North-South Interconnector: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

recognises:

- that the North-South interconnector is a vital piece of infrastructure for ensuring a safe and sustainable source of energy for both Ireland and Northern Ireland;

- that communities across Cavan, Monaghan, Meath, Tyrone and Armagh are very concerned about the present proposals for the North-South interconnector;

- that the recent decision of An Bord Pleanála to approve planning permission for the overhead pylon project did not consider an alternative underground option, which was not put forward by EirGrid;

- the negative impacts that an overground interconnector will have on the landscape of these areas, particularly on their more scenic and ecologically sensitive locations;

- the potential detrimental consequences for the tourism sector in these areas;

- that the present plans for the North-South interconnector would have adverse effects on the livelihoods and farming practices of farming households along its route; and

- that some 2,550 homes are potentially impacted by the proposed overhead line;

acknowledges:

- the continued failure to address the concerns raised by local residents;

- the need and requirement that the communities concerns must be addressed;

- that considerable technological advances have occurred since the most recent analysis of undergrounding was conducted in 2009, such that the cost and technical feasibility of undergrounding the North-South interconnector have changed greatly;

- that EirGrid has recognised that undergrounding the project is feasible; and

- that A Programme for a Partnership Government committed and affirmed the need for "much better engagement with citizens and communities about the energy policy decisions that affect them" and committed to "effective community consultation on energy infrastructure developments";

and calls on the Government to:

- commission immediately an independent report, incorporating international industry expertise to:

- examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector, taking into account the most recent developments in technology and experience gained from existing projects abroad;

- evaluate the potential impacts of both undergrounding and overgrounding the North-South interconnector on surrounding areas, considering such aspects as its impact on local tourism, health, landscape, agriculture, heritage, etc.;

- analyse the real costs to date, and estimated future costs, of the current proposed overhead pylon project; and

- ensure that no further work is done on the North-South interconnector until this analysis and a full community consultation is completed; and

- implement its commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government in relation to better engagement and community consultation about energy policy decisions that affect them.

I welcome the opportunity to bring this motion before the House on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party. The North-South interconnector has become a serious issue for the people of Cavan, Monaghan and Meath and, unfortunately, for the Government, it is an issue that will not go away. Noting the recent decision by An Bord Pleanála to award planning permission to construct 299 pylons that are between 25 m and 51 m, we felt compelled to bring this motion before the House. An Bord Pleanála's decision comes despite protracted and intense opposition from local residents and their repeated calls for EirGrid to seriously consider undergrounding the North-South interconnector. EirGrid and this Government have simply stopped engaging with technological advancements in the arena of electricity transmission.

If the Government refuses to listen to local residents' concerns of its own accord, we must bring these concerns to its attention. In this regard, our motion highlights the considerable negative impacts that an overground power line would cause to communities in Cavan, Meath and Monaghan as well as those in Tyrone and Armagh. Furthermore, in recognition of the lack of dialogue that the proposers of the North-South interconnector have had with local communities and industry experts, our motion calls on the Government to commission an independent expert analysis drawing on international expertise to examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector.

As a party, Fianna Fáil supports the upgrading of the national grid to ensure security of energy supply, boost capacity for renewed economic growth and allow for the possibility of electricity links with either Great Britain or France in the future. EirGrid and Northern Ireland Electricity are jointly planning this major cross-Border electricity scheme. This scheme is a 400 kV overhead line linking the existing 400 kV substation in Woodland, County Meath, with a planned substation in Turleenan, County Tyrone. It will provide a second high-capacity electricity transmission line between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. We recognise that the North-South interconnector will play an essential role in preventing energy blackouts in either jurisdiction on the island of Ireland as well as bringing an increased amount of renewable energy into the system and ensuring that there is an appropriate competitive environment, increasing competition and ensuring lower energy costs into the future. That said, Fianna Fáil is concerned with the installation of overhead pylons throughout the country by EirGrid near residential areas and areas of scenic beauty.

In its application to An Bord Pleanála, EirGrid only made a submission for an overground line. In other words, EirGrid did not consider the merits or possibility of an underground power line in its application. This is blatant discrimination against the people affected by the North-South interconnector. Why has the Government not listened to their concerns and investigated them? When concerns were raised over Grid West and Grid East, analysis of an undergrounding option was undertaken. EirGrid has flip-flopped repeatedly on whether it is economically and technologically feasible to underground these pylons and those involved in the Grid Link projects. Its inconsistency and overall unwillingness to engage with this is central to why the people of Meath, Cavan and Monaghan will feel that they are not been treated equally or fairly. People in these counties are asking themselves why no underground cabling proposals are outlined for the proposed North-South interconnector?

In a 2013 report on the same, EirGrid considered three studies completed on the costs of undergrounding the project that were completed between 2008 and 2009 and concluded that the cost would be closer to eight times the cost of overgrounding the cables. This is in contrast to the findings of an international independent commission which suggested that an underground solution would be three times more expensive than an overhead option. That is a significant cost differential and is one of the main reasons behind our motion. We are deeply concerned about the very significant changes and are concerned that some are relying on what is clearly out-of-date data. In April 2015, EirGrid stated an underground system would cost in excess of €500 million more than the overhead option, which would be approximately three times more than the overground option. Again, this appears to be a significantly reduced cost compared to what was previously relied upon to make a decision to go overground.

Two clear trends emerge here. First, EirGrid cannot be seen as independent when it comes to assessing the costs of undergrounding the North-South interconnector. Since the beginning of the process, EirGrid has been intent on placing the North-South interconnector above ground and it is clear that any cost estimate it may provide may be perceived to favour the overground option. What is needed now is an independent group of experts to assess the specific needs of the North-South interconnector and to calculate a precise cost estimate using rigorous and transparent methods.

It is also clear that the costs involved with using an underground AC option change rapidly with technological changes. Clearly, in just over two years, EirGrid acknowledged that the price of undergrounding the North-South interconnector had fallen fivefold. Furthermore, recent international experience has disproved claims that underground technology is not suitable for developments like the North-South interconnector. One example which springs to mind is the ALEGrO project, which runs between Aachen in Germany and Liège in Belgium, which is approximately 90 km in length and which can carry 1,000 MW. It will be constructed entirely underground using high voltage direct current, HVDC, technology that we understand to be most suitable for the voltage involved. While I accept that there are many similarities, there are some differences in length and the voltage concerned but it certainly draws significant comparisons as an option. This project is very similar to that relating to the North-South interconnector. It carries in the region of one tenth of what is required in terms of Belgium's overall energy consumption and is key to maintaining Belgium's energy security. It is also intended to increase energy efficiency in Germany and Belgium and to push down the price of electricity in both jurisdictions. As such, it is very much on a par with the proposed North-South interconnector in terms of purpose. The ALEGrO project will achieve these aims without impinging on the landscape along its routes. Not a single mountain vista or rolling hill will be tainted as a result of steel pylons being erected and no local resident will face land devaluation, health issues or a reduced quality of life because of its construction. In short, the only glaring difference between this project and the North-South interconnector is that the residents of Cavan, Meath and Monaghan have not been treated with the same respect as their counterparts in Germany and Belgium.

With these issues in mind, we are asking the Government to conduct an independent analysis of the possibility of undergrounding the North-South interconnector. This analysis must also assess and detail the impacts that constructing the North-South interconnector overground would have on local communities. For example, what would be its impact on local heritage sites and tourism? Would an overground interconnector impact on agricultural production? Would there be ramifications for the health of local residents? These are the types of questions my party colleagues and I are hearing from people in the counties through which the North-South interconnector is to pass yet they are not questions to which this Government has provided answers leading me to believe that it is not so concerned by the impact of the North South interconnector on local communities. Instead, it prefers to allow EirGrid to proceed over the will of local people ignoring the concerns that have been rightly raised by the various different interest groups and people who live in the area.

As elected representatives, it is incumbent on all of us to give voice to the concerns of the public and to give careful consideration to how the decisions that are taken by us impact on their daily lives. Frankly, it is sad to see a Government that should be accountable and answerable to its people so blatantly ignore the concerns I have outlined. With the support of those Members present, I hope this motion can reverse this worrying trend and finally address the concerns of communities in Meath, Monaghan and Cavan. I commend the motion to the House.

