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Volume 972: debated on Thursday 25 October 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what further discussions he has had with interested bodies about the continued use of coal in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Commerce maintains regular contact with the National Coal Board, the Northern Ireland coal importers' association and other interested bodies. In discussions which have taken place since the Government's statement of 23 July on energy policy in Northern Ireland, both the Coal Board and the Northern Ireland coal trade have assured the Department that all necessary steps are being taken to ensure that any increase in demand for coal from the Province will be met.

In the light of what the Minister said, it is not a scandal to hear that the Northern Ireland energy market has been supplemented by the largest ever consignment of American coal at a time when, as reported today on the tape, British miners have produced an extra 1 million tons during the past six months? If we are to exhort the British miners to produce more coal and engage in greater productivity efforts, we must secure the markets and be able to use British coal in Northern Ireland rather than the American coal which was imported recently.

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. If he were able to persuade the National Coal Board to produce more coal for Northern Ireland we would be able to fulfil all our obligations by importations from Great Britain. The fact remains that in this instance the NCB, which supplies nearly all the coal required for the Province, was unable to make available the tonnages required and a small amount of coal from the United States was imported. I would further suggest that it is vitally important for me to ensure that coal consumers in the Province have all that is required before the winter.

Does not the Minister agree that a policy of generating electricity in the Province based solely upon oil as the generating agent is holding Northern Ireland's economic future to hostage? Will the hon. Gentleman therefore initiate discussions to ensure that phases three and four of the Kilroot power station are dual-fired, with coal and oil, so that in future we shall be able to take advantage of the comparative cheapness of coal as compared with oil?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that those discussions have already taken place and that a review of the possibility of having coal firing for stages three and four of the Kilroot power station is well under way. I expect to have a report within a matter of weeks.

Since the United States Government have put an embargo on arms to the RUC, should not the hon. Gentleman put an embargo on American coal and ensure that we get British coal in Northern Ireland? The hon. Gentleman should play them at their own game.

I suggest that the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is a matter for my right hon. Friend. Secondly, I must insist on obtaining coal for the people in the Province from whatever sources I can to ensure that their demand is legitimately met.

If, as has been suggested, the NCB has increased its output, is the Minister confident that Northern Ireland is getting its fair share of that increased output? If the Government cannot ensure that the NCB meets its obligations in this respect, how does he expect us to make it do so?

The hon. Gentleman will surely be aware that after last year's protracted cold winter, stocks of coal have been at an all-time low. It is, therefore, inevitable that a long period of buildup is required. With regard to Northern Ireland, we are now satisfied that we shall have adequate stocks for meeting the winter.