Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 16 May 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Narrow Water Bridge: Discussion
Members know the drill about mobile telephones. We have a number of local representatives to discuss the proposed and, as far as this committee is concerned, infamous Narrow Water Bridge. The issue has been on the committee's agenda for a long period. I acknowledge the members for keeping this high on the agenda. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Jim Boylan, president of Warrenpoint Chamber of Commerce, who is joined by Mr. Mark Kelly and Ms Olga Fitzpatrick. We extend a warm welcome to them and we look forward to their contributions. I also welcome Mr. Paddy Malone, outgoing president of the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce, who is joined by the incoming president, Mr. Paddy Matthews.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Representatives of both chambers will have the opportunity to make an opening statement before we invite members to make observations and put questions.
Mr. Jim Boylan:
I thank the Chairman and the committee for allowing us to speak on this important matter of the Good Friday Agreement, which is now 15 years old. In our area, Mourne, Louth and Carlingford Lough, it is not working for us. Narrow Water Bridge ticks so many boxes in the Good Friday Agreement, which refers to rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity in section 6. There is a lack of economic growth and we have pursued the Narrow Water Bridge project as a means of increasing economic growth in our area. Aspects of the business case put forward by Louth County Council show that employment growth potential after the completion of the bridge will be upwards of 270 jobs. With such spending power in our local economy, we see further potential for growth. Our emphasis is not only on tourism, but also local commerce.
The project also ticks boxes in respect of social cohesion in urban, rural and Border areas. We live in a Border area that has become, in recent years, inaccessible. The documentation we have provided shows we have had contact with our neighbours from the earliest times. When we lost the Warrenpoint-Omeath ferry, communities on both sides of the lough suffered. The tourism industry died and the Narrow Water Bridge is our means of regeneration. Not only have we rekindled cross-Border relationships in pursuit of the project, it has brought both communities along the Mourne coastal region much closer. We see our future as being dependent on one another. Warrenpoint, Kilkeel, Newcastle, Omeath and Carlingford cannot survive on their own. We must co-operate along the coast and across the Border to survive. Relationships between the communities in the Mourne coastal communities have improved beyond recognition in pursuit of this project. One of our members said that creating employment, retaining employment, putting food on the table, filling oil tanks, and keeping the doors of our businesses open surmounts any divisions. Divisions remain but constant conversations have been breaking down the barriers between ourselves and our neighbours.
The Agreement also states that it should strengthen physical infrastructure, producing new approaches to transport. The Narrow Water Bridge does this. It ticks all the boxes in this instance. The bridge is there to unite people on a social level and on an economic level, a bridge to renew the access formerly enjoyed by the people of Omeath, Carlingford and Warrenpoint to professional and commercial services and co-operation between emergency services and health and education services in their everyday lives. The Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly were obliged to introduce an economic development strategy for Northern Ireland. We have seen little of this.
We see this development as a self-help strategy for our area. We cannot wait any longer. The people on both sides of the lough see and have pursued the bridge as our contribution to the economic growth of our area. The bridge is shovel ready with guaranteed planning permission and 80% funding but we cannot seem to be able to get the commitment of the finance department of the Stormont government. This project is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement and it should be done. The bridge is 280 m long, but to us it is half a world away, and we need to see action on it now.
Mr. Paddy Malone:
I thank the committee for this opportunity. Over recent years, we have worked together with Newry and Mourne District Council and the various chambers of commerce to try to build economic stability in the region. The memorandum of understanding signed by Louth County Council, Newry and Mourne District Council and the various organisations, including Dundalk Chamber of Commerce and Warrenpoint Chamber of Commerce, has been a catalyst in creating both an environment in which we can all work together and a network, which is allowing this area to develop. That MOU is unique in Europe and is recognised as such because the original documentation was signed in Brussels. The memorandum addresses a number of issues of mutual interest but it is primarily aimed at regenerating the area. The tourism potential is enormous and that is what makes it so important.
