Kalashnikov bullets through the post and death threats against contractors. It is easy to dismiss these risks as issues that only affect investors in emerging markets.
But an ongoing campaign of terror against the owner and operator of the 54MW Slieve Rushen wind farm in Northern Ireland shows that it can happen anywhere. Of course, we are well aware that Northern Ireland’s recent history has been tarnished by the Troubles, the violent battles between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists in the second half of the 20th century. But it does not explain or justify threats against wind farm operators.
In this case, there have been calls for the investors in the scheme to do more to quell the tensions with the extremists making these threats but, to us, that is victim-blaming. We see little that the owners of Slieve Rushen can do to realistically solve this problem.
Here is the background. Irish businessman and former billionaire Sean Quinn developed Slieve Rushen and commissioned it in 1994. Quinn was the Republic of Ireland’s richest man in 2008 but was declared bankrupt in 2011, and his Quinn Group sold the wind farm to renewable energy investor Platina Partners for £100m in 2014. Platina bought the wind farm in the knowledge that threats were being made against Quinn’s former businesses.
The project is being operated by Vestas and, in February, staff from the Danish company received bullets through the post and death threats warning them to keep away from the wind farm. And then, this month, contractor East Cork Crane Hire has been forced to pull out of maintenance work on an eight-year-old substation at the scheme after it received a phone call threatening its workers and its equipment. Platina has put this work on hold.
To an outsider, the reasons for the threats can be tough to fathom.
However, it appears they are being made by extremists who are angry that Quinn lost control of his businesses after making a disastrous bet on shares in Anglo Irish Bank shortly before its collapse, and want the assets returned to him. In 2011, ownership of Quinn’s manufacturing business passed to Quinn Industrial Holdings, where management has also received death threats.
The problems at Slieve Rushen are, therefore, not just to do with the fact that the scheme is in foreign ownership, but rather that it is in ‘anyone other than Sean Quinn’ ownership.
For his part, Quinn has said that the threats and attacks should stop because they are not in his interests and intimidatory to the community in Country Fermanagh, where the scheme is located.
But Quinn has also called on Platina and Vestas to “play their part” and “do more to address the unease and tension in the area”. To us, this is problematic.
What exactly does Quinn think Platina and Vestas have done to fan tensions? They have, respectively, bought and operated a wind farm. They do this in countless locations around the world, and they do not need a 24-hour security presence at any of their other schemes. They cannot be held to blame for the extreme reaction of a hostile minority, and they can’t do the only thing that would satisfy the extremists: become Sean Quinn.
Of course, if Quinn wanted to diffuse tensions then he could. He could raise the cash needed to buy back Slieve Rushen at a price that Platina finds acceptable. That is it.
We agree that wind companies should look to foster good relations with local communities in which they operate, but death threats go far beyond reasonable objections. However, it is a useful reminder to investors that threats like this can come in developed markets too. The tricky part is dealing with them.
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