’s inward-investment performance — something that we can ill afford.

I have concentrated on social and economic need. If that matter is addressed, and if gas is made available, the domestic-energy user will enjoy substantial savings.

Other relevant factors include cross-border co-operation and the avoidance of duplication between Donegal and the part of the north-west to which I have referred, and which is located within the Six-County state. There is a real national, regional and European dimension to this matter. Alleviating the effects of peripherality, developing internal networks and an energy infrastructure, fulfilling EU funding criteria should not be ignored.

We need to act decisively on this matter. Coolkeeragh power station should become the cornerstone of a new integrated gas-to-electricity power project for the north-west. The benefits of that would be social, economic and environmental, and they would be national in character. Failure to extend the availability of natural gas would be viewed by many as a further act of inequality and discrimination. I call on everyone to support the motion.

Agus níor mhaith liom mórán eile a rá, ach amháin go mbaineann an cheist seo le comhionannas agus le cothrom na Féinne. Tá muidne dubh-dóite sna ceanntracha s’againne san iarthar agus sa tuaisceart de mhí-bhuntáistí agus easpa comhionannais. Tá athrú intinne agu athrú dearcaidh de dhíth orainn ó na h-údaráis, mar a thugtar orthu.

Mr B Bell:

Mr Presiding Officer, you have a distinct advantage over the rest of us because you have that earpiece.

As a Member from the east of the Province, I support the motion. I am grateful to Mr Doherty for raising the matter.

Unlike Mr McCartney, I have to refer to the past because the issue of a natural gas pipeline was initiated in the early 1970s and was ongoing throughout that time. For part of that period I was chairman of Belfast City Council gas committee. We attempted to persuade Mrs Thatcher’s Government to provide a gas pipeline from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but we were unsuccessful. This defeats the idea that Belfast was being favourably treated. As a consequence the rest of the Province was denied a pipeline as well.

The Government negotiated with the Irish Government to provide a pipeline from Kinsale to Northern Ireland. The idea was to bring it to Belfast first and then distribute it throughout the Province. Even though they had spent over £5 million in pipelaying from Dundalk up to the Border, the Government, without any notice, decided that that was going to be abandoned. Two or three weeks before it happened Mr Adam Butler looked across from Portstewart into the sunset and said "There is the new gasworks". A few weeks later that whole concept was abandoned.

At that time I was made Chairman of the Northern Ireland Gas Employers Board which represented all 13 of the gas undertakings in Northern Ireland, including the one in Derry. We formed an alliance with the trade union and produced our own plan. We proposed bringing natural gas from Kinsale into the Belfast area, to develop it there — because the population was there — and then to bring it to all other parts of the Province.

We had the finance in place, and all we asked from the Government was their blessing for the scheme. They did not give it. On another Good Friday, in 1985, they took the decision to close the gas industry down in spite of the fact that it took £250 million to do so. The price of the pipeline was estimated at £50 million so it cost them five times as much to close the pipeline than to build it.

I support the motion. As Mr Doherty said, there are good economic and environmental reasons. People in Northern Ireland — who are part of the United Kingdom irrespective of which part they live in or whether they recognise it or not — ought to share in natural gas, which is a national asset.

11.45 am

The Minister’s decision is not good. The Assembly will have to address this issue at some stage because a decision to provide a pipeline to supply gas to all the people of Northern Ireland will have to be taken.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

The Member made reference to the use of headphones. The headphones are to ensure that what is said in the first instance bears some relation to the translation. I hope that Members will continue to observe the courtesy of providing their own translations.

Mr B Bell:

I understand. I was speaking tongue-in-cheek.

Mr B Hutchinson:

Are we on Eircell or Cellnet?

The Initial Presiding Officer:

I think we are on gas at present.

Mr Dallat:

It seems that gas has already been introduced into the Assembly.

Mr Bell’s history of the gas industry in Northern Ireland is correct. In the early 1970s Northern Ireland had a gas supply, and the relevance of that is very important today. It is important for the regeneration of all of the towns between Belfast and Derry and urgent in order to prevent the closure of Coolkerragh Power Station within a few years.