A report published by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government ten days ago indicated that Dundalk is the weakest gateway town of the nine gateways in the country. Our unemployment rate is 25% above the national average. We were well aware of these figures because the two chambers of commerce, Louth County Council and Newry and Mourne District Council commissioned a report three years ago which highlighted this. The Department's report reinforces the message. We have nine gateways in the South, and Dundalk has the joint lowest score, together with Letterkenny. This indicates that the Border area is a major problem, not just in County Louth. The fact that both towns with the lowest score are on the Border is an interesting factor.
We need to get those in the area to work together as a unit. Members of Newry and Mourne District Council sit on the Louth Economic Forum and one of its major recommendations is that when we address the infrastructure of County Louth, we should automatically think of Newry and Mourne at the same time. That is the thinking that is going on within the various organisations and we need this bridge, which will give a physical dimension to what people want on the ground. It is for that reason that we believe strongly that because our unemployment rate is so high, the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs which are needed will be provided by the tourism and construction industries. As Mr. Boylan said, construction alone would generate 200 jobs. That is what makes this so important. The PayPal jobs and other jobs we have attracted to the town over the past 12 months have had an impact on one aspect of our economy but not on the other. PayPal is employing as many people from the North as it is from the South. When we talk about major industries going into the area, we do not stop at the Border.
One of the first calls I received when we were looking at PayPal was from a councillor based in Newry who is a member of Newry Chamber of Commerce, and his first question was: "How do I get into PayPal?" We have set up that relationship in order that we work together all the time. This bridge will be a physical manifestation of what we in the chambers of commerce have been seeking for several years. I first met Mr. Boylan about this project four years ago. We believe strongly in its economic impact on the area, which is needed. This is an area of major deprivation. Newry is ranked the second worst area in the North after Strabane, and it includes the greater Warrenpoint area. It is an economic blackspot both north and south of the Border.
I thank Mr. Malone, who has set a good precedent regarding brevity. I ask the members to follow suit and make their contributions as concise and specific as possible. I will call members first and then visiting politicians will be given an opportunity.
This is an important infrastructural project for the north Louth-south Down area and for the region in general. As Mr. Boylan outlined, it could have tremendous economic and tourism benefits for the area with the potential for 270 jobs. That would only be the tip of the iceberg because it would be like opening up a Brigadoon to the rest of the country and tourists from abroad. It is a unique area which could attract many thousands of visitors annually. Having attended one of the meetings in Warrenpoint, we stopped at the Carrickdale Hotel on the way home, and I met two people from Navan, County Meath, who had spent five nights in Carlingford. They said if the bridge had been in place, they would have spent two weeks in the area. That is an example of the potential benefit to the region.
Mr. Boylan said the project would create and maintain employment. Mr. Malone was too modest to say he commissioned the McCardle report which had all the results for Dundalk two years before the gateway report. He has his finger on the button regarding economics in the Dundalk area. Mr. Boylan was passionate in his delivery but all of us in all parties are passionate about this project. It is not a political project for us anymore. We want to support Mr. Boylan in his quest to have this delivered and that is why it is important that this be promoted by everyone as a business project.
What are Mr. Boylan's fears? The project is at the stage where the bridge order has been advertised and the decision will be made by 15 June. The letter of offer from the Finance Ministry in the North will then issue. Are there fears that this might not happen? Has he information on the response to the bridge order advertisement?
Ms Margaret Ritchie:
I welcome the representatives from Warrenpoint Chamber of Commerce, whom I travelled with this morning, and their counterparts from Dundalk Chamber of Commerce. It seems I have been working with them collectively for a lifetime to deliver this most important project that will link Cooley in County Louth with my constituency of South Down, particularly Warrenpoint and the Mourne Mountains.
I am in no doubt about the economic and social benefits this will bring to south Down in terms of opening up an avenue of investment that has not been available to us until now for visitors, tourism, investment and new business. In Warrenpoint, planning permission has been granted for vacant buildings in the square to be converted to retail businesses. That would not have happened without the good news about the bridge. The planning authorities on both sides of the Border have provided planning approval, marine consents have been provided, along with funding from SEUPB to the tune of €17.4 million and the Irish Government has provided matched funding of up to €4 million. The only outstanding elements are the bridge order to facilitate navigation, which is currently out to consultation. The committee will recall that Newry and Mourne Council, Louth County Council and the DRD have provided the funding that will adjust the mussel boats, allowing navigation under the bridge when it opens. That impediment will be removed.
