Tackling Northern Ireland’s Infrastructure Apartheid – Part 1 – The Problem…

Infrastructure has become a hot topic in NI since the London government established a ‘Union Connectivity Review’ (UCR) to recommend projects to strengthen links between the UK’s constituent parts. Since then the media has been consumed by the possibility of a physical connection between NI and Scotland – first in the form of a bridge and more recently an undersea tunnel, christened the ‘Boris Bridge’ and ‘Boris Burrow’ (though I would suggest a more appropriate title should incorporate the name ‘Dál Riada’ – after the ancient kingdom and the geological rock formation shared across the two areas). These £20bn+ proposals have proven to be deeply divisive amongst politicians and the public, and have completely over-shadowed the real debate that should be taking place about NI’s transport needs. Because not only does NI as a whole have the UK’s worst transport connectivity, but within NI itself there is a stark and unjustifiable East-West divide in the presence and quality of infrastructure. One that has gone unchallenged and unchanged for over half a century. Any bridge or tunnel to Scotland would therefore only serve to exacerbate that divide, as the West of NI does not have the infrastructure required to readily access it. There should therefore be no bridge or tunnel project progressed unless and until the West of NI receives the infrastructure required to be able to access it. It is high time that NI as a whole received the type of public transport network that the rest of the UK takes for granted.

SIGNIFICANT EAST-WEST TRANSPORT DISPARITY

There is no shortage of infrastructure projects that could be considered a much higher priority within NI than a connection to Scotland. As the below map shows, there is a significant and long-standing disparity in infrastructure provision between the eastern and western halves of Northern Ireland :

The explanation as to why this stark divide arose and has been allowed to endure for decades is the subject of debate. Many in the west (and particularly nationalists) believe it reflects a deliberate policy of depriving their area of the resources it needs to flourish – initially motivated by sectarianism, and more recently by Belfast-centrism. Many in the east (and particularly unionists) respond that Northern Ireland’s infrastructure distribution merely reflects its population distribution. As always, the truth falls somewhere between those two positions. The old Stormont regime in the 1960s undeniably pursued policies that were heavily influenced by sectarian considerations across a wide range of issues – including housing, voting, education, economic development and urban planning. It would be naive in the extreme to believe that infrastructure was the one major policy area where they somehow managed to act with an unbiased hand – particularly given infrastructure’s ability to influence and shape demography. The decision to remove every cross-border rail line except the Belfast to Dublin route, and to erase all rail infrastructure in the west apart from the Derry-Belfast line (which only served towns with significant unionist majorities) suggests strongly that there was more at play within Stormont than just pro-road zealotry when it came to removing rail lines in the 1950s and 1960s. The closure of the old ‘Derry Road’ railway line between NI’s second city and Portadown was particularly hard to justify, given that it remained profitable to the day it was shut in 1965. That line provided a direct connection from the west of NI to Dublin, and also included a few miles of track within Donegal – factors which doubtless put it in the firing line. And the motorways which were promised as replacements have yet to materialise even six decades later. Whilst some claim it was the Troubles that put paid to that road ambition, the reality is that during the conflict major road schemes were still pursued in Belfast and the east but not in the west.

INFRASTRUCTURE vs RELIGION

An extremely stark correlation becomes apparent when the existing rail and motorway networks are overlaid onto a map of NI’s religious demography. This adds further fuel to the suspicion that the rail cuts of the last century, combined with the failure to replace them with motorways or to address this deficit in the decades since have been driven at least in part by sectarian intent:

NOTE :

1. Stormont tried to shut the railway line west of Coleraine in 2001, which would have closed the 2 stations in the former Derry and Limavady council areas.

