Narrow Water Bridge: “Yet when confronted with a real initiative that would help boost trade, we say no…”

By David McCann

Just under a month ago, politicians in Stormont and the Dáil dealt a hammer blow to the Narrow Water bridge scheme. Citing escalating costs the former Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, refused to pledge more funds to make up the £10 million shortfall that would be needed to build the bridge. This decision by politicians on both sides of the border to halt this vitally important project is a prime example of short sighted policy making.

Let’s take the respective statements by both ministers about the project. In an interview with the Irish News, Sammy Wilson, argued that it would be ‘criminal’ to write a blank cheque, while his counterpart in Dublin, Leo Varadkar, stated that the current priority should be on maintaining current infrastructure. Here in lies the problem, the focus of both men is on what suits the budget figures at present with next to no thought about what will generate growth in future.

The island of Ireland has been gifted a wonderful opportunity at a time of harsh austerity to embark upon a project that would be predominantly funded by the European Union and could overtime yield huge economic benefits to thousands of people in the South Down-Louth area. Local chambers of commerce have estimated that more than two hundred jobs would be created initially if the project went ahead. That’s not to mention the much needed boost that would be given to the construction industry which since 2008 has hemorrhaged thousands of jobs across Ireland.

However there is a wider problem that has not been properly acknowledged since the economic crisis began in 2008 and that is the neglect of North-South projects. Whether it’s the A5 in County Tyrone or the cuts in funding to the Enterprise service to Dublin there seems to be an increasingly worrying trend that joint initiatives are falling by the way side.

When we face falling tax revenues it is all too easy to turn inward and shut the door to the outside world. We forget that despite the border that exists on this island there is still a remarkable amount of cross-border trading that goes on between the two states.

I cannot pick up a newspaper or watch a TV programme without hearing a politician say their focus is on improving Northern Ireland’s ailing economy. Yet when confronted with a real initiative that would help boost trade with one of our biggest trading partner’s senior ministers in the executive say no. We cannot afford to adopt a provincial mentality when it comes to solving our economic problems. Our politicians need to ask what message this sends to international investors who would like to set up a business here.

Ever since partition the government of this province has at times sought a distanced relationship with our neighbour. Yet even in the most politically hostile moments ministers always approved of joint projects which were economically beneficial to both parts of the island. We do not live in isolation, nor should we seek to. We should get on with the job and build this bridge. Sammy Wilson ruled out any more money for this bridge, I would urge his successor, Simon Hamilton, to please think again.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in North-South relations at the University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs

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  • iluvni

    That’s me convinced.
    Sign that blank cheque, Mr Hamilton

  • cynic2

    Great. Let us now see the business case with the revised costs and see where this huge benefit derives then we can be sure its not just an SDLP electoral bribe at our expense

  • Neil

    Great. Let us now see the business case with the revised costs and see where this huge benefit derives then we can be sure its not just an SDLP electoral bribe at our expense

    Isn’t the whole point that Sammy should have provided precisely that before nixing the project based on our current budget?

  • Mick Fealty

    In his defence, Sammy was very careful to ensure that any budget overruns would fall to Louth County Council who commissioned the original estimates for the cost of building it.

  • Canisp

    “Just under a month ago, politicians in Stormont and the Dáil dealt a hammer blow to the Narrow Water bridge scheme. Citing escalating costs the former Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, refused to pledge more funds to make up the £10 million shortfall that would be needed to build the bridge.”

    The NI Exec was already picking up 3/4s of the non-EU cost, and the lowest tender was 50% more than Louth CC’s estimate. Seriously, what else could he do?

    “Local chambers of commerce have estimated that more than two hundred jobs would be created initially if the project went ahead.”

    (EUR 26,000,000 + VAT)/200 = 130k per job. Hold me back!

    “Yet when confronted with a real initiative that would help boost trade with one of our biggest trading partner’s senior ministers in the executive say no.”

    This bridge is 5 miles from Newry, FFS, with its expensively built motorway, dual carriageways, two bypasses, etc. If Carlingford and Omeath suffer from poor transport links, there are more direct links to the M1 between Newry and Dundalk available for upgrade than this “bridge to nowhere”.

