In March I wrote about the ongoing controversy over the plan for a new cross-border bridge at Narrow Water linking County Down near Warrenpoint with Omeath in the Carlingford peninsula in County Louth. Now the project has been given the go-ahead by the Northern Ireland Finance Minister Sammy Wilson of the DUP and the way has been cleared for funding of €17.4m to be obtained from the Special EU Programmes Body under the INTERREG scheme. The BBC reports that the scheme for the bridge 660 metres (2,165 feet) long will be subject to various conditions in relation to its upkeep by Newry and Mourne Council as well as Louth County Council.
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 provisional EU offer of help last year was welcomed by the EBR Committee Chair, Councillor Jackie Crowe, a Sinn Féin member from Monaghan.
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 660m 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.
The SDLP MP for South Down Margaret Ritchie 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. In March she had raised questions with Sammy Wilson and accused him of dragging his feet in approving the Stormont contribution to the project.
Following a meeting with the Minister today Ms Ritchie said she was delighted to confirm that residual funding had been secured to allow the construction of the Narrow Water Bridge, which she described as one of the most important North South projects to be brought forward.
“Narrow Water Bridge will enable, not only many jobs to be provided in construction, but also will be a vital gateway to the Mournes on completion. It will be an important catalyst for economic investment and tourism not only in South Down and the Cooley Peninsula but throughout the island of Ireland. The project is a shining example of how far we have come as a community and in our North South relations. It also symbolises the future of our economy, which is in our tourism product, and this is now something, thanks to the peace process that we can export worldwide“, she said.
The MP said she had been making robust representations to secure funding for this project for considerable time and previously had met with all other funders including the Taoiseach, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement Committee in Dublin. She said today was a very positive day for the Narrow Water Bridge project, the people of Warrenpoint, Kilkeel and the Mournes and she thanked everybody who she said had worked so hard to bring the project to this now very advanced stage.
UPDATE: Tuesday 9th July
But wait a second! Just when it seemed that Northern approval for the project was almost ready, there’s been a development on the other side of the border with Louth County Council placing the project on hold, owing to high tendering costs (and I wonder how much has been spent already on design fees and other preparatory work).
South Down SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie has demanded a meeting with the Taoiseach over the delay and says she wants both the British and Irish Governments to provide alternative resources to ensure the delivery of the Narrow Water Bridge project. She said:-
“I am disappointed by the decision of Louth County Council to put the Narrow Water Bridge project on hold due to the fact that tenders for the construction of the bridge were much higher than the financial envelope available for the project. I acknowledge the fact that Louth County Council has put the project on hold whilst they pursue alternative sources of funding.I have already requested a meeting with the Taoiseach to impress upon him the importance of delivering this important piece of North/South infrastructure, and the fact that this project, on completion, would act as a stimulus to the local economy through increased visitor numbers, business investment opportunities, and make a contribution to job creation in the construction industry.Already, the Bridge has received planning and marine consent as well as the financial support of the Special European Union Programmes Body, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.Furthermore, we await the outcome of the decision on the Bridge Order from the Minister for Regional Development, and only yesterday I had urged Minister Kennedy to process that application for the Bridge Order to approval stage as quickly as possible. Due to the importance of this bridge to under-pinning economic investment in the local area, I would be urging the Taoiseach to explore and to try and provide additional funding for the project and to examine if the European Union might have resources to assist with reducing the shortfall.
Undoubtedly, this will be a blow for the local community in Warrenpoint and in the Cooley Peninsula who fought hard for the project, and knowing their determination, I know they will not allow this setback to daunt them in pursuit of the Narrow Water Bridge. I and my colleagues in the SDLP are determined to continue our fight for this project along with the local community, the Chambers of Commerce, and other public representatives to ensure that this important piece of North/South tourist infrastructure is delivered to the Carlingford Lough area. At this time, the financial support and solidarity of both the British and Irish Governments as well as the Northern Ireland Executive is required to deliver this project which would assist in making a contribution to the local economy in South Down and the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth.”
So perhaps it will be a bridge too far, after all the talk.