A BRIDGE TOO FAR?

Proposed Narrow Water Bridge

Proposed Narrow Water Bridge

First things first. If you came here looking for a commentary on the Allied advance in the Second World War and battles such as the bridge at Arnhem, then you will be disappointed. I am sorry if I misled you. But the title seemed appropriate for the ongoing controversy over the proposed bridge at Narrow Water at the head of Carlingford Lough. They have been talking about the project since 1976 when the East Border Region committee was formed by ten councils on both sides of the border, years before the Anglo-Irish agreement or the Good Friday agreement.

The proposed structure would link County Down just beyond Narrow Water Castle with the opposite side of the shore near Omeath in County Louth. The project eventually received planning permission and the prospect of EU funding of €17.4m last year. This green light was welcomed by the East Border Region Committee Chair, Councillor Jackie Crowe, a Sinn Féin member from Monaghan.

Proposed Bridge

Proposed Bridge

The approved scheme is for a single carriageway cable-stayed bridge across Carlingford Lough, which will be able to open to enable tall ships, leisure craft and other marine vessels access to Victoria Lock and the Albert Basin in Newry. The total length of the scheme is 620m while the towers have a height of 90m and 37m respectively. The design is by Roughan O’Donovan Consulting Engineers, who were also responsible for the new Boyne Bridge on the M1 near Drogheda.In his statement welcoming the project on 24th October 2012, Councillor Crowe is quoted as saying that the proposed bridge was:-

a genuinely symbolic cross border project providing the first bridge linking Ireland and Northern Ireland and will provide a momentous tourism and economic catalyst for the whole of the region. The Bridge development will provide much needed jobs in the construction sector in the short term and will undoubtedly enhance the tourism potential of the region as it acts as a gateway to the Mournes and Cooley Mountains”.

And I thought Sinn Féin always referred to the island of “Ireland” as a 32-county entity……but perhaps this was a statement drawn up by someone else. It also seems to contain an error often repeated by others that this is the first such cross-border bridge. Surely Councillor Crowe has heard of the projects successfully pursued with the Irish government by his party colleagues in Monaghan to get two small cross-border bridges rebuilt which the British Army had blocked in the early 1970s? Annaghroe and Knockaginny bridges across the River Blackwater connected Glaslough in County Monaghan and Caledon in County Tyrone and were re-opened in October 2010 by the then Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, whose colleague in government Dermot Ahern was very supportive of the Narrow Water project as a Louth TD and Minister for Justice.

It seems the progress of the Narrow Water project, described by its promoters as “iconic” and “histooric”, is not going to be as smooth as they hoped. Is it a bridge too far for unionists? Last November the First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson requested an investigation into the decision to grant EU funding. He rejected a claim by the SDLP MP for South Down Margaret Ritchie that he wanted money channelled away from North-South infrastructure schemes towards community projects involving former loyalist paramilitaries. The following month, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson told the Assembly there was a “political smell” about the application for funding. He questioned the speed with which the Stormont Environment Minister, Alex Attwood of the SDLP, had granted planning permission for the bridge.

Margaret Ritchie MP

Margaret Ritchie MP

Now Margaret Ritchie has accused Sammy Wilson of dragging his feet and hiding behind other government departments when it comes to approving funding for the project. She quoted Mr Wilson’s argument that he could not approve the outstanding £2m for the Narrow Water Bridge until the Department of Regional Development had prepared a Roads Order. Ms Ritchie said she had now received confirmation from the Department for Regional Development that it is currently preparing the draft Roads Order, which is expected to published next month. But according to the Minister Danny Kennedy, she said, the formal making of the Order will not happen until the Department for Finance approves the business case.

Ms Ritchie said this response clearly states that the Minister for Finance can make the decision to approve the Narrow Water Bridge funding now and that this decision is not held back by the work of the Department of Regional Development, despite claims to the contrary. She said if it remained the case that Sammy Wilson is not prepared to approve the funding then the First and Deputy First Ministers must ensure a decision is taken without further delay, in the interests of the wider community and the tourism industry in the Mourne area and throughout the island. Furthermore as this is an important North-South economic development project there is now a clear need for the direct intervention of the British and Irish Governments to ensure that this project faces no more unnecessary delay, she added.

The MP has taken a keen interest in the project since her involvement with the East Border Region Committee as a Councillor in 1985. She paid tribute to people such as her predecessor Eddie McGrady, Jim McCart, Donal O’Tierney and Barney Carr, who she said had never faltered from their belief in the bridge and who had shaped the economic debate for it and kept the project alive during very difficult political times in the North.

Narrow Water project

Narrow Water project

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