    “David McCann is a PhD researcher”

    So a student then. Seriously, how is this news- or even blogworthy?

  • Turgon

    In many ways this blog and the Narrow Water Bridge sums up much of what is wrong with some North-Southery. It starts from a reasonable comment that North South trade is important to our economy and then goes off on a tangent.

    The tangent is that the case for a bridge appears economically relatively weak. It certainly seems weaker than the economic case for other infrastructure projects. It is promoted not centrally because of its economic benefits but because it is North-South and the economic case is then made from the article of faith that north-south almost has to be a good idea.

    The next problem is that if built it would continue the over reliance of the whole island on road transport and the over reliance of the island’s whole economy on construction.

    Ironically the most relevant criticism McCann makes is that of the woeful state of the Belfast – Dublin train line. Improving that would be no controversial HS2 typed project: it would bring rail transport into the twentieth century. It is almost unbelievable that it takes a train longer than a car to get from Dublin to Belfast.

    Where infrastructure monies would be best spent are on more prosaic projects most of which are less exciting and to be fair happen not to be North South but might well help North South trade. A proper motorway between Belfast and Londonderry is not technically a north south project but would help access to Donegal greatly. A proper train line would also be a vast help.

  • JR

    To develop tourism in an area you need to invest. The carlingford lough area has alot of potentential which could be unlocked with a bit of investment. This is also a project which would bring european money directly into newry and mourne. The money spent on materials, machine hire, wages etc all filters through to local buisness and on through the local economy. Not to mention the boost in tourist trade bringing a boost to the hotels, pubs and resturrants of south down and north Louth. Also believe it or not a 12 mile round trip through a city centre (yes newry is technically a city) is enough to put people off that scenic drive/ walk/ cycle.

  • Drumlins Rock

    JR, your mention of tourism brings up a rarely mentioned element of this proposal, I personally think it would be a massive blot of one of the most senic costal views in Ireland North or South, the old case of destroying what the tourists come to see by catering for the tourists and indirectly driving them away!

  • tacapall

    Lets call a spade a spade, unionism no more wants a man made link/bridge/north south bodies than it wants to share power with nationalists. The objections from Sammy to going the extra mile is as flawed as his judgement about climate change. Of course the British side of the project should pay a great deal more than the Irish side after all who claims ownership of the sea bed below Carlingford lough, who claims revenue from those who use the lough to earn a living. Why not even a mention of attracting private investment like a toll bridge.

  • JR

    DR,
    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  • IJP

    The article simply doesn’t make the case it sets out to make.

    Or, put another way, it assumes that North/South projects make economic sense. I would suggest that it is easier to suggest the contrary.

    The Narrow Water Bridge would be a nice boost for tourism, but here’s the thing: you cannot build a functioning economy on a tourism industry. The richest countries in Europe – Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and so on have no significant tourist industry. Tourism is a low value-added industry.

    As for the A5, I’m a roads nut but the fact is the A26 (Ballymena-Ballymoney and Lisburn-Antrim), A6 (Moneynick and Toome-Castledawson and Dungiven Bypass), A3 (Portadown-Armagh) and A31 (Magherafelt Bypass) are *all* more important, even on a cross-border basis. That is leaving aside those with no cross-border aspect at all which are still more important (eg A12 Westlink Yorkgate lights removal). Why on earth anyone would prioritise Derry-Aughnacloy when the road is not upgraded south of the border is beyond me.

    There is also the straightforward point that the two economies have significantly diverged. And then there is the East-West aspect – ferry routes and such like also need more competition. Against all that, this article just doesn’t add up when looked at genuinely objectively.

  • Morpheus

    The way I see it, if it’s pulled then it’s pulled but at least it has been pulled for a transparent, legitimate reason and not some politician jumping up and down on their tiptoes shouting “eeewe, Ireland’s touching us” like the A5 project.