The remaining impediment is the outstanding funding, about €2 million for the Northern Ireland Executive. The Northern Ireland Assembly has already approved a motion on a majority vote in November indicating this project would have major economic and social implications for the whole of the area between south Down and County Louth. I ask both chambers of commerce what they foresee as the forthcoming economic and social implications once the bridge is complete. How will it transform our landscape and economy?
Mr. Conor Murphy:
I welcome everyone to the committee. I am sure there are many who have had long-standing relations arising from this project. The argument over its benefits is not an issue, those are accepted by all but a small minority. I was up Slieve Martin a few weeks ago and passed the new bicycle trail. The majority of cars parked there were from Waterford, Kilkenny and similar areas, with people coming on a Sunday morning because it is easier to get through Newry to access the Warrenpoint side of the lough. We can see the potential investments for the Mourne Mountains area by both councils to attract visitors and have an exchange up and down the east coast.
I know from my experience as the Minister for Regional Development for four years that there is no technical or environmental issue that could not be addressed; it is down to the Department of Finance and Personnel giving the go-ahead. If officials are not given political direction to move, they have a habit of allowing things to stagnate. It is clearly a matter of political direction being given at senior level in the Department of Finance and Personnel to get this over the last hurdle. A huge amount has been done, particularly by Louth County Council, which has carried the project. There was a time when many people thought this was pie in the sky but it carried it right through and brought it to the point where it secured the crucial funding from Europe. It is a matter of the Department of Finance and Personnel in the North stepping up to the plate on this.
I assume the two chambers want elected representatives on both sides of the Border to use this committee's influence to apply pressure. We will ask the Taoiseach to raise this directly with the First and Deputy First Ministers and will ask the Minister for Finance to raise it with his counterpart in the North. The committee should apply whatever pressure it can on this because the economic benefits are clear. The great pity would be if this is missed because of some bureaucratic stagnation. It is not just the loss of the benefit but the loss of the funding for the area from the EU would be massive and the reputation of both Administrations when it comes to accessing EU money would be damaged, which would have implications for funding for Ireland as a whole. We are happy to hear from the chambers of commerce about what they would like the committee to do to press support for this case.
I welcome our guests and thank them for the presentation. This project must go ahead. Almost 90% of the funding is in place, sourced from the European Union and our own Government, and the case has been well made. There is huge potential in the Carlingford Lough area, north and south of the Border, for the tourism industry. It is on the east coast and is a short distance from both Dublin and Belfast. With the road network now both cities are easily reachable, which gives that added benefit when attracting visitors. It is an area with massive potential that I have visited many times.
I was involved in the early 1990s with the restoration of the Ballyconnell-Ballinamore canal, which is now the Erne-Shannon waterway. That project was announced in 1989 and completed by 1992, at a time when there was no political co-operation on this island or between east and west. We were going through very difficult times politically and the cost of the project at the time was £30 million, well in excess of €40 million now. That was at a time when there were challenging economic problems facing the country both North and South. At that time, the leadership and commitment was there to restore a canal and it has added tremendously to the tourism potential of Fermanagh, Cavan and Leitrim, and to the broader inland waterway network. That was a time when the project did not have full political support North or South. Senator Jim D'Arcy mentioned this commmittee has total political support and my colleague Deputy Kirk has tabled questions to the Tánaiste today on the issue. It will add considerably to the tourism product for all of the Ireland.
When we think that marketing the country as a tourism destination comes under the remit of one of the all-Ireland implementation bodies, it would be a disgrace if this project is not brought to fruition at an early date. It merits the full support of everyone with an interest in the future of this island, North and South. I commend those representatives in the local area who have in more difficult times championed this cause, along with other groups like the chambers of commerce. I do not doubt that this will be of great benefit, not just for Louth and south Down, but for a much greater area and for the Irish tourism product.
