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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