Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 5 February 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Developments in Cross-Border Transport Infrastructure: Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport
On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. We are meeting to discuss cross-Border developments in transport infrastructure. This topic has been identified by the committee as a priority for examination this year. The Minister had an informal meeting with the committee members on 12 November 2014 to discuss the A5 road project, in particular the allocation of funding for the development of a section of the N2 between Aughnacloy and Clontibret. The Minister agreed at that meeting that he would appear before the committee early this year to outline cross-Border transport infrastructure developments with specific reference to the A5 road project. The committee held an informal meeting with representatives of Monaghan and Donegal county councils yesterday to discuss that project and the development of the section of the N2 between Aughnacloy and Clontibret in particular. The Monaghan County Council delegates were Mr. Eugene Cummins, chief executive, Councillor Jackie Crowe, an leas-chathaoirleach, and Mr. John McKiernan, acting senior engineer responsible for roads. The delegate from Donegal County Council was Mr. John McLaughlin, director of services.
The committee also wishes to raise issues regarding the Narrow Water Bridge project. The committee engaged in an outreach visit on 13 November last to that project, following which it wrote to the Minister and other relevant stakeholders urging them to keep it on their collective agenda.
I invite the Minister, who is very welcome, to make his opening statement. Following that, I will invite members to ask questions.
It is very good to be here with all the members this morning. I acknowledge that the issues we are discussing today are very important to members, their constituents, the country in general and all the people on the island.
I will start by referring to the projects the Chairman alluded to, namely, the N2, A5, N14 and N15 projects. I am fully aware that the financial crisis has had a major impact on capital investment in roads and public transport. This was unavoidable to get the country’s public finances back on track. It has meant, however, that it has not been possible to make progress on a range of projects, and the reality is that budgets will continue to be constrained for some years to come. From a road safety perspective, the primary focus needs to be road maintenance and renewal rather than new projects. In this context, the only major road projects going to construction at present are those included in the 2012 Government infrastructure stimulus programme. However, I hope that over time the road budget can be restored to facilitate projects that can and will support economic development.
The proposed N2 upgrade project is one of the projects that has had to be suspended. Pending progress on the scheme for the road from Clontibret to the Border, phased improvement work is being undertaken by the National Roads Authority on the existing N2 national primary road between Monaghan town and Emyvale village to provide interim road safety and travel quality improvements.
On the A5, implementation of the upgrade project is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland authorities.
The quashing by the High Court in 2013 of the Minister for Regional Development's approval for the construction of two sections of the road has resulted in significant delay. The Northern Ireland authorities have been working hard on the additional evaluations needed in respect of the project. They have completed public consultation exercises on four reports intended to address impacts on all areas with environmental designations, including special areas of conservation, special protection areas and Ramsar sites, together with proposed mitigation measures. I understand that once consideration of the outcome of the public consultation on these reports is completed, the Department intends to initiate a public consultation process on an updated environmental statement, draft vesting order and the draft direction order for the scheme. It is possible that this will be followed by a new public inquiry regarding the scheme. However, this will be a matter for decision by the Northern authorities. I will continue to liaise with my northern colleagues on the project through the transport sector of the North-South Ministerial Council. The next meeting of the council is scheduled for April this year. In Donegal the N14-N15 proposed link to the upgraded A5 has planning approval and could be progressed, subject to the availability of funding, once the connecting part of the A5 is upgraded.
Turning to the Narrow Water bridge, the improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority, in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from local authorities' resources supplemented by State road grants paid by my Department. The selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter for the local authority. My predecessor, Deputy Varadkar, and the Government were very disappointed that the outcome of the Narrow Water Bridge tender process in 2013 was a doubling of the initial costs budgeted for by the project partners for the construction of the bridge and that, as a result, it did not prove possible to proceed with the project under the INTERREG IVA programme.
I had a meeting last year with officials from Louth County Council to discuss a possible alternative plan being considered by the local authority to advance the Narrow Water Bridge project. At that meeting I indicated that it was for Louth County Council and other stakeholders to develop the project proposal further. As the project, as outlined to me, would cost in excess of €50 million, it is necessary for a viable project proposal that will meet project appraisal criteria to be developed and for the project partners to identify sources of funding for a revised project. In practical terms such a project would require support from both sides of the Border.