2. Newry only regained a train station in 1984, when Bessbrook was reopened & re-badged.

POPULATION DISTRIBUTION

Counter-balancing this is the belief that Northern Ireland’s infrastructure merely reflects its population distribution. There is some truth in this – but only to a limit. Firstly – over 27% (and growing) of NI’s population lives in its three western counties. Yet those counties contain only 6% of NI’s rail infrastructure and barely 1% of its motorways. So at a macro-level NI’s current infrastructure distribution clearly does not come close to reflecting its population distribution. Secondly – inherent within this belief is a passive view of infrastructure, which ignores the self-reinforcing/feedback mechanism repopulation. Because all other things being equal – people, businesses and employment will generally gravitate towards places where infrastructure is better. So infrastructure doesn’t just respond to population distribution – it also helps to influence, guide and even drive it. Even with poor infrastructure, the West of NI has managed to grow its population very slightly every decade from 1971 to 2011, to the point where it now accounts for 27.2% of NI’s total (up from 24.7% in 1971). Which raises the obvious question of how much further the west’s population could have risen had it been served by proper infrastructure?

Population distribution is more nuanced when looked at on a town-by-town/micro level. Urban areas within NI are classified according to the following 5 population bands :

There are 14 towns and cities in NI classified as Large or above (i.e. population over 18,000) – 3 in the West (Derry, Coleraine and Omagh) and the rest in the East. All but one of those 14 towns has access to rail – Omagh being the exception. A significant number of the urban areas in the West fall within the ‘medium-sized towns’ category, however, and this is where the east-west disparity in rail provision becomes starkly evident. A total of 24 places in NI have a population of over 10,000 – one-third of those being in the West (8), two-thirds in the East (16). Given that the West accounts for 27.2% of NI’s total population, it is therefore over-represented in this list of key Northern Irish towns. Yet of those places with a population of 10,000+ in the West, only 2 (i.e. 25%) DO have access to rail (Derry and Coleraine). Whilst of the 18 towns over 10,000 in the East only 2 (Armagh and Downpatrick) DON’T have access to rail (i.e. 88% do). Therefore – a key town in the East of NI is almost four times more likely to have access to rail than an equivalent town in the West.

 

 

 

NOTE :

1. Stormont tried to shut the railway line west of Coleraine in 2001, which would have closed the 2 stations in the former Derry and Limavady council areas.

2. Newry only regained a train station in 1984, when Bessbrook was reopened & re-badged.

It is also important to remember that NI’s transport map has changed little over the last two generations, which raises an obvious ‘chicken and egg’ question. To what extent is NI’s stark east-west infrastructure imbalance a reflection of its population distribution, or a contributor to that population spread ? Would more of the West not fall within the ‘Large Town’ population band now if it had benefited from the kind of infrastructure expected in a large town ? Infrastructure that towns in the East largely take for granted?

DISPARITY – EVEN WHERE RAIL EXISTS

Even within the very limited rail network that currently exists in NI there is still substantial disparity West of the Bann vs East. The Belfast-Derry line has 3 rail stops west of Coleraine (Castlerock, Bellarena and Derry) and 11 to the east of the Bann. As the below infographic shows, the level of service that those towns in the East receive is significantly superior. And whilst every station in the East has benefited from an hourly service to Belfast for decades (plus half-hourly at peak times), Derry and the stations in the west had to make do with just one train every 2 hours until 2017. Since that was increased to an hourly service, passenger numbers from Derry rocketed 61% in two years (which makes you wonder what demand might be unleashed by more significant improvements there ?). In truth, there actually is no Belfast to Derry rail line. There is instead a Belfast-Coleraine or Belfast-Portrush line, with the link to Derry treated as an inferior branch off of it. So even within the very limited transport infrastructure that does exist within NI, we still can’t provide a fair east-west balance.