I too welcome the representatives from the Chambers of Commerce in Warrenpoint and Dundalk. This is a very serious matter, as previous speakers have said. This project must be completed in the short term. It is of significance to the whole island of Ireland. The objective is to ensure that two communities can integrate with one another in as short a period of time as possible, across what is a very short bridge. The economic gains to be had from the completion of this project, as stressed by Mr. Malone and Mr. Boylan, cannot be overstated. It is imperative that this committee provide whatever assistance is needed to bring this project to completion as soon as possible. The Labour Party members of this committee have been raising this issue with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, for some time and will continue to do so. We must ensure that the North-South, east-west political aspect of this issue is at the top of the agenda. We must ensure this project is given priority because it will reinvigorate Counties Louth and Down, drawing tourists to those areas from all over the country. The bridge will shorten trips for the local community by 40 minutes, which is a significant amount of time, particularly for business people. The bridge will also enable the development of a new empathy between the communities on both sides of the Border, as well as improving employment and economic prospects in the area. It is a wonderful area to visit from a tourism perspective and has enormous potential for further development. We should not let that potential go untapped for the sake of what is, in today's terms, a small amount of money. In terms of investment, the sum involved really is quite small. It is disappointing that the project is being delayed. There is enormous potential here and this committee must continue to press this issue and prioritise it.
I welcome the witnesses. The submission given to the committee refers to the bridge and its potential to become a symbol of reconciliation and peace. Bridges unite communities and bring people together, negating divisions. In that sense, it is a very positive project.
I read media reports recently concerning Mr. Jim Wells, one the MLAs for the area. He was asked about the delays and said that it was a very important project, involving a lot of money from the EU. He said it was necessary to make sure everything is kosher with regard to the project. That seems very reasonable. The witnesses made the point that the project ticks all of the relevant boxes. However, part of the problem is that this is a North-South project, which may not tick the correct box in terms of finance for Mr. Sammy Wilson, MLA. It may not tick the box for many of his colleagues. The witnesses may not want to go into the political issues here, but are they concerned about a dead hand vis-à-vis this project because it does not tick the boxes for certain people? Are they worried that the project will not go ahead? What is the timescale for the completion of this project? Are the witnesses concerned that this will be investigated to death? How wide is the window of opportunity here in terms of this project actually going ahead?
I thank Mr. Moran and Mr. Boylan for their presentations. This is a wonderful project that will be hugely beneficial to the local and national economy. Mr. Malone made reference to the fact that unemployment in the Dundalk area is 25% above the national average, which equates to an unemployment rate of 17% or 18%.
That rate is very high and underlines the necessity for this project to go ahead from an employment perspective. The amount of money required to complete the project is small. Have the witnesses been given any indications that the project will go ahead? It is important to stress that this committee is 100% behind this project. We will do everything in our power to influence the people who will be making the decisions. I wish the witnesses well in their endeavours.
I welcome the representatives from the Chambers of Commerce in Warrenpoint and Dundalk. It is good to see so many local representatives at this meeting, including Deputies, Senators and Members of Parliament, which demonstrates the high level of interest in the Narrow Water Bridge. A lot of hard work has been done so far. We are close to the end and it is very important that we seal the deal. A lot of money has already been spent on this project. In that context, I wish to commend Louth County Council on its investment of more than €2 million in this project to date.
The bridge is an appropriate symbol of peace between North and South. There has been a lot of conflict between the North and South for many years but this will help to bridge any gap that remains between the communities on both sides of the Border. In recent years, a tremendous amount of friendship has built up between Border communities. The bridge also has the potential to create many jobs North and South and to enhance the development of tourism in the area.