  • tacapall

    “but at least it has been pulled for a transparent, legitimate reason and not some politician jumping up and down on their tiptoes shouting “eeewe, Ireland’s touching us” like the A5 project”

    Unfortunately that is the case Morpheus and regardless what people say the tourism industry is all some people and some areas here have at making a living and attracting investment, the Falls Road and West Belfast being a prime example. There is no reason other than petty point scoring and one-upmanship why this project cannot get off the ground using British, Irish, EU and private funding.

  • Old Mortality

    JR
    ‘The carlingford lough area has alot of potentential which could be unlocked with a bit of investment.’

    I think what you’re really trying to say is that Brussels is prepared to hand over a pile of money so let’s grab it. Sure the bridge can’t to do any harm even if there isn’t much call for it.

  • Mick Fealty

    IJP, I think the underlying criticism implied here is less of Sammy and just as much of Leo Veradkar for not promising to make up the shortfall… The EU grant was a given.

    Why not use it to open up new access to the Mournes and the Cooley Peninsula? It’s not as though OFMdFM have a whole bunch of alternatives…

    Better than having your ministers waste it in paying them fines http://url.ie/ike4 out of the current account because they cannot bear to talk to each other in order to get some stuff done… http://url.ie/ike4

  • Turgon

    I think it is unfair to characterise opposition from unionists as politically motivated. It is just that this bridge makes little or no sense.

    There are, however, aspects of North Southery which would be an excellent idea. I remember Andy Pollak had a thread on it ages ago. An excellent idea would be having a north south and east west pan British Isles mobile phone system. Although roaming charges have been reduced it would make sense to have a British Isles phone network. Almost all the complains exist in both jurisdictions. The fact that in various places near the border you change networks (and bizarrely on Portstewart promenade) is foolish and expensive. In terms of north south infrastructure and trade that would make a vast amount more sense and be of more relevance than the Narrow Water Bridge.

    On the subject of bringing investment into an area I think we need to look at things in a more realistic and pragmatic fashion. Getting jobs into various areas outside Belfast is very difficult and those private sector companies which come often leave shortly after the grants dry up. A better strategy might be to enable people to work in the east of Northern Ireland yet commute with ease back to their homes in the likes of the west. A proper Belfast Londonderry train which took an hour or less (remember it is only 70 miles) would allow people to do that. If we took such seriously one could even have a train service to Enniskillen and Omagh allowing the same and that could indeed connect to cross border things if we enlarged our vision on the whole island of non road transport. We should look across the water where people often commute 50 plus miles to work in London and think nothing of it. Trying to get jobs to people in the likes of Londonderry has always proved difficult. Getting people from (for example) Londonderry to jobs might be more sustainable in the long term.

  • Gopher

    When railways pass within a stones throw of The City, The International {sic} and Eglington and none are serviced with a station I cant really get worked up spending money on something I will use perhaps once in my life.

    Tourism without lengthening the City runway and scrapping air passenger Duty (Bulk of tourists will be from UK) are the greatest limiting factor not bridges in South Down.

    As for foreign tourists and domestic long haul tourism the point of entry and exit is now Dublin which is testament to how crap the executive are.

  • Drumlins Rock

    maybe they could divert the un neede Maze money to the bridge…..

    Turgon has alot of good points, Danny Kennedy is seriously considering extending the rail network back to Armagh city, most of the track is intact, next stop after there is Monaghan, an important bus hub which would help connect much of the west of ireland to Belfast. That would be better cross-border development.

  • Gopher

    Great another City {sic} in Ireland not connected to an airport by rail.

  • BluesJazz

    South Down badly needs an upgraded road connection to Belfast. It’s nowhere near the speed commuter connections from North Antrim or North Down.
    There’s no rail link and the bus service is shite.
    1.5 hours minimum commute. 20 miles.

    The MP for the area (it was Enoch Powell until recently?) is MIA and I don’t know any of the assembly members, though John McAllister may be one.

    I was going to google them but then, that sort of defeats the point.

  • BluesJazz

    Just checked- Jim Shannon is the MP. I’ve no idea who he is. I’ve never heard of any of the Stormont councillors apart from John McAllister and Katrina Ruane, who used to be in SF. They obviously don’t live in the constituency,or if they do, have second homes in Belfast.