As I indicated earlier, my Department continues to operate under a very constrained budget with the primary focus on repair and renewal of regional and local roads rather than new projects. I hope to be able to come to the committee with better news in the future, as our economy continues to recover, but I am confident that whatever progress can be made, given our current constraints, is being made. I look forward to hearing the contributions from the members.
I welcome the Minister. It is important that we discuss the issue of cross-Border connectivity and the upgrading of our road structure. Unfortunately, over many years during the Troubles the road network was neglected and there is a serious need for capital funding to be provided to improve the cross-Border road network. The roads between Monaghan and Tyrone, Monaghan and Armagh and Monaghan and Fermanagh are all in a poor state.
In the earlier phases of the PEACE funding a small amount of money was made available to open the Border roads, but no funding has been forthcoming in the intervening years to upgrade those roads to a standard that people in the rest of the country would expect of roads connecting major towns. The main road between Monaghan and Armagh, linking Belfast, requires upgrading but there are currently no proposals to upgrade that road. There are no proposals to do further work on the road between the county towns of Monaghan and Enniskillen. We are discussing the N2 and A5 in particular but all of the Border roads linking population centres must be upgraded. Without that infrastructural development it will be very difficult to increase trade in the Border region and improve the connectivity which it is hoped will lead to increased job numbers and increased investment in the region, which badly needs such investment.
The region has been left behind over many years. Both Governments must focus clearly on developing it. A large number of young people have had to leave areas on both sides of the Border to go to Belfast, Dublin or elsewhere to seek employment. We must start to focus on keeping people in the region.
With regard to the N2 and A5, we met a deputation from Monaghan County Council yesterday. Its members asked that the Government consider providing money for a design phase for the N2-A5 and for the N2 in the Republic. I appreciate the financial constraints on the Government. I understand that the capital requirements were previously agreed in 2012 and that it will be 2017 or 2018 before they are revisited. I welcomed the fact that the Minister's predecessor provided money to upgrade the road from Monaghan to Emyvale to ensure that the road, which was in very dangerous condition, could be improved. If this project is not going ahead, it is important that, in the short term, we seriously consider providing funding for a bypass of Emyvale. The volumes of traffic going through Emyvale are very dangerous for the residents. I receive many communications from the residents that something must be done in the short term rather than the long term to alleviate the problem. It is a narrow street but large volumes of traffic are going through it daily. If anything could be done to advance a bypass or a short-term solution for Emyvale, it would be welcome. It would also shorten journey times into the north west. It is the last stretch of road that would have to be completed between Monaghan and the Border to deal with traffic management issues.
There should be a greater level of engagement between the Roads Service in Northern Ireland and the local authorities in the Republic to do something in the short term to develop our local and regional roads. There is a lack of correspondence or joined-up thinking about what is being done. To give an example, if one is in Enniskillen one will not see a signpost directing one towards Monaghan. If a tourist is in Fermanagh, they will not know how to get to Monaghan. They will be sent to Cavan. It is on simple things such as this that the local authorities in both the Republic and Northern Ireland could get together and develop simple strategies in order that people can travel around the region in a coherent fashion.
Many people in County Monaghan wish to see immediate upgrades of the local and regional roads structure. In the longer term, it is important that the north west has greater connectivity. I am concerned that, from what I have learned from studying what is happening in Northern Ireland, it appears that Northern Ireland has cancelled all proposals to develop the road between Aughnacloy and Ballygawley. The only sections of road that are proposed to be developed in the North are the road between Strabane and Derry and the road between Omagh and the Ballygawley roundabout. The Northern Ireland authorities appear to have abandoned any plans to develop the road between Strabane and Omagh. That is worrying for us. If our Government puts money into a road towards Derry and Donegal, what is being done by the British Government and the Northern Assembly to develop the road between Strabane and Omagh? I ask that we find out the long-term proposals in that regard before we decide to press ahead, because we need to know what firm proposals there are in respect of that road. Clearly, this refers to connectivity to the north west, and if there is no proposal to bypass Strabane or to bypass Omagh, what is the position?
Those are my main questions. I welcome the Minister's attendance. The issue of cross-Border connectivity is very important. It has not been developed in the past and, as capital becomes available over the next ten years, I hope it will be developed comprehensively.
I wish to make a final point. I have not yet seen a proposal to develop a motorway between Monaghan and Dublin.
