Let me say at the outset what a privilege it is to have been appointed as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to the work of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers). She played a very important role and made a significant contribution, and I, for one, fully recognise that. I look forward to working with right hon. and hon. Members across the House to maintain that approach of continued political stability, greater economic prosperity, and safety and security, as part of a bright positive future for Northern Ireland.
I understand that the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), met EirGrid, the electricity system operator across the island of Ireland, to discuss the proposals for a new interconnector. I hope that proposals to deliver a stronger, more secure and more competitive network in Northern Ireland can be progressed quickly.
May I start by welcoming the Secretary of State to his new position and welcoming all his colleagues? I look forward to working with them over the coming months. He will know the benefits that the interconnector would bring, not only to Northern Ireland, but to the Republic of Ireland. Our understanding is that Sinn Féin is one of the biggest objectors to this. Does he agree that that shows its lack of understanding of simple economics?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for warmly welcoming me to my post, and I felt this in a positive way when I was in Belfast on Monday. He raises the issue of the interconnector, as he has done on a number of occasions. This is being considered by the Northern Ireland Planning Appeals Commission—it is a decision for the Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive—but I reiterate that given the significant potential to help to reduce energy costs for Northern Ireland businesses, I would hope to see the project move forward as quickly as possible.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position and his very able partner, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), who has been an outstanding Member of this House. Has the Secretary of State had an opportunity, at this early stage, to make an assessment of the long-term future of the all-Ireland energy market in the light of the referendum result? Will the result alter that market in any way?
Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I certainly recognise the importance of the all-Ireland arrangements for electricity and for gas. In the continued negotiations and discussions on Northern Ireland and the UK being outside the European Union, that will be a core part of the issues we will be taking forward.
I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on their appointments, and thank the previous team for all the work they did for Northern Ireland. On an alternative electricity supply and the renewable heat initiative, the Northern Ireland Audit Office has told us that it may cost our block grant £140 million. Will the Secretary of State ensure that there is an investigation as to what has happened?
Coming into this role, I recognise the issue of costs for electricity and power more generally, and its importance in the context of the Northern Ireland economy. Indeed, this is why I made the points I did about the electricity interconnector. I will look closely at the points the hon. Gentleman makes, and I look forward to discussing this and other issues with him and other colleagues in the months ahead.