I am very glad to have the opportunity to support this extremely important motion. As Deputy Dooley, our party spokesperson on communications, environment and natural resources, said, it is a comprehensive, thorough and well thought-out motion. It reflects the concerns of communities and families throughout the affected areas in counties Monaghan, Cavan and Meath very well. It correctly identifies the measures to be implemented to deal with all aspects of the North-South interconnector.

I appeal to all Members of this House, both in opposition and in government, to support this motion. Over the past ten or 12 years, member of the County Monaghan Anti-Pylon Committee and members of the North East Pylon Pressure campaign in County Meath have been extremely active in conveying the views and concerns of local communities regarding these proposals. I attended many meetings in the past few years in Aughnamullen and Castleblayney in County Monaghan, in Muff and Kingscourt in County Cavan and in Kells and Navan in County Meath. There were huge crowds at each one of those individual meetings. People were there to express their outrage and concerns at the EirGrid proposals. They were particularly angry that EirGrid made no effort to listen to local people and local communities.

In 2007 and 2008 when this project was first mooted, we were told that the cost of undergrounding the project would be 20 to 30 times the cost of overgrounding it. Things have changed dramatically in the meantime, as Deputy Dooley said. Thankfully, the cost factor has diminished very substantially and the technology has advanced. At an Oireachtas committee meeting in April 2015, I and other Members of this House and of Seanad Éireann put particular questions to the chief executive of EirGrid. That was the first time that he publicly admitted that it was possible to place underground these transmission cables from an engineering and technical perspective.

I believe it is important to note our motion. It notes very importantly that the North-South interconnector is a vital piece of infrastructure for ensuring a safe and sustainable source of energy for our State and for north of the Border also. The motion calls on the Government to immediately commission an independent report incorporating international industry expertise to examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the project and to evaluate the potential impacts of both undergrounding and overgrounding with regard to landscape, tourism, heritage and agricultural practices. That report must also analyse the real cost. We also ask that no further work be carried out on this project until these studies are undertaken. We welcome the commitment in the programme for Government on the advancement of energy projects targeting better engagement and community consultation on energy policy decisions that affect communities. We see very well that this is not happening with regard to EirGrid.

On 21 December, the decision from An Bord Pleanála approving the EirGrid proposal was most disappointing. Together with many other Members of the Oireachtas and individual councillors in counties Cavan, Monaghan and Meath, I made detailed written submissions. We also participated in the oral hearing. Many public representatives at local authority and Oireachtas level in our three counties have been highly vocal and have worked extremely hard to convey the concerns of our communities. I am glad that some of our councillors are present tonight, including the cathaoirleach of Monaghan County Council, Councillor PJ O'Hanlon, Councillor Seamus Coyle and others. I pay tribute to all councillors in those counties who have taken a particular interest.

It is appalling that the An Bord Pleanála inspectorate report did not even record the contributions of the public representatives who participated in the oral hearing. It was appalling for a statutory agency to come out with a report that ignored the views and concerns expressed by the local community representatives. We must examine how An Bord Pleanála went about its business. On the first day of the oral hearing in 2010, it sought permission to move 400 pylon positions by 80 m in all directions. After seven weeks of that oral hearing in 2010, it withdrew. In 2015, EirGrid got away with submitting an inadequate and deficient application. It modified the application on the opening day of the oral hearing when 73 modifications were allowed. If any of us were constructing a small extension to a house or farm building, we would not be going in with modifications when the planning process was already under way.

All of us as Oireachtas Members have participated in and attended meetings of Monaghan County Council and Cavan County Council. We have listened to the serious concerns expressed at official level and at political level in the councils. The councils made detailed submissions, which came from both individual councillors and the county councils in their local authority role.

The Minister facilitated us with a good meeting last week. It was the first meaningful meeting that I had with a Minister for communications since 2011 with regard to this particular project. The Minister listened to an exceptionally good and detailed presentation. It was given by the County Monaghan Anti-Pylon Committee and by North East Pylon Pressure. It is a very detailed presentation and it stands up. I welcome that the Minister said there will be engagement with his officials with regard to all the views outlined in this particular proposal.

As Deputy Dooley said, a major project, the ALEGrO project, going from Aachen in Germany to Liège in Belgium, is being undergrounded. As Deputy Dooley noted, it will not interfere with the landscape, the communities or the residences of people along that route.

We support the upgrade of the national grid. I was disturbed on Saturday to get calls from Northern Ireland trying to say to me that Fianna Fáil is opposed to the all-Ireland energy policy-----

There are four minutes remaining in the slot.

-----and that we do not agree with a national grid. Nothing could be further from the truth. I received correspondence today from a business group. I say to that business group that Fianna Fáil is as interested in upgrading the national grid as any other interested party on this island. As a party that is firmly attached to the workings of the Good Friday Agreement, many of us in this House have outlined clearly on many occasions the need to maximise its potential. We are not against progress, but by God we are not in favour of trampling on the people of rural Ireland either.

I have no control over internal party times. I call Deputy Niamh Smyth.

I hope the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will facilitate me and let me go a little over my time.

No. It is a 20-minute slot.

I thank the Minister for being present for this important debate. I also welcome the members of Monaghan County Council. They have been very much to the forefront in leading the charge on this issue. I indicate my total objection to this proposed development in its current form of overhead power lines. The people of my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan and our neighbours in Meath want this project to be undergrounded. Some 2,500 homes have the potential to be impacted in a negative way by the proposed overhead line. Do their concerns deserve to be listened to? Yes, they do. Poor consultation has led today's debate on the planning process for the North-South interconnector. It is time to put right the wrongs of the past and take away the sour taste of this project that has been left in the mouths of the people of Cavan-Monaghan. I ask the Minister not to railroad this through.

I accept the need for a North-South interconnector but clearly and vehemently disagree with both the scale of the proposal and the choice of overhead transmission lines instead of underground cables. I have been informed through parliamentary questions on this issue. The Minister and I have previously debated in the Chamber the subject of Brexit and the impact it could have on the North-South interconnector. I have been informed it will have no impact. It is unfair to state the implications of Brexit will have no effect because we honestly have not realised the full impact that Brexit will have on the South of Ireland. No one knows what is in store for the country. Therefore, I ask the Minister again to be prudent and to put all State funding for the capital phase of this project on hold. The Minister should remind EirGrid that despite receiving the green light from An Bord Pleanála in the South, the development of the project depends on the outcome of the public inquiry in Northern Ireland, which is scheduled for this month.

EirGrid has agreed that undergrounding is indeed feasible and reliable. It is on that premise that I urge the Government to reject the application in its current status. It could be argued that the money spent to date on blunders in planning and opposition to this project could have gone a long way to paying for the undergrounding option.

The people of my constituency have many concerns, none of which has been addressed adequately by EirGrid to give them peace of mind. The application does not have the basic principle of public acceptance in place and therefore cannot go ahead in its current form.

The people of Cavan and Monaghan have been offered only lip service, and when we look at the stringent consultation protocols of the project being tested in the North of Ireland, we deserve the same here.

Early last year I attended the An Bord Pleanála oral hearing in the Nuremore Hotel in Carrickmacross for hours - some people attended for days on end - and heard at first hand the logical reasons people in those areas do not want this project to go ahead. It is not an overstatement to say the landowners are distraught for reasons of health, devaluation of land, the impact on their livelihood, the destruction of heritage, flora and fauna, and the detrimental impact on tourism.

Last month we attended the meeting in Kells, County Meath. It is not an overstatement to say it was attended by hundreds of people. The Monaghan anti-pylon group and the North East Pylon Pressure Campaign have been to the forefront and have given the Minister a very clear presentation, as my colleague outlined, of the reason this project should not go ahead.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

notes:

- the benefits that the North-South interconnector will bring to electricity consumers across the island of Ireland through lower prices, as a result of more efficient operation of the single electricity market and increased security of electricity supply;

and

- the importance of Ireland’s close relationship in the energy sector with Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, UK, and the European Union, EU, and the UK Government’s continued support for the single electricity market against the backdrop of the UK decision to exit the EU; and

calls on the Government to:

- take account of the concerns of the communities of Cavan, Meath and Monaghan; and

- publish an independent analysis of international developments in relation to the relative cost differences, technologies and engineering solutions of overhead and underground technologies fully integrated in an all-island electricity system and be cognisant of same.