I thank all of those involved for their work on the project so far. It is good so see so much cross-Border and cross-party co-operation, which demonstrates how, when people put their heads together, much can be achieved. Much of what has been said this morning has been positive in tone. We must remain positive in order to reach the finishing line. As a new Deputy in the House, I am delighted to have had the opportunity to meet so many public representatives from Northern Ireland. I thank the witnesses for their presentations.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. Everyone here is in agreement on the importance of this project. What practical steps can this committee take to advance the project? Is there a letter the committee could write or a representation we could make on behalf of the project? Who should such a letter or representation be made to? I am interested in the practical steps that could be taken to move the process forward. Everyone here believes in the validity of the project and is supportive of it. How can this committee be of practical help?
I welcome the witnesses from both sides of the lough to this meeting. It is a great example for everyone to see them here today, working together for the good of their community. I wrote a letter about the bridge to various newspapers on April 10. I said that it was clear that the communities on both sides of Carlingford Lough are excited about the golden opportunities the Narrow Water Bridge could bring in boosting the local economy and tourism in the strikingly beautiful Cooley Peninsula and Mourne Mountains.
The bottom line is that there are significant constraints on the availability of funding. I hope the Minister of Finance and Personnel in Stormont, Mr. Sammy Wilson, in the spirit of promoting positive community relations, will reconsider the rigid position he has adopted and ensure the bridge is built as soon as possible. As everyone is aware, time is running out and the project must be given its imprimatursoon. I was born in Dundalk and, like a homing pigeon, it puts me in good humour to look north. I am familiar with the Cooley Peninsula, a beautiful area which was part of my childhood. I thank the Chairman for the wholehearted support he showed when I raised this matter at a previous meeting of the joint committee.
I join the Chairman and previous speakers in welcoming the joint delegation from chambers of commerce in the North and South. It is entirely appropriate that the group should attend a meeting of this committee to advocate for a worthy and worthwhile project in the north east. It goes without saying that the Narrow Water Bridge project has been a long time in gestation. I have vivid memories of attending meetings in the Park Hotel in Omeath long before the peace process commenced. At the time, a number of people on the southern side of Carlingford Lough were strongly advocating exploring the potential of the project, with a view to progressing a bridge across the lough. The proposal was met with considerable scepticism. People did not see merit in the project when it was first proposed in the 1980s, a period of significant economic difficulty. The peace process has created a powerful dynamic for those pursuing the project.
A bridge across Carlingford Lough would have clear economic benefits. Anyone who is familiar with the geography of the Mourne Mountains and Cooley Peninsula will acknowledge that the area is largely undiscovered by tourism interests and remains undeveloped in many respects. This key infrastructure project would make a major difference. Apart from bridging the Newry River at Narrow Water, it would act as a powerful symbol and send a message that the peace process is working. It would be a sign that the Stormont Executive is willing to flex its muscles and proceed with worthwhile, cross-Border projects where they provide clear and tangible economic benefits for both the North and South.
The benefits of the project would be felt not only on the Cooley Peninsula, in Dundalk and around the general north County Louth region but also in south County Down and further afield, including County Armagh. I have long advocated development of the tourism industry in the three counties in question. Tourism development in the region has lagged somewhat for reasons those present will fully understand. I know a number of the older sages in the Omeath area who used to tell tales of people, mainly from Belfast, travelling to Warrenpoint in the 1940s and 1950s, before crossing to Omeath by ferry. While there was a considerable demand for private transport to Carlingford, the village of Omeath was the tourism Mecca in the Cooley Peninsula at that point, with Carlingford regarded as something of a backwater. I can say this now because Senator Terry Brennan has left the meeting, although I accept that the status and standing of Carlingford has changed considerably in the intervening period. The caravan park at Cranfield on the northern side of Carlingford shows that the gravitational pull of the lough is also strong on the northern side.