We have dual carriageways and motorways across the A5 and down from Aughnacloy to Clontibret, but at the moment there is a single carriageway from Monaghan town to Carrickmacross to Ardee and the only place one will find a dual carriageway is where it links up with the M1 south of Ardee. There is no proposal for the National Roads Authority to develop the motorway from the M1 interchange to Monaghan. That should be looked at in the long run, because when capital becomes available, there is no point in having dual carriageway on the least populated section of the route and a single carriageway on the more populated sections.
Mr. Pat Doherty:
I thank the Minister for his presentation. There will almost certainly have to be a public inquiry in the North coming out of the consultations. It is difficult to determine how long that will take because it is done by an independent group and the Minister must consider that report and give his direction order. From consultation with the Minister, Mr. Danny Kennedy, MLA, and with the road engineers, things are moving apace. I will come in a minute to the north-west initiative, which might speed all that up again. When the A5 stops, will the N14 and N15 proceed in tandem, so that the link-up is completed in the same timescale from Letterkenny right on to the motorway? What proposals are there to develop the N2 from the Border to Ashbourne?
I am sure the Minister is aware there is a section in the Stormont House Agreement relating to the north west and a proposed initiative to revamp the north-west gateway, which would involve Irish Ministers and Executive Ministers. That is proposed to meet in May. It is also proposed that the A5 would be top of the list in terms of speeding up that whole proposal.
On Deputy Conlan's question, the A5 covers the whole section from Derry to Ballygawley and on to the Border. When the southern money was postponed, the Northern Executive thought it could go ahead with two of the three sections, namely, Derry-Strabane and Omagh-Ballygawley. The court case scuppered that. The plans are in place for the whole of the road, and the inquiry will include the whole road, as originally proposed. Perhaps the Minister could answer the questions about the N14 and N15 and the N2 and make some comment on the north west initiative.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for his presentation. I note in his speaking note that he referred to the North-South Ministerial Council meeting taking place in April. We raised this issue, particularly in relation to the Narrow Water Bridge project when we visited it. Can the Minister give us any report on what has been happening at ministerial meetings until now? Perhaps his predecessor has a report on that. We also noted that he met Louth County Council and, as he rightly said, support is required on both sides of the Border to advance that particular project. However, the committee was hoping the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would have a role in promoting this and the other projects and that, along with the Taoiseach's office in relation to his meetings with the British Prime Minister, it would also support what the committee is trying to do. At every level we have been trying to do that. In practical terms, does the Minister have the outcome of any reports of those meetings? Can he tell us what projects he will be trying to raise at the next meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council?
I will respond to Deputy Conlan first. He discussed the neglect of the road network, the need for that to be addressed to facilitate economic development in that region and the need for local authorities and both Governments to focus on this. I fully accept the Deputy's point regarding the need for investment in that part of our road network, the maintenance of what is there and the delivery of new projects, to which he has referred. He will understand that my challenge at the moment is that I still have a constrained amount of money. I am looking to allocate that in the best way possible. If we continue to see improvement in our economy, particularly, I hope, in the context of the Government's next capital plan, my objective is to make more progress than we have been able to in the recent past in parts of our country with specific needs in terms of road infrastructure. Deputy Conlan asked me specifically about the N2, particularly in relation to Monaghan and Emyvale. I referred to this in my opening contribution, but to be more specific, the NRA has very recently confirmed funding, as I am sure the Deputy is aware - I just want to ensure it is on the record - of €2.274 million for interim safety works in that area, many of which are concentrated in the Monaghan to Emyvale area. That has happened. I am not in a position to confirm that we can fund any further projects now due to the constraints I have, but I am aware of the needs to which the Deputy is referring and the particular needs of the Border counties.
On Mr. Doherty's comments, I am aware of the possibility of a public inquiry taking place upon completion of the current phase. He asked specifically about the N14 and N15. My objective is that they would happen concurrently if the A5 progresses in the way that is proposed. The Deputy also asked about the N2. There are no plans for much of the work on this to take place, beyond what I have referred to, due to capital constraints. On the north-west initiative and the reference to the A5 in the most recent agreement, I am aware of that. To answer that along with Deputy Kitt's question about how that has progressed, to date, I have attended one sectoral committee meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council, but the transport project that was discussed most was the A5. To date, that has taken the form of the council noting its progress and where it stands in relation to the process to which Mr. Doherty referred. That is how it has been dealt with in the past. I expect it will receive a further update given what has happened since we last met several months ago.
