Northern Ireland’s infrastructure has drawn the prize ticket from the £1bn of new money in the Conservative-DUP deal – securing £400m, or 40% of the entire fund. This has been greeted with criticism elsewhere in the UK, but can be justified on two grounds. Firstly – Northern Ireland arguably has the worst infrastructure of any region in the UK. Only significant external funding will reverse the decades-long under-investment that has caused that. Secondly – the situation is worse still within Northern Ireland, where the lack of infrastructure in the west is particularly staggering. As Maps 1 and 2 show below, almost all of NI’s 60 miles of motorway and 54 train stations are located to the east of the River Bann (the province’s traditional mid-point), with the west left very much the poor relation.
It’s not so much that Northern Ireland has an infrastructure problem – it’s more the case that its western half does.
As these maps illustrate, the 27% of NI’s population that live in the west have been saddled with substandard infrastructure since their railways were decimated in the 1960s (with the promised motorway replacements never transpiring).
This imbalance in transport provision is about much more than travel options, as it also influences our economy and population. Put simply – people, businesses and jobs tend to gravitate towards areas where transport infrastructure is good in preference to areas where it is substandard. Our east-west transport divide is reflected in the regional economic and population imbalance that Northern Ireland also faces. And this in-turn has a self-reinforcing dynamic, as areas with greater population and economic activity tend to justify greater transport investment. The west’s population would almost certainly be larger today if it hadn’t lost its railways in the 1960s (and/or if the promised motorways had actually been delivered). Given its poor infrastructure, the fact that over a quarter of Northern Ireland’s population still lives in the western half of the province is perhaps remarkable.
There is an even more concerning issue that our infrastructure imbalance also points towards. If you overlay NI’s current transport facilities onto a map of the province’s religious demography, it instantly becomes clear that our infrastructure provision is as much a problem of religion as it is economics or regional balance. Whilst any explanation of how this situation arose in the first place would doubtless be the subject of animated debate, it is indisputable that Northern Ireland’s infrastructure is currently polarised not just geographically, but also along sectarian lines :
This is highlighted even more starkly if you compare our transport infrastructure with June’s Westminster election results, in which the electorate coalesced behind one party on each side of the religious divide :
Northern Ireland’s current infrastructure provision therefore presents an economic, social and demographic challenge to anyone who wants to see a genuinely shared society created here. Whether this is acknowledged in Stormont (by both politicians and civil servants) is unclear – though the lack of a stated intent and a determined strategy to address the situation would suggest not. A review of the flagship transport projects currently on the Executive’s spending books does suggest that there has been a greater focus on projects in the west over the last couple of years. Rather than being the result of institutional recognition, however, this has largely been due to the fact that Sinn Fein held the transport portfolio in the last Assembly. They not only draw the majority of their AMs from west of the Bann, but were also stung in the run up to the 2016 Assembly election by a perception that they were failing to deliver for nationalist areas. This perception led not only to a declining nationalist turnout in 2016, but also the surprise election of ‘People Before Profit’ AMs in Derry and West Belfast. The fevered backdrop to the two elections in 2017 enabled Sinn Fein to greatly improve their electoral fortunes alongside an increasing nationalist turnout, but the message that voters in the west expect to see results will doubtless still be ringing in their ears.
The last Stormont government had four flagship transport projects on its books :
PROJECT Estimated Total Cost
– A6 dualling (Derry to Belfast, via Dungiven) £258m.
– A5 dualling (Derry to Aughnacloy, via Omagh) £229m
– Belfast Transport Hub (Great Victoria St Station) £122m.
– Belfast Rapid Transport £60m.
The two projects west of the Bann (A5 & A6) have the largest estimated total cost, and also received the biggest individual allocations within Stormont’s 2016/17 transport budget (£21m for the A6 ; £13.2m for the A5). However – both have also been the subject of extensive delays and should arguably have been delivered years ago (Derry was first promised a motorway to Belfast in the 1960s). So those schemes merely represent partial ‘catch-up’ for the west’s road network vis-a-vis the rest of the province. Meanwhile on rail,
the perfect opportunity to address the province’s east-west rail imbalance arose in 2014 when Stormont published its ‘Railway Investment Prioritisation Strategy’ – mapping out network improvements for the next 20 years. Yet it was an opportunity missed, with every single suggestion for new railway lines and stations in that strategy focusing on services travelling towards and around Belfast. Only one of its proposed new rail lines stretched into the west – and then only as far as Dungannon (which not only has the sole motorway section in the west already, but was also in the constituency of the Minister who produced the strategy). That document has therefore made clear that, far from working to reduce the east-west rail divide in the province, Stormont is actually working to amplify it.