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    Ignorance is bliss.

  • Gopher

    To be fair to politicians in the Down and Strangford and South Armagh area they have put up Ulster Scots street names and renamed a play park

  • Greenflag

    “I think it is unfair to characterise opposition from unionists as politically motivated. I”

    Turgon’s probably right . Here’s a question . If the shortfall is 10 million what would the bridge actually cost ? How much of that would be EU funding ? How much would taxpayers North & South have to pay . What would be the return on the investment ? How much would it save local populations both sides in terms of drive time etc .

    It’s just numbers . If they are anyway positive or break even over a 10 year time span then the project would be worth it . Both Northern Ireland and the Republic being on the EU periphery can do with any and all infrastructural funding they can get .

    There may be better ways to spend such funding as some posts have suggested but presumably this project is in the headlines because of the border aspect . It could also be viewed as a local economic stimulus which could spin off some economic development on both sides .

  • “Just checked- Jim Shannon is the MP [for South Down]”

    BluesJazz, the constituency has had an SDLP MP since 1987; firstly it was Eddie McGrady, currently it is Margaret Ritchie.

  • Los Lobos

    However there is a wider problem that has not been properly acknowledged since the economic crisis began in 2008 and that is the neglect of North-South projects. Whether it’s the A5 in County Tyrone or the cuts in funding to the Enterprise service to Dublin there seems to be an increasingly worrying trend that joint initiatives are falling by the way side.” What part of the word illegal does Mr Mc Cann not understand regarding the A5? This project was not ‘neglected’, if anything the opposite is the case! It was pushed as hard as it could be, so hard in fact that land owners had their farms illegally vested and in some cases ruined by over zealous contractors who were full sure that the illegal project would go ahead. Mr Mc Cann would do well to look at the judgement of the A5 case before making comments that distort the reality of this cross border project.

  • Delphin

    All part of the rich legacy of Mr Connor Murphy, Los Lobos. Surely what is needed is a decent road from Belfast to Derry. This would then link Derry into the Irish motorway network via the M1/A1. An updated Belfast/Dublin train service would also be an excellent idea.
    I would be a fan of the Narrow Water Bridge. It is not that expensive. The benefits for the area would be on par with those for the Larne Line upgrade, costing £120 million, but that goes to Sammy’s constituency.
    I believe the reason for the bridge project coming in so much over budget may have been that the bridge had to open to allow tall ships in the City of Newry! This would have added considerable complexity and cost. Maybe the project should be redesigned in line with a more modest budget.

  • alex gray

    The Narrow Water bridge is yet anoter white elephant economic project espoused by Sinn Fein and brought in by stealth through priorities lists on EU funded priogrammes which so often in the past have ended up being adopted, appaear from nowhere are not part of the Exeutive’s economic programme but end up costing us all money. The A5 was a case in point. They are trying it on again with a totally unjustifiable rail link from Galway to Londonderry. The Narrow Water Bridge is a joke with an excellent Belfast- Dublin road just a few miles away.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    A Rail link from Londonderry to Galway?!

    That would be awesome!

  • Morpheus

    The A5 is a very much needed road with the DRDs own figures proving that parts of the Derry-Ballygawley Road already experience double the minimum requirements for a duel-carriageway which would’ve seen this thing built anywhere else in the UK. The people are absolutely SCREAMING out for it to be built. But no, not in Northern Ireland.

    Does anyone actually believe that the DRD, with it’s hundreds of employees and decades of experience in building roads forgot to look into the Habitats Directive? Not one single employee thought of it? Are they that incompetent?

    This UUP Minister took office in 2011 and the judge pulled the plug in April 2013 so he is every bit as culpable as Connor Murphy in the whole sorry affair. For reference have a look at the2011 UUP manifesto (page 19) regarding the A5, it didn’t stand a chance from the day he took office:
    http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/politics/docs/uup/uup_2011-05-05_man.pdf

    How he is still in a job is beyond me.

    As usual, sod the people as long as whatever it is they are doing sticks a finger in the eye of SF.