EXACERBATED BY LOW CAR OWNERSHIP

NI’s East-West transport imbalance is amplified further when you factor-in car ownership. When senior voices in politics, media and business in Northern Ireland call for transport investment, it is almost always focused on roads – seemingly oblivious to congestion or climate change, and devoid of non-car alternatives. This roads obsession ignores a key social justice angle. Car ownership data is collected in every census, because it provides an important indicator of social deprivation. And that data tells us that almost one in every four households in NI (23%) have no access to a motor vehicle. As a result, almost a quarter of the population here are effectively sidelined when our debates and decisions on infrastructure are dominated by roads/cars. And it gets worse. Because the cruel irony is that car ownership tends to be lowest in the west of NI – where public transport is weakest and social deprivation highest. Whilst you would naturally expect larger cities to have a high prevalence of non-car households (due to better public transport, density/proximity of key facilities etc) the place where car ownership is at its lowest in NI is surprisingly the County Tyrone village of Fintona, where a staggering 42% of households – more than 4 in every 10 – are without access to a vehicle. And of the 5 places in NI with the lowest car ownership levels, two are unsurprisingly our biggest cities whilst the other three are small rural villages in a county where rail was erased two generations ago :

If we look at all the 10 NI towns classified as medium-sized, car ownership is again lowest within those places that don’t have access to rail. And they’re almost all located in the West :

A STRUCTURALLY UNEQUAL NORTHERN IRELAND

Not only have we structured Northern Ireland in a way that clearly discriminates against the west in the provision of roads and public transport, that is amplified further by the east-west divide in vehicle access. Which in turn merely reflects the east-west disparity in deprivation levels. Because in truth – the divide in rail, roads and car ownership highlighted here merely betrays a much deeper east-west chasm that exists in most key aspects of life in Northern Ireland. Whether it be employment, health, life expectancy, home ownership, civil service jobs, Higher Education provision, tourism facilities/investment etc. On multiple levels and over many decades, public policy and expenditure has divided Northern Ireland into two very distinct halves – with its Eastern side undoubtedly the key beneficiary. The apartheid that exists within our infrastructure system is merely the most visible manifestation of a much deeper east-west inequality that lies at the very heart of how NI is structured and run.

WHY HAS DEVOLUTION FAILED TO ADDRESS IMBALANCE ?

Whilst views differ on how we got to this situation, there has been precious little debate on why it has been allowed to go unresolved for so long. Especially as the removal of rail in the 1960s was part of the overall cocktail of grievances that eventually spiralled into The Troubles.

It is important to begin here by acknowledging that some progress has been made in improving infrastructure West of the Bann in recent years. Two significant road schemes are at various degrees of progression currently – the A6 partial dualling (scheduled to complete Summer 2022) and the A5 (still to emerge from a legal quagmire caused by civil service incompetence). It’s important to note, however, that a sizeable portion of the A6 work is located in the East and primarily benefits travel to Belfast, whilst the Glenshane section in the west – a quarter of the entire road – will be left as single-track even after the £420m project has finished. That will leave Derry as still the only city on the island not connected to any other by a dual carriageway or motorway. On rail – the track west of Coleraine has been partially renewed over the last decade, and a relocated halt created at Bellarena, whilst a new £27m station opened in Derry last year. Though again it is worth noting that almost all the funding for the Derry station came from the EU, not Stormont. And whilst the upgrade of the rail line west of Coleraine received Ministerial approval in 2011, it has still not been completed a decade later and won’t until at least 2027. That work is designed to address the fact that the track there is ‘grade expired’ (i.e. past its best-before date) – heavily restricting the speed of trains as a result. It should also be noted that when Stormont realised in 2001 that the track needed replacing, its initial response was to try to shut the line west of Coleraine rather than upgrade it. It was a shameful proposal that would have erased the last piece of rail infrastructure west of the Bann, and removed NI’s second city from the network. The decision was only over-turned following a high profile community-led campaign in Derry, but it is notable that 2 decades later the track STILL hasn’t been upgraded and only limps on through short-term sticking-plaster solutions. This is how infrastructure investment is treated West of the Bann.