It is incomprehensible that we have to deal with arguments against a European grid which will deprive the rest of Northern Ireland of a natural gas pipeline. The disturbing news at the weekend that 2,000 people are to lose their jobs at Fruit of the Loom and Desmonds, on both sides of the border in the north-west, makes this issue even more urgent and critical.

Mr McClarty and I recently represented Coleraine on a visit to several cities in the United States, and it became clear that towns and cities without a proper infrastructure, without a proper power supply, without proper roads, railways and airports et cetera, are not attractive to business and the availability of natural gas is an obvious prerequisite to enable the issue of equality to be addressed in the north-west.

We have been reprimanded for daring to refer to past neglect. However, it is important that history is not repeated. We have to learn from past mistakes so that they are not repeated and people are not marginalised or disadvantaged by accident or design either by Government policies or by the policies of the private sector, which is increasingly being called upon to provide the capital.

Natural gas is the power of the twenty-first century. There is no doubt about that. It is clean, economical and a key factor in decisions about industrial location. We cannot separate the economic and the social arguments. They go hand in hand and cannot be ignored. We have to target social need. The Assembly is right to debate this issue and to impress upon the Government and those charged with the provision of natural gas to the Greater Belfast area that they must not become a new body which will discriminate against people because of geographical location. The Assembly has an important role to play in imposing controls on the private sector whether over the supply of natural gas, the location of supermarkets, or any other critical aspects of life.

The arguments against the pipeline are not valid and they ignore the fact that large subsidies have already been provided to bring gas to Northern Ireland. Why not apply the same principles and bring gas to Coolkeeragh and to the other towns that have been mentioned this morning?

It would be a bad start for the Assembly if it were incapable of influencing the economic well-being of the north in a way which is seen to be just and fair. It is regrettable that decisions continue to be made without the Assembly’s having had the opportunity to consider them.

The provision of gas to the north and north-west would give some hope to those 2,000 people who will become unemployed. It would attract new industries to replace those that are leaving. The supply of natural gas is essential — a must — and needs Government intervention now, not some time in the future.

Lignite and green coal can be discussed at any time, but this issue is critical: I believe that there is a move to ensure that the gas pipeline does not extend beyond the Greater Belfast area. That would be a major disappointment for Antrim, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Limavady, Derry, Strabane and Donegal.

References were made earlier to the Kinsale pipeline, which, sadly, did not come north. There is no reason for Ireland’s not having an integrated gas supply, for not finishing the work that was started in the 70s. We are part of Europe, and a fundamental principle is to create economic grids across Europe and beyond.

The social and economic considerations have been well highlighted here today. Reference has already been made to the important study carried out by Group 22. That study was welcome, and it was supported by every district council along the northern corridor, irrespective of politics.

I support the motion.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I wish to congratulate Mr Doherty for bringing this matter to the House. I welcome the debate and am glad that it has stimulated cross-party interest and support.

Mr McElduff's earlier remarks reminded me of deprivation and other issues, including the occupied Six Counties, which he brought into the debate. I was reminded of Georges Clemenceau's comment to Lloyd George:

"I wish I could urinate as good as he speaks."

Some Members have introduced issues that are totally outside the remit of the debate.

The motion draws attention to the lack of natural gas provision outside the Greater Belfast area. Mr Leslie said earlier that he wished to inject some sanity into the debate. He failed because this is not a debate about cheaper forms of energy such as lignite. The debate is about the lack of a gas pipeline to parts of Northern Ireland outside the Greater Belfast area. Some Members believe, because the debate is about natural gas, that that gives them the opportunity to talk a lot of hot air. It does not and we should keep within the terms of the motion.

Those Members who have introduced other issues should perhaps declare their interest when it comes to talking about lignite and the development of land, especially in areas of Ballymoney.

The Government have facilitated the introduction of a natural gas network throughout the Greater Belfast area by issuing licences to Belfast Gas plc and to its subsidiary, Phoenix Natural Gas. By contrast, the Government have not outlined any plans for natural gas to be made available to areas outside Greater Belfast.