On the role of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in those meetings, the Government is represented by me at the sectoral committees, but the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, is present at the broader committee meetings and contributes to them.
Deputy Kitt asked me about the contact from Louth County Council regarding the Narrow Water Bridge project.
I met with Louth County Council officials on that a number of months ago and wrote to the committee on the status of the project thereafter. The committee wrote to me, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach and we wrote back to say it was a matter for Louth County Council to progress, that it needs to be subject to full economic appraisal and that funding arrangements for the scheme would have to be identified. To date, I have not received further contact from Louth County Council on the points.
We welcome the Minister's attendance and submission. He is speaking from a position of direct knowledge. He was in my county last Monday where he announced a major initiative on connectivity to make the north west more accessible to Dublin which is the launch of the new air service between Donegal and Dublin. The Minister travelled on the A5 on the way back right down to Ardee and the M1. I have been travelling that road for almost 40 years, including before I became a Member of the Oireachtas, and I must note that there has been a major improvement in it. From the time one leaves Whitehall until one gets to the Border, one only goes through one town, Emyvale. It is a huge improvement. It does not hold anyone back.
When one enters the North from Aughnacloy through Strabane and Omagh, it is a very difficult road indeed. When I started coming here, that was the best stretch of road between Donegal and Dublin. We were always lucky to get into the North where there was a great service with no potholes, but now it is almost becoming a death trap. If one leaves Donegal to come to Dublin during working hours, one adds an hour to an hour and a half to one's journey. At this time of year, there are tractors, trucks and buses and one is taking one's life in one's hands if one tries to overtake. The other day, there must have been 30 to 40 vehicles between my car and the lead one. It was like a funeral cortege and it puts a great dampener on things.
Inquiries are under way, but can the Minister give us a timescale as to when the A5 will be upgraded? The Minister said there might be another public inquiry. I understand the Minister travelled from Letterkenny to Strabane, which is where the A5 begins. The only dual carriageway in Donegal is for five miles from Letterkenny. The rest of the road to Lifford is probably worse than the A5 and I would like to find out if there are any plans to upgrade it to improve connectivity and access to Donegal to support tourism and industry and facilitate people from Donegal travelling to Dublin hospitals. It is a crucial development for the economy of the north west. We want timescales and an overview of the difficulties in the North. What can we look forward to? Can we look forward to anything happening in our time?
I join colleagues in welcoming the Minister and his official and thank him for his presentation, knowledge of the situation and frankness, which is always a good basis for a proper discussion. I may not be able to wait to hear the response as I must make a Second Stage contribution in the Dáil. I will read the blacks later with interest as this matter is very relevant to the constituency I represent. The broad point which does not need elaboration but merits brief mention is that the Border area has suffered hugely over the years. That is reflected in a lower standard of living, higher unemployment and other difficulties. A major step in re-establishing normality is to develop the roads infrastructure and establish proper connectivity between North and South to allow people to travel both ways with ease. It is about getting normal commerce going to restore normal life. I also note that there are no air, rail or motorway links from the north west to Dublin as matters stand.
While the Minister was not able to make a specific promise today, I detected in his contribution a note of hope and an indication that he looks forward to being back shortly with good news. I urge him to do that at the earliest possible opportunity and to revert to the committee with positive news. My colleague, Deputy Seán Conlan, gives a very good exposition on the entire road network and the inadequacies North and South. He mentioned health and safety and the risk to life and limb around Emyvale and the need for emergency works there. I support him in that and ask the Minister to consider Deputy Conlan's suggestion. He has an immediate knowledge of the matter. I support the N2 section of the Clontibret to Aughnacloy road going to design stage and receiving funding as has been requested by Monaghan County Council. I record my support for the project and appeal to the Minister to bring it to fruition. If I recall correctly from our meeting with the personnel there, it will cost €1.5 million to carry out the design work. I urge the Minister to facilitate that as soon as the money can be made available.