So why – almost a quarter of a century into devolved government – has NI’s infrastructure disparity still not been addressed ? Many accuse unionist politicians of a lingering bias against West of the Bann, manifested more these days in the subtle art of frustrating and delaying progress rather than overt opposition. Unionist politicians certainly provide enough smoke to suggest that such animosity towards the west still smoulders – a perfect example being Diane Dodds last month. When Ulster University announced it would be moving 850 Health Science undergraduate places from Jordanstown to its Magee campus, the DUP Economy Minister publicly declared her unhappiness at the situation, stated that the people of Coleraine would be disappointed not to get them, and suggested that she would have secured a different outcome had she known in advance. Since then she has met with the Vice-Chancellor of Ulster University to make it clear to him that his independent body relies on her department for its money. It is a shocking intervention by a Minister who is supposed to pursue economic and skills development across all of Northern Ireland, and not just places that vote DUP. It was also tone deaf to the sensitivities within Derry around the 1960s decision to place NI’s second university in Coleraine, and ignores the fact Magee has shrunk by over 900 student places since 2015 anyway. Most importantly – expanding university provision in Derry is an agreed priority within the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ (NDNA) agreement, whilst Coleraine is not. Strangely – nothing was heard from Dodds a decade ago when 15,000 student places were moved from Jordanstown into her husband’s former Belfast constituency, without Coleraine receiving a single one. She has left Derry people concluding there will be no further Magee expansion under her watch, despite what NDNA says. And it speaks volumes about how West of the Bann is treated by unionist politicians when its main city is now forced to approach the Republic’s government in an attempt to secure the Higher Education places that everyone agrees it should get.

Fears of unionist foul play can only be half the story within a system that mandates power-sharing with nationalists, however. So perhaps the real question here is – why have nationalist politicians failed to deliver for the West after more than two decades in power ? The undeniable truth is that at no point since the introduction of devolution has Stormont made ‘levelling-up’ of the West a priority. No party is challenging the view that it is either normal or acceptable to leave an entire half of NI devoid of proper infrastructure. Northern Irish politics has instead become a process of perpetual Belfast-centricism – reinforced by the fact that Belfast is NI’s key electoral battleground, where the green-orange wrestle for political dominance plays out continuously. Unionist parties appear largely disinterested in, and at worst actively opposed to, significant investment in much of the West. Nationalist parties maintain an obvious interest in the West, but see Greater Belfast as the arena where they have most to gain electorally. And crucially they have often appeared unwilling to expend the significant political capital that would be required within the Executive to secure transformative investment for the West. That leaves the main centre-ground parties – Alliance and the Greens – who are also heavily invested in Greater Belfast and the East, with little presence or understanding of the West. All of which combined perhaps explains why a quarter of a century of devolution has made little impact on NI’s east-west transport apartheid. Whither the west for having neither the population nor the shifting religious demography required to be of greater significance within NI’s political struggles.

The limited progress that has been made re the West’s infrastructure has done little to address NI’s glaring East-West disparity. Northern Ireland doesn’t have the shared society that it continually claims to be striving for. Instead we have opted for the tribal comfort blanket of a ‘shared out’ society – in which public resources are allocated via a ‘one for you, one for me’ green/orange allocation, rather than on the basis of evidence and need. This ugly compromise helps to perpetuate the clear east-west infrastructure disparity – because for any significant improvements to be granted to the majority-nationalist West, unionist politicians will expect similar for their areas. And so our significant gap in infrastructure provision perpetuates. The absence of agreed non-partisan principles for how infrastructure should be prioritised and funded makes this sectarian share-out the only show in town. So an alternative approach is now required. One that is based instead upon clear evidence and stated principle/ambition.

THE SOLUTION = A PRINCIPLE-BASED APPROACH TO INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT

Having considered NI’s east-west infrastructure disparity, how it has arisen and why it has gone unresolved for so long, Part 2 of this article will propose tackling it through a principle-based framework to objectively guide decisions and expectations on where rail could and should be restored. And it will identify approx. £2bn worth of specific rail projects that would completely transform public transport across NI – both East and West. Investments that must be prioritised ahead of any proposed rail tunnel or bridge to Scotland.

Read part two here…

BOTANIC RAILWAY STATION [BELFAST]-121140” by infomatique is licensed under CC BY-SA