  • Barnshee

    “The A5 is a very much needed road with the DRDs own figures proving that parts of the Derry-Ballygawley Road already experience double the minimum requirements for a duel-carriageway which would’ve seen this thing built anywhere else in the UK. The people are absolutely SCREAMING out for it to be built. But no, not in Northern Ireland.”

    Pals into insignificance with the A26— the queue for Belfast starts at the Lodge Road roundabout in Coleraine

  • Morpheus

    Palls into insignificance? Absolute rubbish. I don’t even know where the A26 is but it should be a priority as well as the A5 if the same overwhelming demand is there because those who need (note I say need, not want) the A5 pay the same taxes as those who use the A26 and are no less important. I realize that resources are finite but I say again, parts of the road from Derry to Ballygawley more than double the minimum requirements of a duel-carriageway. Other projects with less daily traffic usage have gone ahead (likely after looking into the habitats directive)

    It’s 2013 and, without even talking about the safety aspect, a fricking tractor on the road can cause miles and miles of tailbacks. The very least we should have in Northern Ireland is a 70mph ring-road from Belfast across the north of Lough Neagh to Derry and then back to Belfast again south of Lough Neagh with a joining road between the 2 somewhere in the middle.

  • cynic2

    Forgive me but

    1 the A5 is axed because the Irish cannot afford it and the JR makes it impossible to deliver

    2 the Narrow Water Bridge is axed because Louth Council got their sums wrong and cannot afford it

    and some here blame the Unionists???????

  • cynic2

    “I realize that resources are finite”

    So what spending do we cut to afford this?

  • cynic2


    How he is still in a job is beyond me.”

    He was elected

  • Coll Ciotach

    I would like to see the results of a cost benefit analysis for this bridge, I am sure there is one, however I find it would be difficult to justify this on an economic basis and so I would consider it to be a vanity project.

    Bearing in mind that the north is more closely aligned with, and influenced by, the Dublin economic cycle than the London one, means that the A5, or similar link, is very desirous if you want to open up the north west to the economic power house that is Dublin, despite the current downturn. It is clear that Belfast as a provincial city has not the economic capacity to drive growth beyond its pale of eastern Ulster, a bigger drier, that of Dublin is needed. To get the full benefits we have to shorten the distance between the north west and Dublin.

    Until then the north west will always be in economic doldrums, it is a great pity that improved links between Dublin and Derry did not proceed.

  • Morpheus

    The shelving of the £330m A5 project had nothing to do with the ROI not being able to afford it:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-22063819

    £48m was wasted on consultants, £5.2m on surveys and £2.6m on construction all because there was a breach of The Habitats Directive i.e. the was no appropriate assessment required under the directive.

    Personally I don’t give a crap if the Irish can afford it or not – this road is needed in Northern Ireland, it is needed by the taxpayers of Northern Ireland

  • Turgon

    Morpheus,
    “this road is needed in Northern Ireland”
    Yes and no. The whole road is not needed. However, bits of it certainly are. A dual carriageway between Strabane and Londonderry would make a great deal of sense and almost certainly has the necessary traffic volumes. There have been analyses done somewhere and I think that part was pretty sound. Other bits are much less sound. That in many ways was the problem with the A5 project. It was a grand vision thing, vastly expensive without a strong economic case for the whole project. Individual parts of it, however, had and continue to have a very strong case.

  • IJP

    Mick

    I sort of take that point, but my own in response is you cannot assume North-South projects are vital just because they suit the Nationalist agenda.

    You know me, I’m a crazed roads nut! But I wouldn’t prioritise the Narrow Water link or the A5 (or the A8 for that matter, which is being built.

    Morpheus

    The figures re A5 say nothing of the sort.

    The projects I noted above are all higher traffic volumes (not that that is the only issue).

    I’m in Derry right now – it needs an expressway to east of Dungiven and from Magherafelt’s new bypass to Toome and on to Randalstown. Those would bring it much closer to Belfast and would instantly make it a candidate for economically viable public sector jobs transfers as well as overspill economic investment.