Referring back to current Stormont spending plans, the creation of a new £180m integrated rail and bus transport hub (at least £122m of which will come from the public purse) at Great Victoria Street station in Belfast will provide a huge boost to that city’s public transport provision. The equivalent ‘integrated transport hub’ planned for Northern Ireland’s second city (Derry) pales in comparison – a £26m project to relocate its woefully inadequate current railway station into a refurbished neighbouring building, with the addition of bicycle lockers and a bus turning circle. This supposedly ‘integrated’ train station will still be a 15min walk from Derry’s bus station, and on the opposite side of the river from the city centre. And whilst Stormont funded the recent relaying of the Derry-to-Coleraine railway track to bring it up to 20th century standards (note : not 21st), Derry still awaits the commencement of a promised hourly train service to Belfast – something that stations east of Coleraine have enjoyed for decades. It seems that every small advance granted to infrastructure in the west is simultaneously out-trumped by giant leaps forward in transport provision for Belfast and the east.
The additional £400m for infrastructure secured in the Conservative-DUP agreement therefore offers an opportunity to begin acknowledging and addressing NI’s transport apartheid. Yet the text of the deal suggests that it is more likely instead to exacerbate the imbalance. The A6 and A5 dualling projects are objectively the most important infrastructure projects in Northern Ireland at the present time. Hence both have been priorities for the Executive for over a decade now (albeit very slow moving ones, still without full funding in-place). Yet the only transport project specifically named as a priority within the Conservative-DUP deal is the York Street Interchange in Belfast – which is not currently an agreed Stormont transport priority. That is largely because it is relatively new, having only navigated its public enquiry in 2015 and progressed to the ‘Notice to Proceed’ and design phases at the end of last year. Yet this project now finds itself pushed to the front of the queue with funding enshrined under the Conservative-DUP deal. The fact that York Street just happens to sit within the marginal North Belfast constituency of DUP Deputy-Leader Nigel Dodds MP is, of course, purely coincidental. Party preferences appear to be over-riding ojective need when it comes to the prioritisation of Northern Ireland’s key infrastructure spending.
With a price tag of up to £165m, the York Street project will consume approx. 40% of the entire £400m sum for infrastructure. That would leave approx £235m for Stormont’s currently unfunded transport priorities. Dualling the Derry-to-Dungiven stretch of the A6 alone will cost £240m, with funding for that not currently identified. And the A5 project currently faces a similar unallocated shortfall of at least £150m. In short – York Street is likely to happen at the expense of either or both the A5 and A6. At best, what’s left after York Street will fund just one of those projects through to completion. In reality, however, both schemes are likely to be just partially advanced instead. Transport in Belfast and the east of the province looks likely to again take a leap forward whilst the west’s continues to progress at a glacial rate.
It should come as no surprise that all spending decisions in Northern Ireland tend to be made through the prism of our divided politics and society. The Good Friday Agreement was built around a quiet acceptance of that fact in establishing a mechanism which forces political representatives from the nationalist and unionist communities to work together. In crude terms, Stormont currently ensures that the only way one side gets what it wants for its people is by ensuring the other side also gets something for theirs. More ‘one for you, one for me’ than ‘win-win’. The allocation of public money within our post-conflict society is therefore arguably more concerned with securing a politically acceptable (i.e. sectarian) balance in the distribution of those funds than it is with addressing greatest need. This system by and large functions when it comes to most spending departments, as there are schools, hospitals, homes etc in need of funding in BOTH nationalist and unionist areas across the province. But it is inherently unfit for purpose when it comes to transport – because the infrastructure inherited by the NI Executive was so staggeringly imbalanced in the first place. The west of Northern Ireland has the greatest demonstrable need for transport enhancement, yet a genuine priority call in its favour appears unlikely to happen. Instead, the west is only likely to get what it needs in return for the east having its already superior infrastructure enhanced further. Stormont may therefore be inherently incapable of tackling the divide in our transport provision, and instead more likely to perpetuate it.
New dual carriageways in the decades to come may partially lift the west of Northern Ireland out of the transport dark ages, but it seems destined to remain a poor relation of the east. And with people and economic opportunity likely to continue gravitating towards areas with better transport, the danger is that the perpetuation of NI’s existing regional imbalance (and the sectarian inequity which that entails) may essentially be hard-wired into how this place is governed.
Steve Bradley is a native of Derry, who is now based in England. He works as a regeneration consultant, writer, commentator and social entrepreneur. You can follow him on twitter: @Bradley_Steve