Catching the wind

How the irregular energy supply on Fair Isle can leave you feeling like you're in a "very slow and i

For newcomers to this island there are some things that take just a bit of getting used to; power, for example.

When I arrived in Fair Isle I had, like most people, always enjoyed a reliable and consistent source of electricity. When I woke in the morning I could turn on a light, listen to a CD, heat my porridge in the microwave (though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that method). And if I wanted to stay up all night doing these things, all I needed was the will.

Here things are slight different. Our electricity comes from two sources: diesel-burning generators and wind power. We have two aerogenerators (that’s windmills to the uninitiated) – a 60kw mill and a 100kw. When the wind is sufficient to provide power to all the houses on the island then that is what happens; when the wind drops, the diesel generators take over. There is, however, a gap of between 10 and 30 seconds for the changeover, meaning that some evenings feel rather like being in a very slow and irritating disco, as the lights go on and off every few minutes.

Wind power is by far the preferable option. Not only is it greener, it is also cheaper, and it’s available for 24 hours a day. The diesel generators, on the other hand, are switched off between 11.30pm and 7.30am, meaning that all-night parties are restricted to breezy nights. This is an inconvenience that is quickly adjusted to, and in fact I have come to rather enjoy reading by candlelight.

I have written before that Shetland is a windy place, and so it is. A very windy place. This weekend, like much of the UK, these islands have been battered by severe gales, with winds reaching to almost hurricane force early on Sunday morning. Wind is an abundant, renewable energy source, unlike diesel, which, along with heating oil and gas for cooking, must be shipped into the island in barrels and canisters on an all-too-regular basis.

The first Fair Isle windmill was put up in 1981, making it the earliest such project in the UK. Both the mills and the generators are owned and maintained by the Fair Isle Electricity Company, which is run entirely by islanders. It is a local, community solution to our energy needs. It is unfortunate that, at this time, diesel is still required to power the island for a good proportion of the time, but when another option becomes available I’m sure it will be taken.

Necessity breeds innovation, and it is in places like Fair Isle where necessity is most keenly felt. Perhaps that explains why the move towards renewable energy has been so slow in the UK. You flick the switch and there is light; if you want gas then it will come through a pipe straight to the cooker; power cuts are a rare inconvenience. Why would you want to rock the boat? People are so disconnected from the production of what they consume, whether that be food, goods or power, that they come to see it as almost a kind of magic: beyond their comprehension or concern.

Human beings are incredibly good at ignoring reality. If the weatherman says rain then the umbrella comes out, no matter how blue the sky. And equally, when all the evidence points towards the fact that we must, must, change our attitudes towards energy consumption and waste, it is met with collective shoulder-shrugging and grumbles at increased fuel tax. But if we all wait until no other option is available before we change our bad habits, it will, perhaps, be too late.

Photos by Dave Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.