  • Coll Ciotach

    Public sector jobs overspill from Belfast? Were are they? They are not there. The only traffic in public sector jobs is to England as per the vehicle tax office in Coleraine, and that is to be expected as the civil service here is far to large and should/will be pruned back to suit a small region instead of a country. Belfast is a small regional city/large town which has the economic strength to service its own environs, the west needs links to Dublin as Belfast has to drive its economy. Which is why the A5 is an economic necessity for the development of that region of the country.

  • Morpheus

    IJP

    That is extremely poor. You come out with a statement like: “The figures re A5 say nothing of the sort” and I am supposed to take that as gospel? No effort to back it up whatsoever? Let me have a go by quoting the DRDs own figures:

    “Traffic flow levels and carriageway standards, as contained in the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges, recommend, that at the year of opening, the Annual Average Daily Traffic flow for a two lane dual carriageway should lie between a minimum of 11,000 and a maximum of 39,000 vehicles per day.

    2015 estimates from the DRD
    Strabane to Londonderry – 22,200 vehicles per day
    Omagh to Strabane – 16,800 vehicles per day
    Ballygawley to Omagh – 13,200 vehicles per day

    Derry to Strabane is more than double the minimum requirements, Strabane to Omagh is 52% above minimum requirements, Omagh to Ballygawley is 20% above minimum requirements. I’ll not even go into the estimates for 2030 because they are embarrassing, suffice to say that all of the above met the requirements back in 2007.

    Ergo the road is needed, not wanted, needed.

  • cynic2

    “needed”

    Hip operations for grannies are ‘needed’ too. Which should we pay for?

    The traffic from the NW could be easily routed via an upgraded road to Derry from Toome at much less cost but strangely Derryites want their own wee road to Dublin. Why? The journey will only be 25 mins longer and arguably make much more efficient use of the existing M2 especially from Glengornley to Randalstown.

  • cynic2

    Poor old Nationalism The year 2013 is unlucky for some. Sacred cows have been slaughtered right left and center. And after Gerry’s promises that they ‘would put manners’ on all and sundry but now its no to

    * the Shrine
    * the A5 road
    * the Narrow Water Bridge from nowhere to nowhere
    * a United Ireland by 2016
    * police not using plastic bullets any more
    * not allowing ex RUC to get civilian jobs in PSNI

    If one were cynical one might believe that nationalist voters have been conned but that could never be true.

  • cynic2

    “I would like to see the results of a cost benefit analysis for this bridge”

    So would I but strangely there doesn’t seem to be one available. Still its only public money

  • Charles_Gould

    Cynic – stop winding.

    Regarding the A26 this road is now at very heavy levels of traffic and I hope it is upgraded. The section between Glarryford and the turn off to Ballycastle is especially congested and is due to be dualled at some point and I hope it can be progressed as fast as possible.

    It would also be good to do the A26 from Antrim to Banbrodge, allowing North-South traffic to North Antrim and Co Londonderry to bypass Belfast’s already-busy Westlink, and to allow better access to Aldergrove Airport from the South.

    Regarding infrastructure investments, the train to Londonderry from Belfast has experienced enormous increases in usage since new trains and track were added, but this means there is standing room only. What is needed now is *double-tracking* of the Dargan bridge across the Lagan and *double tracking* between Mossley West and Ballymena, to facilitate more frequent services all along the route.

    (Double tracking allows more services because with a single track one has to have passing points and this can in turn cause delays on the down service to hit the up service; there are double tracks on the Bangor and Newry lines).

    If people would like a cross-border investment, then the railway from Portadown could be extended to Armagh City and then to Monaghan.

  • Barnshee

    “What is needed now is *double-tracking* of the Dargan bridge across the Lagan and *double tracking* between Mossley West and Ballymena, to facilitate more frequent services all along the route.”

    There is double tracking between Mossley and Ballymena – its called Antrim–. Really need double tracking between Castle rock and Derry

  • Charles_Gould

    Barnshee, I am not talking about passing loops. Though I agree a passing loop is definitely needed near Castlerock.