This proposed North-South interconnector is a new 138 km high-capacity electricity interconnector along overhead lines between the transmission networks of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

On 21 December last, An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for the interconnector in Ireland, with a number of conditions attached. The decision concluded a lengthy process which included an oral hearing completed over 11 weeks from March to May last year. The planning process in Northern Ireland is still ongoing, with a planning inquiry due to commence on 22 February this year.

The proposed interconnector is a vital piece of infrastructure for ensuring a safe and sustainable source of energy for both Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is expected it will deliver significant benefits to electricity consumers across the island of Ireland through lower prices as a result of more efficient operation of the single electricity market. Further delays to the development of the project will increase security of supply risk to Northern Ireland in the first instance but also to both Ireland and Northern Ireland as the benefits of mutual reinforcement of the single electricity market would be delayed.

In the context of Northern Ireland’s security of electricity supply challenges post-2020, it is vital in terms of maintaining solid North-South relations in the area of energy that Ireland provides certainty in relation to developing the North-South interconnector. I must stress in the House the crucial need to continue Ireland’s close relationship in the energy sector with both Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom in the context of Brexit. As a nation we are facing the most significant economic and social challenge of the past 50 years, and energy is one of the critical sectors that we must protect in our Brexit negotiations.

In 2015 Ireland had an energy import dependency of 88% and the United Kingdom is the source of much of this energy. A total of 97% of the natural gas used in Ireland in 2015 was imported from the United Kingdom. Maintaining secure trade in energy with the United Kingdom and the continued effective functioning of the single electricity market are key Brexit priorities for Ireland.

I remind this House of the UK Government’s continued support for the single electricity market as set out in the UK White Paper on exiting the European Union and the letter of 14 October last by the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Given the importance placed on the single electricity market and the key role of the North-South interconnector in this market, the uncertainty created by accepting the proposed Fianna Fáil motion would be of significant concern. The bilateral relationship we have with the United Kingdom in energy cannot be viewed in isolation. It is a matter for all of us here to consider the implications of any potential impacts a change in our energy relationship, perceived or otherwise, could have on other sectors. It is critical, in the context of Brexit, that we maintain a close and positive relationship with the United Kingdom across all sectors.

In a wider European context, the North-South interconnector was designated a project of common interest by the European Commission in October 2013 and again in November 2015. Projects of common interest are energy projects deemed by the European Commission to be of strategic cross-border importance.

Any development of national infrastructure must strike a balance between the overall benefits of the project and the local impact on people, landscape, tourism, farming and homes. I am well aware of concerns that have been raised by the communities across Cavan, Meath and Monaghan about the proposals for the North-South interconnector. I am aware that there is a long-held and passionately argued belief on the part of some within local communities along the route of the interconnector that the transmission lines should be laid underground, rather than built overhead. However, all evidence available to me through my chief technical adviser indicates that this would cost substantially more and deliver less.

In short, the interconnector is proposed as a high voltage alternating current overhead line because various studies, many of them independent, deem it to be both the best overall technical solution as well as the most cost-effective option for this project.

This proposal is fully in keeping with EirGrid’s statutory obligation to develop a fit-for-purpose electricity transmission system as cost effectively as possible. The studies include the international expert commission report of 2012 which found the construction of an underground option to be approximately three times the cost of the overhead option. The July 2014 statement of the independent expert panel, chaired by Ms Justice Catherine McGuinness, found that in all material respects, the methodologies employed on the North-South interconnector were compatible with the methodologies on other grid development projects such as the Grid Link and the Grid West projects.

From a technical perspective it should be pointed out that direct current lines would need to be used if the lines were laid underground over this distance, and these do not efficiently integrate the electricity systems of Ireland and Northern Ireland into a single meshed grid system. This is a key technical disadvantage that an underground option would have when compared with the proposed overhead project.

All studies and information pertaining to undergrounding were available to An Bord Pleanála as part of its recent planning process. In the oral hearing, the inspector heard evidence both in favour of and against the overground and underground solutions. The inspector examined those issues thoroughly and concluded that a high voltage alternating current overhead line is the best technical and economic solution for the North-South interconnector to achieve national energy objectives.

I would stress, therefore, that the statutory independent planning process has determined that the proposed North-South interconnector should be developed and I fully accept the outcome of that planning process.

I also understand the concerns of the communities of Cavan, Meath and Monaghan regarding the project. I met and listened to the groups last week. I believe I am the first Minister for energy since Deputy Eamon Ryan to meet with the groups and hear what they said. I listened intently to the submission they made to me and I gave a commitment based on that to have further engagement with my officials and my chief technical adviser on the issues they had raised. However, the reason the Government does not support the motion as proposed is due to the uncertainty it would create with regard to our energy relationship with Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole. To do so would put our country at a distinct disadvantage in our Brexit negotiations and would serve only to jeopardise investment, impacting jobs, economic survival and our credibility.

The proper functioning of the economy and society is reliant on energy. It is, therefore, imperative for me as Minister with responsibility for energy to ensure the continued secure trade in energy between the United Kingdom and other EU countries.

An issue that has been raised by community representative groups and others is the need to carry out further independent analysis of international developments in the relative cost differences, technologies and engineering solutions of overhead and underground technologies. This is what is proposed in the amendment I have tabled. It would do so without introducing undue uncertainty to our energy relationship on an all-island basis and with the United Kingdom. Therefore, I urge Deputies to support the proposed amendment which I believe is fair and balanced.

We fully support the North-South interconnector project which is not to connect Ireland with some mythical country called Northern Ireland but to connect two parts of Ireland. The piece of infrastructure is vital if we are to have a fully developed energy market across the country that is secure, efficient and environmentally sustainable and that can deliver real gains by significantly reducing costs, North and South. If the project is completed successfully, it will help to secure the future electricity needs for homes, farms, businesses and communities, help Ireland to meet its renewable energy targets for the period 2020 and 2030 and provide a platform for further economic development and growth.

It makes sense to plan on an all-Ireland basis. Many businesses and industries already look at Ireland as a whole. Partitionist thinking until now in the planning of national infrastructure is what has made the interconnector necessary. The transmission network is considerably restricted where electricity transmission lines cross the Border. There is a lack of connection in the Border region which limits power flow either way and does not prevent great stress on the power grid. We understand this.

Only three transmission connections traverse the entire length of the Border, only one of which has any significant capacity. This creates inefficiencies which lead to extra costs for all electricity users. That is why we support the advancement of the project via underground cables. We cannot ignore the concerns of communities living within range of the planned construction. This is not something with which we will deal a decade from now, but if the Government and EirGrid plough ahead with it in its current form, it is certain it will be delayed by several years. Communities have strongly objected to the current plans and have strong concerns, particularly about its effects on tourism, agriculture and health in local areas. Forcing through such a project without proper community consultation is certain to result in further local opposition and legal challenges which will take years to resolve. When the Government costed the overhead line, did it factor in the added costs of delays, as well as legal costs? We know that €34 million has already been spent on overhead line planning. It is estimated that the loss per annum as a result of the delays in the project is anything up to €30 million.

Underground projects have been successfully completed in Ireland and abroad. I draw the Minister's attention to the Rush to Woodlands project in County Meath and the ALEGrO project which runs from Germany to Belgium. It has proved to be a model for how this can be done and the infrastructure can be built. The Government needs to take a closer look at the cost benefit analysis of underground transmission lines. The international expert commission employed by a previous Government found that putting the cables underground was a viable option. We question the arguments put forward that the project must proceed overhead.

There would be benefits in undergrounding resulting in long-term savings in maintenance. Underground networks do not require the same level of maintenance as overhead networks. Underground cables have lower transmission losses and a much longer lifespan than overhead lines. Disturbance to underground cables is less frequent than to overhead cables which are affected by severe weather, something we must take into consideration. In Germany, a project extending to almost 100 km has cost €263 million in total. I do not have time to rattle off all of the costs associated with the project, but they are running at between €500 million and €600 million for 140 km.