As a person with an in-depth knowledge of economics, the Minister will know that with the fall in the value of the euro against sterling, there is a huge economic opportunity for the southern side of the Border region to sell into Northern Ireland and the UK at retail and every level. It is a reversal of fortune, which happens occasionally including now and presents a great opportunity for the southern end to prosper. In so far as this meeting is being observed, I urge retailers and manufacturers on the southern side to grasp that opportunity, in particular through the use of the Internet. There is a great opportunity to make Internet sales. I mention the matter for two reasons. It merits mention in its own right and it underlines the importance of a normal infrastructure including proper roads and connections. Proper roads facilitate economic activity. If we had a better road structure, the potential for Cavan, Monaghan, Louth and Donegal to benefit from the current economic opportunity would be much greater.
The case for the infrastructure is a compelling one. I detect hope and a certain imminence on projects and look forward to the Minister coming back to us. We all want to get out of where we were and into a new mental space away from the dreadful five or six years we have been through. I look forward to the day the Minister comes back with an announcement.
Mr. Conor Murphy:
I apologise for missing the Minister's presentation. I had responsibility for some of these matters in a previous Executive in the North and am well acquainted with the strategic significance of the A5, not just for the north-west region but the island as a whole. It is one of the last major routes that needs to be connected to the capital city. I welcomed very much the commitment of the Irish Government to these projects on the back of the agreement at Stormont at Christmas.
I know others made the case in regard to the A5 and I heard some of the Minister's responses, but I would like to focus, in particular, on the Narrow Water Bridge. I listened to the Minister's response in regard to the role of Louth County Council. I represent the area and there was significant disappointment because it had got so close to the line. The money was on the table from the SEUPB. The Executive in the North and the Government here had made offers, private money had been made available and both councils were involved, but we still fell short. I know there was an issue in terms of the specifications of the contract and the actual cost at the end, but we came so close to getting something for which people in the area had lobbied so much. It would be an iconic connection between North and South and would very much reflect the growing connectivity and the growing North-South business on the island. Most of us are Border representatives and we know the importance of these projects in an area which is opening up significantly to tourism, in particular south Down and the Mournes. The facilities there have been opening up quite substantially. The addition of the bridge would have a huge impact on the area in terms of bringing business to it.
I noted the Minister's response in terms of Louth County Council continuing to have lead responsibility, which is correct. We will try to get back to the stage at which we were and get the project over the line. My local council, Newry and Mourne District Council, which will become Newry, Mourne and Down District, is involved with Louth Council Council. Part of the support for this will have to come from the EU. The Government and the Minister's Department could have a significant influence in terms of the level of EU support being made available to Louth County Council for the project, which may have the effect of getting it over the line. The differential in the prices between North and South might have an impact of reducing the price of the project. Could I get an assurance from the Minister that he will continue to work with Louth County Council, the lead partner, to try to use whatever influence the Government here has in the European Union, whether through INTERREG or the funds that might become available through the SEUPB, to ensure there is a significant commitment from Europe, which will finally get this project over the line?
I will begin with Deputy McGinley's contribution and will make one broad point. When I was in County Donegal on Monday, I had the opportunity to meet the American Chamber of Commerce and a group of employers. All were united in saying that road connectivity was absolutely essential to economic development. They made the point - these considerations are applicable across the Border counties and in all the areas represented here - that from the points of view of cost competitiveness, skills and many other factors which play a big role in investment being attracted to an area or people making a decision to set up a business, the region is doing very well in regard to many things. Their belief was that road infrastructure and the need for connectivity on the island was essential to making the most of that. That was one of the reasons I made the decision to maintain the public service obligation arrangement between Donegal Airport and Dublin. I was pleased to see the reaction to that decision from the business community in the area.
Deputy McGinley asked about the timeline, when a public inquiry may end and what that process would be. That is very much a decision for the Northern Ireland authorities and the planning bodies involved in that. As the Deputy knows, I have no role in that regard but if we look at how processes like that have worked in the past, if a public inquiry were to take place, it is estimated that all that work would be completed around spring 2017. However, that is just our judgment on what the process would be.
Deputy O'Reilly made a point about the economic opportunity in the Border counties because of the change in the euro and the importance of local infrastructure making the most of that. The Deputy said he detected a note of hope in my voice. There is always hope in my voice when I look at things we are trying to deliver and move forward. However, that hope needs to be grounded in realism. My challenge is that while I have an amount of money which is, in many ways, better than it was a year ago, there is still a large number of competing demands on that money. I am doing my very best to see that money is allocated in the best way possible. It is because of that I cannot give a commitment currently to some of the significant projects for which everyone is looking. However, I am very clear on their importance. What I am trying to do in the interim is to find ways to progress other pieces of work that will make a contribution to road safety.
