Wednesday, 19 October 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
4. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he considers any of the gas networks, the electricity networks, or the electricity transmission systems as strategic infrastructure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30188/11]
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Investment in the development and maintenance of Ireland’s gas and electricity network infrastructure is of fundamental strategic importance for the economy. Secure and reliable energy supply is a prerequisite for inward investment, for indigenous enterprise and for all consumers. Energy is the lifeblood of all economic production, whether in the high-tech ICT and bio-pharmaceutical sectors, the services sector or indigenous sectors such as agrifood.
Ireland has achieved a reliable and modern electricity and gas infrastructure over the past decade. The building of these modern and reliable energy network systems was achieved by extensive and well executed investment by the State-owned network companies, ESB, Bord Gáis Éireann and EirGrid. The networks must be maintained and enhanced as necessary to ensure Ireland has an energy infrastructure which is fully fit for purpose. Investment in strategic energy infrastructure is a key priority for the European Union.
The Government fully endorses the strategic national importance of investing in Ireland’s electricity transmission infrastructure. Delivery by EirGrid of its national grid development strategy, known as GRID25, is critical to economic recovery, regional development, security of supply, competitiveness and the achievement of Ireland’s renewable electricity targets. The east-west electricity interconnector between Ireland and the UK will be completed by the end of next year. Investment in the networks and infrastructure by Bord Gáis Éireann, ESB and EirGrid in recent years has been significant. The importance of the investment was demonstrated in the very adverse weather conditions in 2010 when the gas and electricity networks were shown to be robust and reliable.
The Government recognises the importance of the energy sector to the economic and social functioning of the State, and that the State must continue to have a strong and direct presence in electricity, particularly in the regulated transmission and distribution networks. The same principle applies in the gas sector. This presence must be maintained in a way that protects overall economic competitiveness and does not deter private investment. The process to analyse options for the minority stake sale in ESB will fully reflect these principles.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: I am very pleased the Minister has confirmed that these are strategic national assets. How can he square what he has just said about these being strategic national assets with the commitment in the programme for Government that the sale of assets would be non-strategic assets? How can the Minister explain the Government’s decision to sell what he has now has declared to be strategic national assets? There was no equivocation about a part sale or whatever — they were not to be sold. How can the Minister explain the Government’s decision to part sell the ESB?
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: I have no difficulty reconciling what we have said. There is no doubt that these are strategic assets and it is for that reason that the Government has decided to sell only a minority stake in the ESB to ensure the State maintains a controlling interest. It would have been my wish that we were not forced into this position at all, but the memorandum of understanding with the IMF and EU signed by the previous Government, of which the Deputy was a member, in November 2010 made plain that the disposal of State assets was a condition of the funding of the State. I wish it were not so and my colleagues will hold discussions with the troika this week on the issue. We will see what will come out of that, but unfortunately that is the genesis of the problem.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: The Minister is incorrect and he should check the source document, the memorandum of understanding, where he will see that the previous Government committed itself to a review which was carried out by Dr. Colm McCarthy. To ensure efficient gas and electricity networks, there was no number nor was there a specific commitment to sell any State assets. The present Government made the money commitment, not us. Even before the publication of Dr. McCarthy’s report, the programme for Government stated:
I believe that when any stake in these assets is sold, the private interest predominates, but does the Minister think that market conditions will be right over the next four years to sell these State assets, in line with the programme for Government?
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: If I knew the answer to that, I would be going down to Paddy Power. I do not know what the situation will be in four years. What I do know is that market conditions are not propitious right now and, therefore, we will not be selling anything at the moment. I made that clear on a number of occasions.
We really should not be rewriting history here. I notice that it is now the new mantra of the Deputy’s party that they never agreed to sell any State assets. I saw Senator Thomas Byrne from Meath on Sean O’Rourke’s programme on Sunday night, and his position was that the Fianna Fáil Government never signed away the State assets. Of course it did.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: That is why we are where we are. That is why the previous Government brought in Colm McCarthy, whose report stated that we should sell . It is not possible to forget something that happened before Christmas. Even if someone were a presidential candidate he would remember he was a member of the Executive before Christmas. That was only a few months ago.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: If the Minister checked the documentation, he would find there was no firm commitment. We undertook to carry out a review and the Minister is always trying to bluster his way out of his Government’s decisions. This Government gave these money commitments in the programme for Government. No amount of bluster will get away from the facts in cold print.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: The only thing the last Government did not do was to put in a figure, and according to what the troika told us, that Government begged not to put in a figure and leave it as it was.
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