We reiterate our support for the North-South interconnector project to connect the two parts of Ireland, but the project will never reach completion unless the Government and EirGrid engage with communities on the underground option and they change their attitude. The Government's amendment is a serious dilution of the motion. It mentions being cognisant of matters, but in local authority speak this is the same as having regard to, which those of us who have served in local authorities know does not mean anything. We need to be open to new technologies. The Government is behind the curve. We need to look at recent developments in the past two to four years and move ahead with undergrounding the project.

The scale of public opposition to the North-South interconnector project as proposed, with overhead power lines supported by gigantic pylons, cannot be overstated. Most of us in the Chamber are very cognisant of that. Communities throughout the counties of Meath, Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh and Tyrone are up in arms about the proposed construction of a sky high wall of 45 m high pylons linked by cables bearing 400 kV of power across their lands and close to their homes. They are right to be incensed. The construction of this overhead power line structure will have devastating consequences, most especially for those immediately impacted on but also for all of us who cherish our relatively unspoiled countryside.

During the An Bord Pleanála oral hearing last year local landowners, residents, campaign groups and political voices from all parties raised concerns about health, house and land prices and the negative impact the development would have on the environment, with calls from across the board for the interconnector to be put underground. Needless to say, the news from An Bord Pleanála in December when it approved the construction of 299 giant pylons across counties Meath, Cavan and Monaghan came as a huge blow to campaigning communities across the affected counties which have steadfastly opposed this approach and a blow to all who are rightly offended at the prospect of these monstrous structures across what I have described as our relatively unspoiled countryside.

Owing to time constraints, I will not have the opportunity to make reference to all of my concerns about the proposed overgrounding of the cables. For this reason, I wish to focus on one particular concern that EirGrid, the advocate of the overhead approach, is always eager to dismiss, namely, health. I will focus on one example, in particular. I have been advised of the reality - many Deputies will be aware of the case - faced by one young man whose mother spoke to me a number of months ago. They live in immediate proximity to an existing line of lesser capacity and know the facts. This young man has special needs and is unable to leave the family home to access the periphery of their smallholding because of the continuous crackling from the line and the real effect the line has on his condition. Even in damp weather conditions, there is also occasional flickering. There is a noise factor, even with this significantly lower capacity line which will be replaced, yet no consideration is given to the fact that this young man has a severe level of autism, with all of the complicating factors it entails in terms of his health and that of his family whose fears are real.

It is important to indicate that Sinn Féin absolutely recognises the importance of this infrastructure and the need to strengthen the supply of electricity across the island of Ireland, North and South. Our position has been very clear from the start. From the time the project was first mooted we recognised its importance to the future of the island economy.

However, this project can only be delivered by undergrounding the cable. We have heard the arguments from those who favour the overground pylons approach that the undergrounding is neither affordable nor achievable. The contrary was found in the Oireachtas-commissioned expert report which stated that undergrounding the North-South interconnector was now a realistic solution and due to significant technical developments and a commercial breakthrough of the most recently developed voltage source connector HVDC technology. Furthermore, the claim by EirGrid that undergrounding the cable would cost 25 times that of erecting overground pylons was found to be totally incorrect as proven by the Grid25 review strategy document that showed that the cost of undergrounding had reduced to close to 1.5 times the cost of overhead lines. Even that differential has likely been further reduced.

It does not have to be this way and we do not have to gamble with people's lives. Tá bealach i bhfad níos fearr ann. Níl sé ceart nó cóir neamhaird a dhéanamh ar na pobail atá an-bhuartha faoin bplean seo. Mar fhocal scoir, Sinn Féin welcomes this motion and we will be supporting it. I urge Fianna Fáil to stick with its motion and not to buckle and accept the Government amendment. We are committed to continue with our opposition to the overhead pylon approach. We call on the Government and all parties, as well as Independent Dáil and Seanad representatives, to join us in supporting the underground approach that already has the signal support of the overwhelming majority of those directly affected.

Fine Gael seeks to construct the North-South interconnector overground imminently. The purpose of the interconnector is to link the electricity markets in the North. We, in Sinn Féin, support an interconnector and an all-Ireland energy market but we only support it if it goes underground. The pigheaded will to proceed with this interconnector overground has delayed the construction by years. As it is currently designed, that is overground, it will never be built, and the people along the curtilage of the proposed interconnector are immovable with regard to its construction. In EirGrid's own words, it costs €30 million every year this project is delayed and if the two Ministers opposite do not stop this process, they are leading the people of Meath into an intractable dispute with no prospect of ending. I support this Bill but I am disappointed that Fianna Fáil did not go as far as seeking an undergrounding of this piece of infrastructure. I understand Fianna Fáil supports the undergrounding of this interconnector and Sinn Féin does, as do some Independents in the House. We should have used our mandate to create a Bill to underground it and put an end to the whole process. This motion falls short of the key democratic mandate we all have to underground this. Last January, I tabled a Bill to underground the interconnector but it has been superseded by the planning process. My colleague, Deputy Ó Caoláin, and I made efforts to get cross-party support for the Bill and many Fianna Fáil Deputies attended with goodwill. When the motion was published it reduced the mandate to one of simply carrying out research.

I am desperately disappointed with the amendment of Fine Gael and the Independents. It makes a wishy-washy document of the original motion. One can have bucketloads of cognisance but it does not add up to a hill of beans. There can be a massive amount of goodwill and listening to people, but unless the key decision is made, the necessary action will not happen. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, is an experienced Deputy and he knows how to dress up a motion to sound like one thing but will fail the core objective of the people of County Meath.

We are talking about the construction of hundreds of pylons, some up to 51 metres in height, carrying 400,000 volts through Meath, Cavan and Monaghan. Some of them will be at a distance of some 20 metres from people's homes so there are significant worries about threats to health, especially with cancers and leukaemia in children. There are real fears as regards damage to the value of homes and businesses and to the tourism, agriculture and bloodstock industries, which will be significantly affected in County Meath. The technology the Government is seeking to build is being superseded with new technology that can do the same job. The cost of undergrounding is falling all the time. I suggest the Ministers across the floor join me and contact Siemens, who are carrying out this work, in a preliminary effort to compare the costs of the projects. It should not be without the bounds of the Government to say it will not just take cognisance of an independent international analysis but will promise, on the basis of that analysis, it will follow through with a real decision to underground the line once and for all.

The Labour Party is supporting the Fianna Fáil motion because the motion seeks to examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding, evaluate the potential impacts of both undergrounding and overgrounding and analyse the real costs to date and estimated into the future. It seeks to ensure no further work is done until this analysis and a full community consultation takes place. Nothing in what is being asked for is unreasonable to our minds. There is a decision of An Bord Pleanála but there is precedent for taking on board independent advice, specifically the Grid Link project which was a report for the independent expert panel of September 2015. This looked at the Grid Link project, a dogleg project linking Cork, Wexford and Kildare, and made a recommendation to use the regional option. With series compensation, a process of using smartgrid technology to allow more power to flow through existing lines, it eliminated the need for significant new transmission circuits, meaning no new infrastructure was needed. This is a different project and there was pre-existing infrastructure but there was a report of an independent expert panel which looked at the options and came to the conclusion that no new infrastructure was needed on Grid Link to manage the 400 kV potential that was coming down the line. If new information comes before us and new technologies, as well as precedents in other parts of the European Union, we should take them on board if we can. There is nothing in the Fianna Fáil motion that would damage the long-term potential of a North-South interconnector.

I note the correspondence from a number of business organisations in the North of Ireland such as the Institute of Directors, Manufacturing Northern Ireland, the Derry Chamber of Commerce and others who are seeking to remove the constraints in the current market and are seeking the delivery of the interconnector because it will place downward pressure on consumer bills.

I am quoting directly from their correspondence. We all agree on the need for a greater degree of interoperability between North and South across so many different sectors, including electricity. There are times, however, when there may be a need to revise one's opinions on issues when they arise. If it is having such an impact, then the community's concerns, as articulated by the vast bulk of its representatives, should be heard. That is why we are supporting the motion.

I want to refer specifically to the what the Minister said. He indicated that there is a report from his chief technical adviser. It would be appropriate if that advice were published. If he is willing to place the chief technical adviser's advice on the record, it would be pertinent for this House to have sight of it. This would not do any harm and it would inform the House as to the type of advice the Minister is receiving.