We have heard a lot about Group 22, which was formed over a year ago in response to the realisation that if people in the north, north-west and north-east did not get together they would be excluded from the decision-making process. We should look at what it would mean if those areas were excluded from the development of the gas pipeline. First, they have a population well in excess of 370,000 - more than 20% of Northern Ireland's population - and encompass 27% to 30% of its land area. We would therefore be excluding a large proportion of the population from the benefits of natural gas.

I welcome Mr Ford's comment that we should be looking at this matter much beyond the north and north-west areas. Members have said that it involves many other areas of the Province - indeed, it is about having equality throughout the Province. The people of the north-east and north-west have suffered badly in the past when they have been ignored prior to decisions being taken. Those people should be included when taking decisions about the future of Northern Ireland.

Many people have spoken about how the decision to stop natural gas from coming to these areas will result in further unemployment. In my constituency, Moyle has an unemployment rate of 14·7%, and when one combines the districts of Ballymena, Ballymoney and Moyle, one finds that these areas account for 6% of Northern Ireland's unemployed.

It is clear that the unemployed have certain needs and deserve equality of treatment, and I hope it is realised that the exclusion of the north, north-east, the north-west and other areas of Northern Ireland from natural gas further disadvantages those people. The detrimental effects of the absence of gas in those areas will, of course, be compounded by its presence in Greater Belfast.

We all have to ensure that the north, north-west and north-east do not become economic backwaters that are even more peripheral. Furthermore, existing local industries would be placed at a competitive disadvantage, the east coast corridor would be further enhanced, existing socio-economic differentials would be widened and substantial environmental benefits for this area would be lost.

How would the Government feel if they were a potential industrial investor in this part of Northern Ireland looking at the circumstances of that area? Would council areas such as Coleraine, Ballymena, Ballymoney or Antrim be able to attract investors on the same basis as Belfast or some of the council areas around the Greater Belfast area which will have natural gas? They would be unable to do so, and would therefore be further disadvantaged. We must move away from such a situation.

The absence of natural gas will have an adverse effect on local economic development, there will be a failure to promote local economic growth and an increase in unemployment. The area will become peripheral, and a level economic playing field will not exist.


There is a major thrust by the Confederation of Business Industry, IBEC and others to develop the Belfast-Dublin economic corridor. The Assembly should look at that proposal in conjunction with the proposal for the increase of natural gas to the rest of Northern Ireland. A sustained focus on the Belfast - Dublin economic corridor will further exacerbate the peripheral nature of the north, west, and border counties of the Province.

Members should be pulling together to work for Ulster instead of putting forward economic proposals for the betterment of the capital city and the east coast counties of the Republic of Ireland. Members should be working for the benefit of people in all areas of the Province including the Greater Belfast area.

Substantial environmental benefits will be lost if gas is not extended to the rest of the Province. Consumers will not have an equal choice of energy sources, and the much-vaunted liberalisation of energy policies will not have provided the benefits enjoyed by consumers in the Greater Belfast area and much of the European Union.

The Government have put the environment at the heart of their policies, and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has designated gas as its preferred fuel for the future. How can the Northern Ireland Housing Executive deliver on that policy agenda when the north-west, with 24% of Northern Ireland's housing stock, will not have gas available?

The Assembly should note that in those needy areas, and for those people of the north, the north-west and the north-east, the gas project will create about 2,000 job years of employment and save the consumer more than £10 million per year by the year 2000. That startling figure is a guaranteed figure and not some projected figure. It is the figure that Coopers and Lybrand and Price Waterhouse have put forward in their in-depth study on targeting social need. In the report the consultants said

"The failure to extend the gas pipeline to the north and north-west of this Province would, we believe, be difficult to defend in terms of the new targeting social need policy."

The Government have a responsibility to get on with ensuring that there is a level playing field for the providers of natural gas, not only in the Greater Belfast area - which I am glad to see - but across the Province. The experts back this proposal for natural gas, as do the politicians, so far as we can see. I hope that the voice of the Assembly will be added to the call for the provision of natural gas across Northern Ireland. Such a development would ensure that everyone in the Province would have an equal share in the benefits that natural gas would bring.


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