In regard to the point Mr. Conor Murphy put to me, looking back at the process that took place in regard to the bridge, the files and the discussions I have had with my officials, an important lesson is the need for real clarity in regard to the actual cost and to give everybody time to plan so that we do not find that many agreements are in place, as Mr. Murphy said, and much good work is done but, in the final phase, there is a significant change in the cost of the project which results in great disappointment for many people.
Mr. Murphy referred to the role of the European Union and the different sources of funding. That is an area where we both have skills and on which we have been working for quite a while in regard to different projects. We need real clarity in regard to the real cost of the project and while I will still face constraints in terms of the amount of money I have, it is precisely because we face those constraints that we would work to explore other sources of funding. INTERREG and SEUPB funding are the kinds of funding on which we would actively work with our colleagues in the North.
I wish to make a few observations on a couple of projects, in particular the Narrow Water Bridge. They may have been made before I came in, so I will not labour them. Perhaps the Minister might consider them. The Narrow Water Bridge affects my constituency of Louth, the constituency of Meath-East, the constituency of Mr. Murphy and other constituencies along the east coast. The potential of that project does not need labouring and has been discussed ad infinitumat Louth County Council. Indeed, this body has visited there more than a few times. I would like to reiterate the disappointment felt that the project did not go ahead. We were at the point where there was every possibility that it would move forward, so there was great disappointment.
We need medium-term and long-term planning in regard to these projects. I will make a couple of observations on which I would like to hear the Minister's views.We need a working group to deal with beneficial cross-Border projects, such as the A5, the Narrow Water Bridge and projects with lesser potential but with potential. Is there the possibility of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the corresponding body in Stormont establishing a funding subhead for all cross-Border projects so that on an annual basis, each Department would set aside some resources which would be ring-fenced specifically for this purpose? Every year, two years or three years, prioritising projects might be considered. In many ways, there is a parallel here with what the Central Bank of Ireland has done in regard to mortgages in that one needs to have a certain amount saved before one can get a mortgage. If some resources could be set aside - it would not have to be a huge amount - it would retain the commitment that these projects will be addressed.
I realise that there are political frameworks to be dealt with. They are fluid and will change with the passage of time. Assuming that there is a meeting of minds on the designs for the projects, these issues will come down to the availability of resources. The working group, which embraces technical rather than political aspects, will make considerable progress on agreeing the technical aspects. The A5 is a good example. It is very challenging and it is a long distance from Aughnacloy to Lifford. Much of the groundwork could be achieved over time. A great deal of time has been spent on the design work for the Narrow Water Bridge. The technical people have refined it and there are few opportunities to modify the plans. It is a single phase project. Other projects can be accomplished in several phases.
In respect of the working group, with its emphasis on technical people, let us establish the degree of commitment for this type of work North and South and establish a funding sub-head in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the parallel department in Stormont.
I know the A5 very well because we often travelled from Dundalk to Gweedore and stopped at Flinty McArdle’s in Hackballscross and Juniors in Castleblayney and we might have called into the pub in Moy Bridge if there was a stop, and the Traveller’s Rest. There was the Rossbracken Inn. They are all gone now. One has to go direct.
We spent more time off the road than on it, but of course we had a designated driver.
The A5 is nearly the last of the motorways needed. It would pay for itself because it would bring plenty of investment into those areas where it is needed. As a minimum we need certainty about the design for the part from Clontibret to Aughnacloy. There is no point having 400 m sterilised for the next 100 years for the farmers. The road from Strabane to Derry is like a switchback railway. It can take an hour to make the journey.
As regards the Narrow Water Bridge, there is no point in my repeating what Mr. Murphy and Deputy Kirk said except that INTERREG V does not cover funding for the Narrow Water Bridge. Let us not fool ourselves. If an application was made under the guidelines as they stand it would not be possible to get funding. The three Administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and here can do a great deal to change those guidelines, which are draft guidelines, and that at least would allow us to apply for funding under INTERREG.
