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NIE job security vow by firm’s new Irish owner

There is “no question” of redundancies in Northern Ireland Electricity after it was snapped up in a £1bn deal, the chief executive of its new Irish owner has vowed.

The long-expected purchase of the transmission and distribution side of NIE by Irish Government-owned company Electricity Supply Board (ESB) was unveiled yesterday.

NIE, which is in charge of transmission and distribution of power and employs 1,300 people, will remain a separate company under the deal.

But there are fears there could be job cuts.

TUV leader Jim Allister said: “In consequence of this deal I fear that when a choice arises between cutting jobs in the north or the south, or when a decision has to be made between an investment in Belfast or Dublin, Northern Ireland will be the loser.”

But ESB head Padraig McManus said: “There is no question of redundancies and this has been confirmed by me to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and to the regulatory authorities. ESB has also committed to a very large capital expenditure programme. The Northern Ireland operation will run the same as before and we hope to persuade the management to remain also.”

Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey also said he was opposed to the deal and claimed a “strategic asset” of Northern Ireland had been nationalised by the Irish state.

“We have a number of concerns and I am not comforted by guarantees that there will be no jobs cuts. ESB is a public body which is dependent to a large extent on political decisions so I’m not sure what the reach of those guarantees while be. Guarantees are easy to give but harder to keep.”

Antoinette McKeown, chief executive of the Consumer Council, gave the deal a cautious welcome. “The Consumer Council recognises that ESB’s experience and technical expertise in the energy industry — and the fact that one company will be co-ordinating the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland network — could bring benefits for electricity consumers in Northern Ireland, including efficiencies, which could in turn bring lower costs for the end user and an increase in renewable energy generation.”

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie also applauded the deal as a “logical move”. “It is good news for customers across the island as it will allow the power networks north and south to be operated as a single network. This will allow the network to be managed more efficiently and lower the costs that are passed through to electricity customers.”

Sinn Fein economy spokesman Mitchel McLaughlin said: “It will assist in all-Ireland harmonisation and should deliver efficiencies through elimination of duplication of resources resulting in lower energy prices to consumers.”

Federation of Small Businesses policy chair Wilfred Mitchell said: “We are hopeful this deal has the potential to create greater efficiencies in the supply network that could help lower consumer costs.”

NIE Energy, which deals with billing, emphasised it was a separate company and not part of the deal.

Questions and answers

When did the purchase of NIE happen?

The deal was done on Tuesday night and announced to the London Stock Exchange yesterday morning as Viridian is one of the few Northern Ireland companies to be listed on the Stock Exchange. But the sale |has been on the cards for some time and in May Viridian, owned by investment bank Arcapita, admitted that Press speculation of a sale to ESB was well-founded.

Will people in Northern Ireland lose their jobs?

ESB has stressed no jobs will be cut. NIE employs 1,300 people in Northern Ireland and despite what seems to outsiders like a dramatic development, many inside the company see it as “business as usual”.

Will NIE have a new name?

No — ESB and Viridian have said that NIE will continue to operate as a separate business with its own identity.

Will electricity prices go up as a result?

Time will tell but consumers should not fear major increases. NIE agrees charges for customers with the Utility Regulator. That charge is set until 2012 but can be varied. Any changes which NIE wishes to make are scrutinised by the regulator.