HC Deb 09 April 1981 vol 2 cc1102-3
5. Mr. Dunlop

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what are the latest developments in the negotiations for the supply of natural gas to Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Butler)

The possibility of supplying natural gas from the Kinsale field to Northern Ireland is being carefully evaluated in the light of information recently provided by the Department of Energy in Dublin and other considerations.

Mr. Dunlop

In view of the possibility of gas being discovered in both Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone, does the Minister agree that it is foolish to close down the gas installations in Northern Ireland? Will he defer—to use a famous phrase—this final solution of the gas problem until we ascertain whether there is a prospect of gas being discovered and used for the people of Northern Ireland?

For your information, Mr. Speaker, may I say that Mrs. Mathers was a constituent of mine. I have not been able to contact her home because of the vagaries of air travel from Northern Ireland. I intend to do so at the first opportunity.

Mr. Butler

The finding of commercial quantities of natural gas in Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone is still highly problematical and a long time scale is involved, as is the case with the possibility of a supply from the Republic. The Government's policy on the rundown of the town gas industry remains what it was. We believe that planning must go ahead. I hope to be able to make a more positive statement within a very few weeks.

Mr. James A. Dunn

Will the Minister take the opportunity not only to explore the potential for the supply of natural gas from Southern Ireland but to ascertain whether a feasibility study would reveal some potential for the supply of natural gas from the North Sea, the Irish Sea or from the coast of Scotland? Does he agree that, at the end of the day, a dependency on one form of energy is not necessarily an advantage?

Mr. Butler

Other things being equal, I agree with the last part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. We have two licences for exploration, onshore and offshore, in the Province. The Government have made their position clear about any connection with Scotland. There is no change of view on that score.

Mr. Dickens

My hon. Friend has stated that the gas link between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland is under consideration. Is he still taking seriously the possibility of regenerating Northern Ireland employment prospects by continuing to consider either the conversion of the Kilroot power station to coal or the construction of a new coal-fired power station in Northern Ireland, so that, if a gas link is possible between the South and the North, there might equally be an energy link involving electricity generation from the North to the South, thereby providing many jobs in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Butler

The capacity for electricity generation in Northern Ireland is already in excess of demand, taking into account the first phase of Kilroot. Therefore, I see no economic sense in increasing that capacity. Conversion is under consideration but large capital costs are involved.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

In the light of Ulster's experience with electricity connection with the Republic, will the Minister bear in mind that a gas link would be vulnerable to interruption and that natural gas could be relied upon as a basis of industry in Northern Ireland only if there were a supply, as there should be, from the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Butler

That is one of the considerations involved in energy supply from the Republic. We hope that the security situation will have so improved in the coming years that that consideration can be put aside.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Will the Minister reconsider the rundown of the existing gas plants in Northern Ireland until final decisions have been made on whether there is an availability of natural gas? Surely that policy would implement the Prime Minister's promise to level out energy prices within Northern Ireland, when there is surplus coal in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Butler

The hon. Gentleman must recognise that a £10 million subsidy is being paid per annum, which is holding down prices to half of what they should be in economic terms. Secondly, it is most probable that a large part of the distributive network will have to be replaced with a new pipe. We may be talking about almost a different type of fuel.

Mr. Concannon

As energy supply is one of the subjects under consideration by the joint study groups, will the Minister inform the House of the status that the groups findings will have and when they are likely to be reported? Will copies of their findings be available in the Library to hon. Members? Is the hon. Gentleman able to give us any information about the findings of the study groups?

Mr. Butler

I take it that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the study groups of the United Kingdom and the Republic. If these issues are discussed, we shall determine whether it is appropriate to make the discussions public. The House should know that the present discussions are between Northern Ireland and Dublin direct. My officials have been in contact with officials in the Department of Energy in Dublin and, as necessary, there will be ministerial contact.

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