I respectfully take issue with the use of Brexit as an argument against supporting the motion. We all understand the complexities of Brexit as they relate to the UK White Paper and the letter issued by the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, asserting continued support for the single electricity market. We all understand that dynamic, but if one of the signatories to that market is no longer a member of the European Union, it puts a hole in the Minister's argument.

We must now question the status of the project of common interest. Even though these plans clearly state that energy projects are deemed by the European Commission to be of strategic cross-Border importance, we must question what the status of that project of common interest is in the light of the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, notwithstanding our own position of ensuring that North-South interconnectedness should continue to be embedded in every way, both societally and economically.

I respectfully suggest to the Minister that using the Brexit argument as a mechanism to support his position will not cut the mustard for people living in this region. I ask him to consider the Fianna Fáil motion which we are supporting.

I support the motion before the House. No one wants pylons near their houses. People build houses in rural areas to have a nice view, not to have some eyesore stuck at their back door. They tried it in the west and there was fierce resistance, yet they now seem to be persisting with this North-South interconnector. The country needs to decide where it is going in this regard. As I have worked in the construction industry for long enough, I would like to see the figures for running such an interconnector underground or overhead. I am damn sure we could put it underground a lot quicker than overhead, particularly in light of the time it takes to build pylons.

In the south, west and north west, we are promoting a lot of wealthy people. We are pumping them with money through subsidies for turbines. We are subsidising it uneconomically and creating fat cats while the ordinary people are paying PSO levies. We can see the rise in PSO levies this year that are paid by businesses or householders. We do not hear about those things, however, because the ordinary people will keep paying while the fat cats get richer.

People may talk about Brexit but governments have to make decisions. One does not look at something on a five, ten or 15-year basis; one looks at it long term. It is the same with road building, which is considered over a 20-year period. I would encourage farmers and other householders in County Meath to stand up and be counted. Let us not forget that what is happening to them today may befall the rest of us in other parts of the country tomorrow. I urge people in various areas who are opposed to this to row in behind the people of Meath, Monaghan and other counties affected. If a precedent is set, the rest of the country will be in trouble with this.

I am delighted to be able to speak to this important motion. It is welcome that Fianna Fáil has tabled it. While the Minister has left, it is welcome that he met the communities involved. He is the first Minister to do so since An Teachta Eamon Ryan. That is a help at least.

The one part of the Minister's contribution to which I object is that relating to Brexit. I know that Brexit is very serious. The House will debate the matter tomorrow. This is the latest reason he has given us for big people getting richer and fat cats getting fatter, and to hell with the communities. He will be blaming something else next week. It is outrageous. Figures were supplied to me two years ago which showed that EirGrid blew €2.7 million on legal fees while fighting communities. Just imagine, people in communities are trying to survive, do everyday chores, pay mortgages, educates their families and eke out a living in farming, yet €2.7 million was spent on legal fees. I would love to know where the legal eagles are. It was the same tonight when we discussed the tribunal - another gravy train for the fat cats. When are we going to cop on and say "Stop"?

I have no faith in EirGrid. I have dealt with the company in the south east where it is trying to wreck our lovely county of Tipperary, across the hills of Aghda, from Cahir, Clonmel and Kilsheelan, to the scenic Slievenamon and into Ahenny in south Kilkenny. EirGrid has shown disrespect to those communities. There is a disconnect because its people fly into the area in helicopters or drive in for big open days at hotels. Instead, they should take off their suits, get on their wellies and meet people in their homes, which will be 25 m away from electricity lines in the future. Why would anyone want them? We heard such stories earlier from Deputy Ó Caoláin and I have heard such concerns also. EirGrid should get out and meet the people.

I have less faith in An Bord Pleanála following the lovely Christmas box they gave to EirGrid on 20 December. It was almost Christmas Eve when they said "Off you go. Reap the money, while there is some left, and plunder Ireland." It is something similar to what Cromwell did. I have less faith when we saw a gentleman retired from An Bord Pleanála being made the head of EirGrid. That is disgusting. Can the Government not see it? I asked the Taoiseach earlier if he could not hear. There are none so blind as those who do not want to see. It is big business, with people moving from An Bord Pleanála. In the first instance, they left the county councils for An Bord Pleanála and then moved again - without any two-year moratorium - straight into EirGrid. They know every nook and cranny, including how and what to submit to An Bord Pleanála. That is what is wrong with this country. It stinks to high heaven. It is corrupt. If it walks like a duck and looks like a duck, it is a duck - so let us call it a duck.

I cannot believe the impact that there will be on families and livestock. I include the equine sector in this regard. The Government is not listening. The people in America were not listening either when the media wrote him off and now we have President Donald Trump. We also have Brexit because the British people and the Eurocrats would not listen. They will not listen to anybody except big money. We have it here every day of the week. We had two or three Bills last week whereby we tried to curtail the impact of the media, of what is happening in the equine industry in Tipperary and of what is going on in Tesco, with staff going on strike.

It is big and powerful and to hell with the ordinary people. Last year we celebrated the events of 1916. The people are revolving in their graves so fast now that it is unbelievable. Monopolies are what count. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission might as well be the three good Ministers of State opposite me. It is useless, toothless and fruitless. It does not do anything. It does not listen to people who are told the resources are not there. Why would it listen when its masters who appoint people to boards do not want to listen? It is big business. It was there under Fianna Fáil, it was there under the last Government and it is there now. The ordinary people have to rise up. They must get out of their beds, do their work and fight these campaigns where that kind of money is pumped to legal eagles and PR. We see brochure after brochure.

Someone said €39 million had been spent already on planning for the overhead cables. We know they are a danger to light aircraft and at risk of being blown down in storms. Flocks of birds, including geese and swans, regularly hit overhead pylons. Why will the Government not listen? We were able to do it in Howth and underground across from Ireland to England. Under the last Government, the Department got an award for its expertise in being able to do the underground connector across the Irish Sea. Here it is, however, telling the people what it wants. It was to hell or to Connacht with Cromwell. The PSO levy is going up and up. To the ordinary person it feels like penal servitude or else. The ordinary people who are objecting to this are to be made to pay to subsidise these fat cats. It is sickening in the extreme.

I appeal to the Ministers of State. Some of them were very vocal in the last Government and in opposition six years ago against this proposal. Now that they are in government, they want to get in with the fat cats and get on the roller coaster. The Minister of State can smile all he likes, but that is the fact of it. I have been consistent in opposing this since I came in here and these proposals were mooted. Like Deputy Fitzmaurice, I have experience of construction and I know it can be done underground. In fact, the motorways should have had ducts when they were built but that would be forward thinking and there would be no more money.

A couple of minutes.

I did not see the Deputy.

Will Deputy Mattie McGrath give him some time?

Gladly. I did not know that he was there.

I was reluctant to interrupt.

I did not know if the Ceann Comhairle was waving his finger at me or what he was doing, but I am waving my finger at this crowd over here and they had better listen. When the people go to the ballot box the next time they will obliterate Fine Gael, having decimated the party last time. Please, listen to the people.

I call Deputy Danny Healy-Rae. Follow that.

I would not like to have power lines close to my house or closely overhead to where my family live. In fairness, the Government should take the concerns of the people into account in making a decision on this issue. It has been proven where there was only a 38 kV line that it affected five families who got sick and passed on. The places the debate is about are far away from me and I do not know what kind of ground is in issue. There is a case to be made for pylons where there is a mountain and it is not possible to put the cables underground. In those remote places, it might be all right to have overhead power lines. However, where the line is passing near houses or close to where people are travelling, it is not fair to do that. The companies involved are making enough profit to sustain undergrounding the cables where they are near people and where children are going to school who might be affected. We must safeguard people first and let the companies strive to make profit after. If they told the truth, in some cases it is cheaper to underground the cables where there is a certain kind of ground. If the ground is rocky, there is a case for building the pylons overground. If the ground is very boggy or swampy and it is hard for machinery to travel or to open trenches, it might not be practical either. In places like that, however, one will find there are no people.