As I stated, public meetings on a proposed bridge were held at the Park Hotel and other venues in the 1980s. At that time, the Oireachtas Members in north County Louth were the former Deputies Dermot Ahern and Brendan McGahan and myself. We did our best to progress the project and keep it on the political agenda, and I am pleased it is still on the political agenda. Of all the projects to come onto our radar, it will be of major benefit to north Louth and south Down. Let us get on with the project. Anyone who has any influence with the finance Minister in Stormont should nudge him gently towards accepting the merits of the proposal. A financial package has been put together by the special EU programmes body, Louth County Council and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. The missing link is the Northern Executive, which must also provide funding. I hope the project can be progressed. A delegation met the Taoiseach when he visited Dundalk recently and made a strong case for making direct contact with Mr. Wilson in an effort to move the project forward. Anybody else in the political arena who has influence on the Minister should exercise that influence.
Is there any merit in seeking a meeting with the Minister? Perhaps a representative group could sit down with him to discuss the benefits of the project and identify any perceived hitches that may arise. At this point, I do not envisage any problems as the proposal has been thoroughly examined from a technical, economic and political point of view. Let us hope, therefore, that the project can be progressed. It may not be appropriate to arrange a meeting with Mr. Wilson. Others may be in a better position to decide whether it would be a worthwhile to do so.
The delegation is very welcome. It is great to have before us people with vision who have been able to keep the proposal for a bridge over Carlingford Lough on the political agenda for so long. I am positively disposed towards the project because north County Louth and south County Down are beautiful areas. Building the bridge would be an important symbolic gesture of the progress that is being made. What practical steps can the joint committee take to advance the proposal? Should we arrange a meeting with or write to the Minister of Finance and Personnel in the North? Members must decide at the conclusion of this meeting on the course of action we will take. We should do something tangible to try to advance the project. I wish the delegation well in its efforts. Everyone present is positively disposed the project, which I hope will be advanced shortly.
Cross-Border tourism projects that have proceeded in the past have promoted development along the Border and helped attract visitors to the region from home and abroad. As a frequent visit to north Louth and Carlingford, I am aware of the hassle one has in trying to visit Warrenpoint or Rostrevor on the northern side of the lough as one must travel through Newry first. People from either side of the lough would definitely travel to the other side much more frequently if a bridge were in place. The project would also develop the economic potential of the area.
I commend the chambers of commerce and councils involved in this project, particularly the individuals who came up with the idea and kept faith with it. Fair play to them. This is how things work. Notionally, the final decision on the project rests with the northern Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr. Sammy Wilson. One needs to give careful consideration to whether it would be of benefit for the committee to write to Mr. Wilson given that the DUP's position is one of opposition to the Good Friday Agreement. While it is clearly not opposed to the Agreement, which it is working, it may be a bridge too for Sammy to receive correspondence in the name of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Committee. I have been in touch with the Minister and his colleague, the Minister for Regional Development, Mr. Danny Kennedy. It would be preferable for people to try to have a word with Mr. Wilson in a corridor, rather than in a formal setting.
I have raised this matter on a number of occasions in the Dáil. There may be merit in the joint committee writing to the Taoiseach and Tánaiste requesting that they intervene with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
I raised it with the Deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness, who informed me that he would speak quietly to the First Minister, Mr. Peter Robinson, about it. That is my take on the matter.
In the context of any letter the joint committee may wish to write, it should consider including the name of everyone present at this meeting, namely, those from the chambers of commerce, the MPs, the MLAs, the Deputies and the Senators. That might have the desired effect. However, it is the joint committee's decision. I am only offering a suggestion.
I welcome our guests. It is great to see them here. I must congratulate my brother and acknowledge his contribution. There is obviously no conflict of interests because we are all on the same page.
I highly commend Mr. Malone for the tremendous work he has done in this area in conjunction with Mr. Mathews, the other members of the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce and the members of the Warrenpoint Chamber of Commerce from across the Border. It was a fantastic achievement to even get that far. As Mr. Boylan stated, it is symbolic gesture. In the context of the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the bridge would be a symbolic and physical manifestation of unity and how far we have come, North and South. Several of us spoke about this matter at the recent chamber of commerce lunch relating to the announcement of PayPal's expansion, which was attended by the Taoiseach. Ms Margaret Richie was particularly passionate in her comments on the matter that day. We all know that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are on our side in respect of this project and are very much in favour of it. I had a lengthy meeting with the Tánaiste on the matter ten days ago and assure those present that he is doing everything possible to ensure the project will proceed.
