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Electricity takeover row: Unionists accused of political meddling

Unionist leaders have been accused of politically-driven interference after they wrote to the Irish government objecting to its electricity provider buying NIE.

The protest over the £1bn deal came from First Minister Peter Robinson and UUP leader Sir Reg Empey in a letter to Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

They claimed ESB’s purchase had major political implications, and said it amounted to the purchase of “a key component of our national infrastructure”.

Ulster Unionist leadership candidate Tom Elliott backed their comments, claiming Northern Ireland’s commercial sector should not be subjected to a “constitutionally invasive deal”.

But a source from the Viridian Group, which owns Northern Ireland Electricity, insistd the company's identity would be protected.

The source said: “Following the completion of the sale between ESB and the Arcapita Bank-owned Viridian Group, NIE, the electricity network company, will continue to operate as a stand-alone business under the NIE brand and identity.

“The company will continue to operate under the licence set out by DETI and will remain a regulated company monitored by the Northern Ireland Utility Regulator.”

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Last night Alban Maginness, who chairs the enterprise committee at Stormont, accused Mr Robinson and Mr Empey of political meddling.

“I think we should keep politics out of what is a business matter,” the SDLP MLA said.

“It’s a commercial matter. ESB purchasing the grid will obviously bring investment, and I think that is very important for upgrading and developing the grid.”

Mr Empey and Mr Robinson indicated they had serious concerns over the issue.

Their letter — dated July 30 — added: “We firmly believe that the two networks, north and south, can operate successfully together and bring economies and efficiencies but it is entirely inappropriate, while ESB remains an Irish state asset, and beyond the reach of any private intervention, for it to acquire the Northern Ireland grid.

“I am sure you will appreciate the political outcry that would have emerged if the Northern Ireland Executive, or the UK Govern

ment, sought to acquire the entire network of the Republic of Ireland.”

Meanwhile, Mr Elliott said he had been monitoring the issue and shared the concerns of the

unionist leaders.

“I'm just not prepared to have the Northern Ireland commercial sector subjected either to that sort of constitutionally invasive deal,” he said.

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