Belfast Telegraph

Irish government to sell off stake in NIE's parent firm

By Margaret Canning

The part-privatisation of NIE's Irish parent company is expected to take place next year, the Republic's Energy Minister has said.

Pat Rabbitte told the Dail that the sale of a stake in ESB as an "integrated utility" had been agreed by the Irish government, which is under pressure to sell assets to raise money to meet its commitments to the IMF and EU after the country's bail-out.

The semi-state body paid just over £1bn for NIE, formerly the transmission and distribution sister company of NIE Energy, now Power NI and still owned by Viridian.

Mr Rabbitte said the Irish government would now decide on its next move, including deciding on the size of the stake to be sold.

The sale would be "progressed throughout 2012", he said.

An ESB spokesman said the sale would be of a minority stake and not part of the company. "Government will still have a majority stake in the business in its totality," he said.

"There would be no impact on customers.

"We don't envisage it will have any impact on anyone, north or south."

TUV MLA Jim Allister, who opposed NIE's sale to ESB, welcomed the prospect of a part-sale.

"Anything that diminishes the Dublin State's control of key sectors of our industry has to be advantageous," he said.

But economist John Simpson said he would be "cautious" before welcoming a new shareholder in ESB. "There may now be more pressure to seek profits to satisfy a new shareholder," he said.

SDLP MLA Alban Maginess, chairman of the Northern Ireland Assembly's Enterprise Committee, said he felt the effect of any sale would be "neutral".

"If part of the company is sold off and the State remains as majority shareholder, I don't think that it should impact adversely on its operations either side of the border," he said.

At the time of its purchase of NIE, ESB said it would continue investment in the company. ESB chief executive Padraig McManus said: "ESB is committed to making the capital investment required to match future growth in the economy and to meet the Northern Ireland government's targets in relation to the development of renewable energy."

The IMF has urged the Republic to sell €5m in assets.