Deputy Conlan inquired as to what we could do. At our meeting in the Carrickdale Hotel we all agreed that we could talk but that action was required to keep matters moving. I hope there will be progress in the coming weeks. The bridge will open up the entire eastern region in the context of economic progression and tourism. Reference was made to construction jobs. I am aware that there are EU directives which obtain in this regard, but I hope that, in so far as is possible, such construction jobs will be geared towards and benefit local firms and people.
It is great that everyone is on the same page in this matter and that there is full cross-Border support for it. I, for one, am dying to cross the bridge.
I was interrupted in what I was saying earlier by the vote which took place elsewhere. I fully support what Deputy Gerry Adams stated about the committee writing a letter. It should be sent to the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs and Trade rather than being sent directly to Mr. Sammy Wilson because it could antagonise certain people.
I have no difficulty in seconding it. However, there might be merit in also sending the letter - with the names of all the individuals present at this meeting attached - to Mr. Sammy Wilson. I accept that he might be irritated by our raising the issue, but there is no doubt that it must be done. Whether it is a gentle nudge or a kick in the arse, Sammy needs to wake up to the fact that this project must proceed. I apologise for the language.
Ms Margaret Richie:
Many Deputies and Senators have asked what we can do, in practical terms, to move the project forward. The two Governments are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. We have already spoken to the Taoiseach and representations have been made on an individual basis to Prime Minister Cameron. The Taoiseach and the Prime Minister must act together to bring pressure to bear on the Northern Ireland Executive in order that the remaining funding will be released. This would allow for the construction of the bridge within the short timeframe for delivery. If the project is not delivered in time, there could be consequences. We would appear pretty damn foolish in the eyes of the European Commission and the European Union if money had to be returned. That cannot happen. We must approach the two Prime Ministers to put pressure on the Northern Ireland Executive. By all means, we should write to the Executive to outline why the bridge needs to be delivered. I would send a copy of the letter to every Minister in the Executive.
Mr. Mark Kelly:
Everyone has referred to the tourism potential. I represent a small, family-run construction firm. The construction industry has been decimated. If the project goes ahead, it will ensure some people will be able to remain at home rather than emigrating. The jobs relating to the project would be of assistance in helping to end the recession which I have no doubt will end. Those involved in the construction industry, North and South, have highlighted the fact that there is a great economic multiplier to be gained from construction projects. For every £1 or €1 spent, there is a multiplier of 2.85 in the wider economy. That would mean more jobs just by getting the construction project off the ground. My colleagues will comment further on the economic benefits that will accrue beyond this. I thank the joint committee for its time.
Ms Olga Fitzpatrick:
I thank members for listening to us and their support. There is no point in reiterating what has been said. We are all on the same page when it comes to supporting the bridge project, but I wish to make two points which have not been made. The first relates to the historical implications of the bridge. This will be the first bridge to be built between southern Ireland and Northern Ireland since the formation of the State. That is a momentous development which will help to increase tourism. People will come to see the bridge because of its historical implications. The second point is that tourists who arrive in Dublin or Belfast usually stay on the motorway and do not come off it to visit our area. However, the bridge will provide an incentive for them to come and visit. This will increase the level of tourism in the area.
Mr. Paddy Mathews:
I am involved in tourism and see this as a major benefit to us. As far as we are concerned, tourists do not venture as far as the Border because the infrastructures are not linked in the way they could be. As the owner of a transport company which regularly operates on both sides of the Border to accommodate day-long and extended tours, I see the benefits of the new markets which could be opened up. My company brings the message on cross-Border tourism to trade shows all across the United States. There are five American tours travelling around the area. We will be on a further trade mission from 5 to 17 June which will target states on the west coast of America such as Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, etc.