I ask the Minister to take into account the well-being and health of the people being asked to live close to these power lines because it is not fair. There is another way around it, which is to underground the cables. I ask that cables are not put overhead where there are people. It is not fair. I hope the Government will take cognisance of what previous speakers have said because it is a very genuine case. The health of the people must come first and everything else is after that.

I want to give the House some history of my involvement in this project. It goes back to my time in opposition in the Twenty-ninth Dáil from 2002 to 2007. At that time, we were starting to consider how we would develop an all-island electricity system. We had been blowing up power lines for the previous 30 or 40 years, which had left the North completely cut off. It was a dysfunctional system. It was incredibly expensive for us and for them because one had to keep two spinning reserves to manage this balanced system that is an electricity system. I remember the first plans. The members of the committee at the time were brought down to EirGrid in around 2005 and the project was explained, including the thinking behind it and what we needed to do. In 2007, we created a single all-Ireland electricity market. It was a very significant political connection on the island, perhaps because it was not on the radar of the St. Andrews Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement and the political difficulties of getting things done in those contexts. We were able to get agreement because it made sense on both sides. We asked EirGrid at that stage to look at building this interconnector because we had such poor interconnection between the North and the South.

Already at that stage, concerns were raised. There was a series of "Prime Time" programmes on the issue where people in the relevant areas were, understandably, concerned and asked for consideration of the underground options and alternatives. We did that. I remember going to Denmark at the time as Minister responsible to talk to its TSO because they had the very same problem. They had a line of approximately 140 km on the western part of an island and had been tearing their hair out for ten or 15 years because local communities did not want power lines above ground. They could not find a way to do it. They went everywhere. They went to Japan and all over the world to see if it was possible to provide the grid needed in a balanced system by putting it underground. To this day, they have not found a way and had to build it overground. I was very taken by that.

Deputy Mattie McGrath said these people were fat cats. They are typically public servants, civil servants and engineers working for the Danish state or the Irish State. They are not on a profit margin and they are not fat cats. They are trying to provide an energy system for the people. In Denmark, they could not do it across 140 km of flat, sandy soil whereas we were looking to do something in drumlin country. If they could not do it in flat sandy soil, we were going to have incredible difficulty in drumlin country.

We would love to see this underground. It would be lovely not to have to put power lines up. However, I have yet to see that it is technically feasible. It is technically feasible to send power on a high voltage DC line for 140 km and in fact there will be less transmission loss, but one will end up with a completely different electricity system because the rest of the electricity system is run on AC. Factories and homes are run that way going back to the battle between Edison and Tesla 135 years ago. The battle was won by Tesla and we created an AC electricity system. It may be that in 50 years, on foot of developments at local level, an alternative DC system will develop. However, that is in the nature of 50 years away whereas we do not have 50 years to wait because we are in danger of dividing our island. We are in danger of creating a hard border for energy, which would be a disaster for both North and South. It is not technically feasible because of what happens when one runs a direct current, or DC system. One can think of it in a simple way. The physics is tiny. The alternating current is like a rope with kinks in it whereas the direct current is what it says on the tin.

One can pull a direct current over distance and not have much transmission loss. Converting it back into AC to run in the system is an incredibly difficult process. I do not know if people have seen the converter station in Woodtown. It is much bigger and taller than this building. To crack or create an AC current is no small matter. If we want to use this line to help to develop industry in Meath, Monaghan and Cavan, we would have to put a DC converter station in the middle. It is really expensive.

The reason we want AC is because the first thing any employer or any factory owner will ask for is two AC lines rather than one because a factory full of medical equipment, semiconductors or whatever cannot afford a power outage. The reason we are good at attracting foreign direct investment is because we are relatively good at providing a relatively secure electricity grid. It is not because of fat cats that we are doing this. Rather, it is to create jobs and a network that works for Cavan, Monaghan, Meath and Tyrone as much as anywhere else. The reason most of the investment and all of the data centres and factories are coming to Dublin is because we have a dense electricity system here.

There are two AC lines in Dublin which investors know work. Deputies from the west have stated that the grid link project is all about fat cats not thinking of the people. If we want jobs we need to put digital fibre optic cable beside electricity networks that are AC synchronised. That is how we encourage economic development. If we continue to provide DC links we will cut out a part of the country and not develop it.

I am outlining my experience and views. I would love to see this undergrounded, but it is not easy to do so. A large trench is involved, through drumlins, which is bloody difficult to put underground. It could be done, but we will not end up with the functioning electricity system we need to create employment in other areas.

Deputy Sherlock said he did not think the issue of Brexit should be raised. I do not know. There is a real risk in terms of the Northern electricity system. The reason we all received letters from people involved in industry is that they know Northern industry is at risk, as is Border county industry. At some point, if we do not build this they will say, "Feck it, forget the Republic. We will build our own system. We will do an interconnector with the UK. We will have to do it on our own." That would be an historic mistake in terms of the reunification of this island and what we need to do at a time of Brexit.

They will not wander off. It makes sense for us to maintain an electricity system that is connected North and South no matter what happens with Brexit because the physics make sense. It also makes sense in terms of supporting other industries and development. We cannot develop the project if we wait another ten years. We have been planning this for ten years and if we wait for another ten years the border will be in place and will be set for generations.

I very much understand the motives and communities involved. If there was a miracle tomorrow and the whole system could go DC or we could have a DC system without a massive converter station to convert it to AC in order to provide power connectors connections in the region, we would develop that. To be honest, I do not believe it is technically possible to do so and will not be possible within the next ten or 20 years. People mentioned the Aachen line, but that is a DC line. We know we can develop DC lines, but can we get a synchronised energy system that lifts the Border counties and Northern Ireland? I do not see that, and for that reason I cannot agree with or support the motion.

Ultimately, we would be shooting ourselves in the foot in the Border areas more than anywhere else. We need to get development out of Dublin. In order to do so, we need an electricity grid and fibreoptic cables. If we give up on the grid, we are giving up on economic development.

The chief executive of EirGrid said in an Oireachtas committee meeting in April 2015 that it was technically feasible to underground the project.

It is technically possible.

This is not a committee meeting.

The Government amendment is a dish cloth of an amendment. There will be no buckling with the amendment. It will not fly. Given all of the discussion and debate that has happened, for the Government to come to the House with the amendment is an insult to the people who have campaigned, fought and petitioned us to represent them. I cannot believe that my Meath ministerial colleagues would back this. For the past ten months, the Minister, Deputy Naughten, has said he is listening. Last week and again today he told us that he is listening to the concerns of the people, yet he has come in with a dish cloth of an amendment. It is a disgrace to the time and effort people have put into their campaign.

The simple act of deleting words shows that the Government amendment will not recognise the negative impact the project will have on the landscape, the detrimental consequences for our tourism sector and the impact it will have on people's livelihoods, farming practices and households. I stand to be corrected, but I have attended many public meetings over the past ten years and have listened to many Deputies and councillors. They are the words they have used, yet the Government is seeking to delete them in its amendment.

The issue we are debating may be very precise in terms of geographic location, but it has ramifications for the rest of the country in terms of how communities are treated by our planning authorities, as Deputy Fitzmaurice said, and what we set as the bar for the provision of infrastructure. It has implications for what becomes the defining issue in determining what form the required infrastructure will take and how it is delivered. That is the crux of the matter.

Nobody is disputing the need for the provision of the interconnector. What we are debating is the manner in which it will be provided, that is, the overhead pylon manner which is being relentlessly pursued by EirGrid. I was in the chamber of Meath County Council when its representatives came to meet us and told us they would engage in a strong advertising campaign. Some ten years later, they are doing so but at the time advertisments appeared in the death notices of a newspaper the week after the meeting. It was very apt.

EirGrid has made a lot of noise about no other option existing for the provision of the interconnector, other than the overhead pylon option being put forward. Let us get beyond the noise because this goes to the heart of the issue. No other option was ever considered by EirGrid or the Government in the provision of the line. The motion before us is very clear in its objective.

What is frustrating about the amendment is that all Deputies have accepted the need for facts to be established independently on the technical feasibility and financial cost of undergrounding for this project, taking into account all of the developments that have happened over the past ten years. EirGrid and Department officials have dismissed the option of undergrounding on simple formulas which I heard outlined in the audiovisual room last week, which is not acceptable.

