Power row: DUP’s top two split over Republic’s bid to buy NIE
The controversy over the sale of Northern Ireland Electricity to the Irish government gathered momentum last night as an embarrassing gulf between the positions of the DUP’s top two politicians was exposed.
An internal split in public positions was revealed after party leader Peter Robinson sent a ‘hands off’ warning to Dublin over the £1bn deal, while at the same time Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster was lauding the venture and praising the Republic’s semi-state provider ESB.
Mr Robinson has now been accused of leaving Mrs Foster, widely tipped as a possible successor as party leader, “high and dry” by embroiling her in the row.
In a desperate attempt to limit damage, the Enterprise Minister claimed she had been “politically uncomfortable” over the Republic’s attempt to buy NIE — despite her positive ministerial role in promoting the deal. She explained her pro-deal stance was due to commercial and departmental considerations.
The DUP leader, however, sent a joint letter with Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey, effectively telling Taoiseach Brian Cowen to back off over ESB’s £1bn bid to buy NIE.
Some months ago Enterprise Minister Foster said she had received assurances from ESB including maintaining the identity of Northern Ireland’s power network. She welcomed ESB’s commitment to a significant strengthening of the grid infrastructure in Northern Ireland.
Insisting she would keep a close watch on developments, the Exec
utive minister also said ESB had a good investment track record and believed there were “real synergies” between both companies.
Ms Foster has attempted to play down any gulf between her and her party leader by stating that she had harboured doubts over the sale all along, despite her positive public statements.
She said: “My concerns about the proposed acquisition of NIE by ESB are well documented. Indeed, in the early summer I had discussions with both ESB and the Energy Minister in the Republic of Ireland where these concerns were outlined.
“I received assurances from both a commercial and departmental perspective. However, I remained uncomfortable at a political level. I felt this was best communicated through a political channel, hence the joint letter from my party leader and the current leader of the UUP.
“It should be noted that this is a commercial decision outside of government. I continue to keep a close watch on this situation.”
The SDLP's Alban Maginness, chairman of the Stormont committee which monitors Ms Foster's department, said he believed she had been previously satisfied with the sale.
“The minister's position is unenviable in so far as this matter has been prompted by her party leader,” Mr Maginness added.
And Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister argued Ms Foster was being left high and dry by her party and both Mr Robinson and Ms Foster could not be right.
Arguing Ms Foster should consider resigning, he said: “(Her) stance is totally incompatible with that now properly taken by her party leader, so the question is — will she withdraw her support?”