It is important to highlight the peace dimension of this matter. Three of the tours to which I refer are from the University of Georgia, Allegheny College and the University of Pittsburgh. Those on the tours are studying the effects of the Good Friday Agreement on our shared history in the Border area, the undiscovered jewel in the crown of Irish tourism. We need to encourage as many people as possible to experience both sides of it. The tourism potential is huge. These two beautiful areas which span County Louth and south County Down bring an additional focus on Carlingford Lough and its environs. The bridge would improve connectivity between the new Boyne Valley drive in counties Louth and Meath and the Mourne coastal drive, as well as being an attraction in its own right. We have invested heavily in this project and hope it will go ahead.
Mr. Jim Boylan:
I thank all members for their support for the project. Someone inquired as to what we were seeking the joint committee to do. This is part of the Good Friday Agreement which, as we see it, is between the two Governments. In that context, pressure should be brought to bear on them.
We have met everyone in politics bar the Finance Minister - that is an issue in itself. As business people we can see it moving forward, and as ordinary people we have moved a long way ahead of the politics of it. I am in the Warrenpoint, Burren & Rostrevor Chamber of Commerce, which is perceived to be Nationalist, and yet we work well with the Kilkeel Chamber of Commerce, which is perceived to be Unionist, but we do not see the difference. That is an example of the Good Friday Agreement working. The Minister is weeks away from making a decision. The decision should be made on a level business basis with regard to people power. It should not be made on the basis of not wanting to join up with so and so.
I started this campaign approximately five years ago, and when it was first knocked back, we went out with Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Unionists. We got more than 3,000 names in one weekend to get this project up and running. This is a people's project. Politics is for the people and by the people. This is politics working. Ultimately, this is about people who must put food on the table, put oil in the tank and get to work. That is what this Narrow Water bridge is about. It cannot fail, it will not fail and it should not fail. All the politicians involved, whether from the North or South, should be backing it. It should not take six months to carry out a business plan or make a decision. If we took six months to produce a business plan in any of our businesses, we would be out of business quickly. It should not take six months. Whatever pressure can be put on whatever source should be brought to bear to point out that it is a matter, not of politics but of people. It is time that this moved on. The time is now. We only have a couple of weeks and it must not fail. It is a major European project.
Mr. Paddy Malone:
I wish to reiterate the point about the region. Effectively, the region stretches as far north as the Giant's Causeway and as far south as Glendalough. Some 3.1 million people live within 90 minutes of Dundalk, Newry and Warrenpoint. That is the size we are talking about.
The Louth Economic Forum operates under the chairmanship of Padraic White, and I wish to acknowledge his work. The forum has strongly recommended that we include the Slieve Gullion area of Armagh as part of this. It is critical to understand that the area cannot sell by itself. The Cooley Peninsula will not work by itself, the Mourne district might work but Slieve Gullion by itself will not. However, the three areas combined offer a genuine alternative to the Cork-Kerry axis, with all due respect.
I realise some Members did not contribute today but they are supportive of the project. Senator Terry Brennan, who is outside the committee, tried to come in, but we are over time. Deputy Joe O'Reilly has spoken on this issue previously as well, and I appreciate that.
Some proposals have been put forward. I propose we write to the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and include a full transcript of the contributions today. Each member is reported in the transcript. I propose to encourage the Taoiseach, who has regular contact with the British Prime Minister, to use his influence to highlight the importance of this project and to press for a decision. Timing is all important at an executive level.
We have consensus and general agreement on how we should go about it. We should write to Westminster and Dublin with the ultimate objective of getting a decision from the Executive. I thank members for their contributions and I thank the witnesses for the presentations today, which we welcome. Mr. Boylan put it in a nutshell when he said that it is not about politics but people.
If the witnesses want to do some research, there is a bridge in Donegal from the Fanad Peninsula to the Rosguill Peninsula. Prior to the bridge being built, all the talk was of the bridge, but no one mentions the bridge any more. Now, people there talk about being able to go to the post office, going to get a pint of milk and going to mass. The whole dynamic of the communities and their interaction has changed. At one stage, like Warrenpoint, south Down and County Louth, there were ferry boats, but there are no ferry boats there anymore. Mr. Boylan put it well when he said it is about people, not politics. We support him and thank him for coming today.