If the Minister or any Department officials stood in the fields where these monstrous pylons will be built and saw the impact on the homes of people living along the route, the landscapes of Monaghan and Cavan and the historic Royal landscape of my county, Meath, they would have an understanding of what is at stake. The same principle applies to EirGrid officials because they have not stood in too many fields.

A cursory glance at their botched planning application that got the nod shows that it has access routes that do not exist and proposals for pylons to be constructed on top of houses and sheds. Google maps has its flaws. I have heard Ministers speak on this topic on several occasions in the Chamber and, more important, listened intently to the Minister, Deputy Naughten, in the audiovisual room last week when he spoke with campaigners. I give him credit for being the only Minister who had the courage to meet campaigners. It is clear his mind is not for turning.

His statement tonight is quite worrying because, according to himself, unless he sees figures which show the project is viable in an underground fashion, he is not for turning. The Government is not for turning.

Please give us the independent expert industry analysis in order that we can establish what all the sides want, which is the facts, because the project is going nowhere in its current guise, as the Minister of State, Deputy Regina Doherty, so eloquently put it. It will be plagued by judicial proceedings and the power of the people who will protect the landscape against this desecration. It would be easier and more sensible to engage positively with an independent analysis of the project's feasibility from both technical and cost points of view in order that there can be no dispute around the debate.

Ultimately there has to be an adjudication on behalf of the Government as to what will be the determining factor. What is the acceptable cost for the State when it comes to progressing this project? Will the Government consider the cost to our landscape, heritage and tourism and equine industries, to farmers and fishermen and to playing fields across County Meath? By God, EirGrid can splash some money when it comes to the GAA and when it wants to show it cares about playing fields. What about the people? What is the cost? According to the Minister, we are more concerned with bilateral negotiations and the situation with Theresa May than our own people. Does the human cost not count? Obviously not when it comes to the pounds, shillings or pence and EirGrid is totting up the figures.

If the figures are the only thing that matters, let us deal with them. The cash figures used by EirGrid vary almost daily. The project manager at the oral hearing in 2016 stated the cost to be six times the overhead line cost. The CEO of EirGrid on "Prime Time" in January of this year had it at three times the overhead line cost. The cost varies with these guys depending on the day of the week. Converter stations are a major component of the undergrounding cost, but new lines in the future will significantly dilute the overall cost per kilometre of these stations. The planned Sligo-Tyrone project is never highlighted by EirGrid, but it could reduce the Tyrone converter cost by some 50%. If cost is the determining factor, let us put the real figures on the record of the House in order that we can refute what is being put forward by EirGrid and have an honest debate. I asked the Minister, Deputy Naughten, about it last week, but he could not answer me. What is the determining factor? Is it the money? If it is the money, let us get an independent analysis so that we can cost it once and for all.

Two weeks ago during the Order of Business, I asked the Taoiseach about the energy section in his programme for Government. It speaks about better engagement and community consultation on energy policy decisions that affect the people of Ireland. Is there any better opportunity to implement the very words in the programme for Government than this one? Let us make those words count for something tonight. Let us make the words spoken by Deputies of all parties in public meeting halls and in this Chamber for the past decade count for something and let us back the motion so that we can show EirGrid and the Government that there is an alternative that people can accept.

Is the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, sharing with her colleagues, Deputies Damien English and Seán Kyne?

Who is going first?

I will go first.

The oldest has to go first.

Is that debatable, Deputy Kyne? We will have to work it out.

I do not think so.

I welcome the opportunity to have this debate. The Minister, Deputy Naughten, wanted me to explain that he had to leave. It was not out of rudeness and he is watching the debate in his office, but he just could not sit here any longer. In case people are wondering, he is watching the debate because he values everyone's input. I express my thanks to the Minister for meeting all involved last week and for listening with a genuine ear to what the groups had to say. Individually, as Deputies and Ministers, we have all been in his ear for the past couple of months since he took up his role. We have done it with other Ministers as well. He took time out to meet everyone last week and spent nearly two hours going through all the information and the data. We will work on and come back on those data. I welcome that too.

Deputy Danny Healy-Rae put it best; no one wants to live beside a pylon. No one likes or wants them. Since the start of the project I have said that we have a duty to prevent the use of pylons if at all possible. I have always held that view. I have listened to people over the years differ but I have never changed my view. Whether in opposition or in government, I have had the exact same approach to this issue. For me, this is not politics; it is personal. This project goes through my neighbours' lands where I grew up. As it goes through those townlands, to me it is personal. It is not politics. However, I have watched people playing politics with it over the past ten years and, to be honest, it is very annoying but I will not go there. However, for me this is not politics.

I have consistently had the same approach in opposition and in government, which is that we have to do all we can to try to prove we can avoid the use of pylons. I have stated on record that I do not believe EirGrid has done enough to prove that we can avoid using them. However, people such as Deputy Eamon Ryan and those in EirGrid and elsewhere take the view that we have to use pylons. Deputy Ryan genuinely believes that we cannot avoid it but I believe that we should be able to and can prove him and EirGrid wrong. I have held that view all along. We will not win this by demanding it, but by proof. That is why I welcome tonight's debate and the various motions and amendments that were tabled. A combination of all these measures will give us the information we need to win the argument. I believe we need to examine and analyse projects that are going underground abroad. Let us prove to Deputy Eamon Ryan, EirGrid and those who are involved in the decision making that this can work and that we can use one of those models here. We have never done that. I thank the Minister, Deputy Naughten, for being prepared to do that. I said it of Pat Rabbitte as well when in July 2012, he published the statement directing EirGrid to use the most up-to-date technology and best engineering solutions. We must prove there are better engineering solutions available and an analysis of what is happening abroad will give us the case we must make to win that once and for all.

People ask if this is about money, reliability or security. I understand that it is all of them. EirGrid will always say that it is not the money. When it comes to the money, we have come a long way from the first meeting I had with EirGrid when it said it was 40 times the cost. It was then 25 times, 20 times and 16 times the cost. Then it was ten times the cost. Thankfully, we are down to three times or two times the cost now. Anywhere in that bracket, however, means we can have this conversation. We must be able to prove that we can do it, reliability-wise and security-wise, which is why we need to look abroad to find an example that suits our project here also.

The Ceann Comhairle is well aware that this is not the first time the North-South interconnector project has been debated on the floor of the House. After almost ten years, it has been debated, discussed and dissected - whatever word one wants to use - at every level. It was, therefore, extremely disappointing for me, representatives and those I represent to learn on 21 December last that An Bord Pleanála had given approval for the overhead power lines. No one has ever doubted the need to develop the national grid or infrastructure. No one has ever doubted the need to develop a single electricity market or the need to ensure consumers across the whole island of Ireland have access to cheap electricity. However, I firmly believe we must question the manner in which the project has been developed and delivered by EirGrid. It has been absolutely shambolic to say the least.

I have worked with my colleagues, constituents, organisations and groups to try to convince previous Ministers - sometimes unsuccessfully - and EirGrid that this project should and could be put underground. I want to put on the record of the House that this is still my policy and preferred option. I believe undergrounding to be feasible, including economically feasible.

Deputy Cassells referred to our infrastructure policy from 2012. It states:

The State network companies are mandated to plan their developments in a safe efficient and economic manner. They are also required to address and mitigate human, environmental and landscape impacts, in delivering the best possible engineering solutions.

I am sorry to say it but EirGrid still has a long way to go to convince me and local communities of its commitment to those principles. The 2012 policy also refers to the importance of best available knowledge and informed engagement on the impact and cost of different engineering solutions. I agree fully with the statement, as we all do. However, I do not believe this has genuinely been taken on board by EirGrid. In order for this project to be delivered while upholding this policy, we need further information and we need EirGrid to listen.

I welcome the commitment given by the Minister to publish an independent analysis of international developments with respect to the relative cost differences, technologies and engineering solutions of overhead and underground technologies, fully integrated in an all-island electricity system. I also thank him for his engagement to date. Within one day of the decision being made, he agreed to meet and engage with local community groups. The analysis to which he agreed will highlight the technological and cost changes that have occurred internationally since the project was produced almost ten years ago. This plan has caused devastation in counties Meath, Cavan and Monaghan and people in these areas must be listened to.

