Electricity Supply (Newry and Armagh)

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:00 pm on 9th November 1998.

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Photo of Mr John Fee Mr John Fee Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:00 pm, 9th November 1998

Thank you, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, for the opportunity to raise a matter of intense aggravation to the people of my constituency. This is a seasonal problem that almost exclusively affects people in Newry and Armagh, particularly South Armagh. I say "almost exclusively", because I understand that there was quite extensive loss of power in County Down last night and, indeed, today.

My sympathy goes to those people who have suffered a terrible intrusion to their life and homes when they experienced a loss of power. However, it was an occasional experience for those people in County Down, yesterday and today. For the last six or seven years there have been extensive power failures in Newry, Armagh and the South Armagh region in the weeks running up to Christmas. In each of the last five years there have been prolonged blackouts on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and continuously through to New Year’s Day in some or all parts of Newry and Armagh.

The Assembly has a timely opportunity today to hear of some of the problems that this situation has created. At some point in the future, it may fall to the Assembly to take action to challenge the monopoly position that NIE enjoys, to challenge their performance record, and to stand up for electricity consumers so severely disadvantaged by the contractual arrangements that allow NIE to make extortionate profits. These arrangements allow NIE to charge the highest electricity prices in Great Britain or Ireland and to engage in blatant profiteering.

It is timely also because, just as winter is drawing in again, the first major power failure of the season occurred in South Armagh on Tuesday 20 October 1998. The entire region from the Fathom Line at Newry to the border at Cullaville was without electricity for a number of hours. Obviously, the second major failure happened in County Down last night and this morning.

If this is the portent of things to come for this Christmas, there will be hell to pay. I assure Members that, as a representative of the Newry and Armagh constituency, I will ensure that the buck stops where it should: with the board of NIE.

No one should have any doubt that the substantial loss of power creates profound problems, particularly for people in isolated rural areas.

It creates obvious problems for the elderly and infirm who cannot heat their homes or cook meals, have no alternative light and may, in some cases, be completely isolated in their homes. It is a frightening, threatening, unsettling experience for many and indeed life-threatening for some. It creates many obvious problems for couples and families with young children who need bottles warmed by day and night and a continuous supply of clean clothes and nappies. These things simply cannot be done if there is a prolonged power cut.

There are less obvious problems. Road safety is compromised if street lighting is knocked out. Food in fridges and freezers begins to defrost, affecting every home, every grocery store and every corner shop. Any electric appliance operated by a timer is, inevitably, affected — computers, video recorders, central heating systems, burglar alarm systems, hands-free phone sets and so on. It can be an expensive business with no statutory entitlement to compensation for losses.

Nobody will grumble too much if this is an occasional problem, like the County Down problem, caused by exceptional storm conditions or snow fall. The situation in Newry and Armagh, however, does not fall into that category. For seven consecutive winters there have been prolonged and repetitive power failures at the same time of year and in the same locations. No amount of meetings, letters or petitions has so far elicited a guarantee of secure power supply in my constituency. That is not to say that nothing has been done.

In 1993 the then Minister, Mr Atkins confirmed that £195,000 would be invested in the distribution network around the Camlough area. We were led to believe that this would resolve the problem — it did not. We were told that part of the network was obsolete and needed replacement. We were told, in some cases, that vandals were to blame for the failure of the supply. We were told, in other cases, that bad weather had caused the blackouts.

All sorts of solutions were proposed by various Ministers and officials — Mr Atkins in 1993, Michael Ancram in 1995, Malcolm Moss in 1996, and Baroness Denton at the beginning of last year. We were told that a new 33 kV line serving a new station at Newry would solve the problem — it has not. We were told that the refurbishment of the 11 kV line towards Jonesborough would solve the problem. It has not. We were told that the strengthening of the sub-station at Silverbridge, with larger transformers and a new switchboard, would solve the problem. It has not. We were told that the refurbishment and upgrading of the lines in the Crossmaglen area would solve the problem. It has not. We were also told that the creation of a new 33 kV circuit in the Slieve Gullion region would solve the problem. To date it has not.

I am not ungrateful for these efforts and for the investment. I am, however, disturbed because although most of this work was completed by last Christmas, it did not prevent the complete loss of power in the Jerrettspass area between Christmas Eve and December 27. For four solid days, over a holiday period, people could not cook or heat or light their homes.

I worry because even though all this work has now been completed, yet again we have had two major supply failures in the last three weeks. The dreadful pattern of winter power losses appears to be with us still, in spite of all the apparent strengthening of the system. I have asked myself what is the cause of this problem.

Is it the case that there is a pattern of peculiarly inclement weather in my home area which sets it apart from the rest of Northern Ireland, creating unique problems for the maintenance of a secure power distribution system? If that is true, how can so many people in that part of Newry and Armagh look out of their windows at night — as I can — and see the lights of Dundalk, Louth and Monaghan shining brightly in all weather?

Is it the case that the equipment continues to be so defective that it simply cannot cope with normal demands? That would be extraordinary given the litany of improvements that we have been told have been carried out. It would be insulting to people who live in an area through which the North/South electricity connectors stride across the landscape with scores of enormous, ugly pylons carrying their load of electricity for export to the Republic of Ireland.

The real answer to this wholly unacceptable situation can only be surmised by piecing together a number of replies to enquiries by the local MP, councillors and the district councils. In a letter to Newry and Mourne District Council the local manager of NIE referred to a huge increase in demand at Christmas. Subsequently, in a ministerial reply, it was confirmed that the annual growth of demand in Armagh city was precisely 2·5%, and in Newry and South Armagh 2·7%.

Given such modest increases in the overall demand for power, and taking into account the fact that there are no massive consumers of electricity in the Newry and Armagh area — no large industries, not many hotels, restaurants or discos, and only one acute hospital — I am at a loss to know where this huge demand is coming from. Only a truthful answer from Northern Ireland Electricity will allow us to see the truly pernicious nature of this problem.

Of course, there is a huge increase in demand during the winter, particularly at Christmas, caused by the weather and by people staying at home over the holiday period. But the huge increase in demand is not in the hills of south Armagh; it is in large urban areas, such as Greater Belfast, Derry and Craigavon. The power supply to those areas has been secured for seven or eight years now by the deliberate "tripping out" of supply in rural areas. This is unfair, unjust, inequitable and possibly illegal. In any case, it is unacceptable, and it must stop.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to raise this matter, a running sore for my community, and the House will hear more of it if families are left once again with cold turkey on Christmas Day, if Christmas trees have no lights and if elderly people are left without heat.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP 5:15 pm, 9th November 1998

I agree that there are many elderly people who suffer greatly if there are problems with heat during the winter, and I support the Member’s comments on this issue.

Photo of Mr John Fee Mr John Fee Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his support.

If we have the same situation this Christmas, Northern Ireland Electricity will have to deal with a real "power struggle".

Adjourned at 5.18 pm.