As we have heard, the proposed North-South interconnector is a critical link in the all-island single electricity market. The effectiveness of this market is limited because of the existence of only one high capacity interconnector between the electricity systems of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Building the interconnector will further integrate the two systems such that greater efficiencies are realised from the single electricity market. This will ultimately benefit all electricity consumers across the entire island.

The interconnector has received planning permission for the construction of overhead electricity transmission lines. However, there exists a strong view that the transmission lines instead should be built underground. It is clear from a wide variety of studies, however, that undergrounding the project would have significant cost and technical implications. The evidence available from projects around the world, which was summarised in the 2012 international expert commission report, in evidence given to a recent An Bord Pleanála oral hearing and elsewhere, is that undergrounding costs are between three and ten times those of the equivalent overhead project. The 2012 report remains relevant.

On the technical side, the findings indicate that to underground the interconnector, direct current transmission lines would be necessary. These would have to be introduced in the existing alternating current meshed grid system. However, doing so would reduce the usefulness of the whole system.

For international context, it is important to note that fully 98% of on land high voltage electricity transmission networks in Europe are of alternating current overhead line construction. In addition, there are already two high voltage overhead lines in Ireland linking Moneypoint in west County Clare to the east coast. For the next ten years, overhead lines will remain the settled technology across Europe, with more than 27,000 km of high voltage alternating current overhead lines planned. In that context, it is clear that what is being proposed here is not unusual.

The interconnector is of critical importance to our ongoing positive relationships with authorities in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Further delays to the development of the project will increase security of supply risks to Northern Ireland in the immediate post-2020 timeframe. Owing to our great reliance on the United Kingdom for the import of the majority of our energy, it is self-evident that energy must continue to be a key focus of our Brexit engagements. Passing the proposed motion would be of significant concern given the express support of the Northern Ireland and UK authorities for the interconnector in the context of the single electricity market.

Furthermore, to reiterate a point made by the Minister, the bilateral relationship with the United Kingdom in energy cannot be viewed in isolation. We must consider the implications of any potential impacts a change in our energy relationships, perceived or otherwise, could have on other sectors. It is, therefore, critical in the context of Brexit that we maintain a close and positive relationship with the United Kingdom across all sectors. The proposed amendment strikes a reasonable balance between the need to ensure certainty for the project and providing the updated analysis the affected communities seek.

Speaking on the Order of Business several weeks ago, Deputy Cassells referred to a speech I gave at EirGrid. During the question and answer session after my speech, I raised concerns expressed by local communities, my ministerial colleagues, and Opposition Deputies and Senators about the information and costings provided and their desire to have the line constructed underground. I appreciate Deputy Cassells may not have been aware of this from the speech which was published online. Richard Curran hosted the question and answer session where I was joined by the chief executive of EirGrid. I raised the concerns I had been hearing from colleagues in the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party. Some years ago, a meeting of my parliamentary party passed a motion on this important project and its impact on counties Cavan, Monaghan and Meath.

It would have been good if the Minister had included those concerns in his speech to EirGrid.

Is Deputy Thomas Byrne substituting for Deputy Dooley?

Yes, I will wrap up the debate. I thank my party colleagues for agreeing to support the motion. I also thank colleagues from other parties who supported the motion. When this debate concludes the will of the Dáil will become exceedingly clear. Should the motion be passed, the Government will have no option but to implement its terms and accept what the representatives of the people in Dáil Éireann have said by commissioning an expert industry analysis to examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector.

The project was conceived more than ten years ago when the technology available now was not available. The Ministers of State, Deputies McEntee, English and Regina Doherty, have spoken at public meetings throughout County Meath about technological developments in this area. The technology has changed.

I spoke about the same technology in 2007.

It was not available in 2007. The Minister of State was a great advocate for undergrounding the pylons when he was in opposition.

I adopted exactly the same line today. The Deputy should not try to change my words.

I have attended virtually every meeting, both in government and opposition, and took the flak when my party was in government and sometimes when we were in opposition. I have always worked to achieve the will of the people on this issue, which is the sensible solution. Let us consider the time that has been wasted on this project, which was conceived as a means of having a secure electricity supply because there had been terrorist attacks on the electricity network at the time. The small interconnector in place at that time was not working properly and it was proposed to have a full interconnector between both parts of the island.

Fianna Fáil supports the creation of a North-South electricity connection, whether to buttress our supply or to help our friends in the North of Ireland. This is crucial for us and the island of Ireland. It is important, not only in a technical and electrical sense but also to bring together both parts of the country. While we support a North-South interconnector unequivocally, we do not support blindly erecting pylons in open countryside in some of the most well known heritage areas or beside homes. We do not support blighting the countryside when we are dependent on tourism and when such a large number of people live in rural areas. We must move with the times and recognise that the undergrounding of electricity lines is starting all over the world. Electricity companies realise that the costs of delay are substantial, as we have seen here. Ten years ago, who would have thought the Dáil would be debating this issue and the project would still not have commenced? I would have been shocked ten years ago if I had been told this would happen because EirGrid informed us in public documents at that time that the South of Ireland would have electricity supply problems in 2011 or 2012 if the project was not approved. We are five years on from 2012 and we have not seen negative effects on the electricity network as a result of the delay in installing the line. I accept, however, that problems have arisen in the North of Ireland.

We must take into account the acknowledgement by the An Bord Pleanála inspector that it is possible to put the line underground. The inspector also suggested to the board of An Bord Pleanála that it commission a specific independent study on undergrounding the project. The board's decision not to do so does not mean the Oireachtas should not do it. On the contrary, we should commission a study. The motion seeks to do nothing more than to put in place something the community is asking for and an independent An Bord Pleanála inspector has suggested could be worthwhile. While An Bord Pleanála can probably legitimately, as a planning authority, decide on the merits of a particular planning application, the Dáil is a public authority as opposed to a planning authority and we decide what happens in this country. If an option is available, it needs to be fully explored, which is what the motion seeks to achieve in pursuing the will of the people.

It is essential that the Government take cognisance of and acts on the motion if it is passed. Fianna Fáil views it as a high priority in terms of our interactions with Fine Gael on how the Dáil operates. The Government will have to deal with this and I want to clearly convey this message to the Minister and the Minister of State. This view is not confined to Fianna Fáil Deputies. It seems that regardless of who is appointed Minister with responsibility for energy, his or her position is always that we do not have a choice in the matter. There is a choice and an An Bord Pleanála inspector opened the door to this choice by showing, in an independent way, that this can be done.

Deputies cannot say one thing in opposition and do another thing when in government. That is one of the biggest lessons I learned arising out of the economic crisis. Fianna Fáil in opposition is putting forward proposals that it is prepared to stand over 100% when it gets into government. It is to be hoped we will get into government at some point. We often do not support Bills put forward by other parties not out of disrespect to them or because we do not want to support them but because we have taken a decision that if to do so would not be credible in government, we cannot support it in opposition. The same applies in this regard.

This is something that we would do if we were in government. It is a simple measure. We need to get the independent study done and show that this can be done. We cannot have the naysayers in officialdom saying it cannot be done and that we should ignore the will of the people, such that, as in Sassoon's poem, they can toddle home safely and die in bed like the generals in the war. They do not have to live beside or suffer the effects of these pylons every day, all the while knowing that they can be put underground along with other utilities and away from everybody. We will welcome that line being put underground. Unlike a former north County Dublin Dáil colleague of the Ministers of State, Deputies English, McEntee and Kyne, I will not be part of any campaign to stop a line going underground. We already have a line underground in south county Meath, in respect of which there was community buy-in. It has proven highly successful. It is important to point out that EirGrid's engagement with the community in regard to that line was very good. If, by applying political pressure and so on, we can get EirGrid past the stage of adhering to what it wants to do, in my experience EirGrid will be good to deal with. It is, after all, a State body. Our only disagreement with EirGrid is that we do not believe this line should go overground. We want it underground. It seems, subject to the vote on Thursday, that Dáil Éireann will also agree with this. The Government will then have to act on it. I know that in the discussions our parties have on the ongoing arrangements, this will be a feature.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 16 February 2017.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.45 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 15 February 2017.