In October 2013 the North-South Ministerial Council stated it supported the concept of the Narrow Water Bridge. That is a bit woolly and needs to be upgraded to a commitment to the provision of the bridge. Louth County Council will be very reluctant to do this on its own. It is the lead partner but that is for technical reasons. Somebody had to do it. As Mr. Murphy says, Newry and Mourne, or whatever it will soon be called, Louth County Council and the East Border Region are all partners in this. The Departments have to come in on this and realise that there is a need, under the Good Friday Agreement, to have special funding arrangements for infrastructural projects because none of them is happening. It is not the Government's fault. We need more movement and support on the North-South Ministerial Council. If that had been the case we might have the Narrow Water Bridge. That is a personal opinion. We were not far short of the money needed. What I am saying is similar to what Deputy Kirk said.
I thank the Minister for coming in here and for his presentation. We had a meeting yesterday with representatives from Monaghan and Donegal. It is very evident how the economy in the area has been affected by not having a proper infrastructure. It is no secret that Donegal has the highest rate of unemployment in the 26 counties. The emphasis on developing a proper infrastructure to develop the economy is of utmost importance. The members of this committee gave an all-party commitment yesterday to try to secure €1.5 million for the design stage on that road between Clontibret and Aughnacloy. It would be a positive move if the Minister was in a position to announce that, to give this committee, the general public and Border areas confidence. It is a small sum of money. The Minister’s estimate is approximately €2 million but we were assured yesterday that €1.5 million would do for the design stage. I would like the Minister to consider that.
I welcome the Minister. Yesterday we had an informal meeting of this committee with Eugene Cummins, the County Manager of Monaghan, John McKiernan the roads engineer in Monaghan, John McLaughlin, the roads services manager in Donegal and Jackie Crowe, the deputy chairperson of Monaghan County Council. The principal purpose of the meeting was the importance of the connection to the north west. They say it is an area of 500,000 people. It is a region of high deprivation and unemployment where the economic productivity lags behind the national average. Numerous people have pleaded with this committee for roads, broadband services and the whole social and economic development of the area. We all know these have lagged because of the civil strife and the area has not kept up with the rest of the country.
At the informal meeting on the N2 Clontibret-Aughnacloy road project, the Monaghan County Council manager, council engineers and members of this committee were unanimous that the €1.5 million should be made available for this 28 km project to be brought to design stage. Sometimes it is difficult to be on this committee as we need to show results from the Good Friday and the St. Andrews Agreements and we mean business getting funding into projects. Many people from different parts of the North come to the committee looking for assistance in developing economic activity for their areas. While I do not want to be annoying the Minister, political decisions are made by good Ministers. Getting this project to progress to design stage would indicate that this Government meant business in terms of opening up the whole of the north west.
Ms Michelle Gildernew:
Since I live in Aghaloo, Aughnacloy, I know the area well. It says an awful lot that I can be in Dublin quicker than I can be in Derry. The fact that we do not have the roads infrastructure means jobs are not coming to that area. The economic fortunes of the north west are dependent on this road. It is a death trap, as people take unnecessary risks because of its layout. The elephant in the room is the fact there is quite a bit of political opposition to this road’s development. That needs to be worked through. We would urge the Irish Government to do everything it can to make this happen. Otherwise, the north west will be economically barren, particularly when we are looking at an end to austerity and the growth of economic fortunes in the north west. Will the Minister do everything he can for the A5 and the Narrow Water bridge project?
If one practical benefit could come from this meeting, it would be the establishment of a working group to look at cross-Border connectivity. Such a group could examine all the options for all cross-Border roads projects, including cost-benefit analyses on each of those projects. The Minister was very clear about the lack of capital funding for the short term. When we have very scarce resources, we need to have cost-benefit analyses on all options to ensure money is spent wisely to get the maximum bang for our buck. We also need to look at traffic volumes on every one of these roads and ensure short-term funding to tackle issues such as bottlenecks. We need an overarching, joined-up approach to this issue. Accordingly, the setting up of a working group would be a positive development in this regard.
When funding does become available in the longer term, we will then be able to move on these projects. As Michelle Gildernew said, there are objections to the development of this project on both sides of the Border. These objections are strong and are down, I suppose, to the fact that people are frustrated when they see the lack of development in other projects and that we want to ensure money is spent wisely.
While I welcome the funding provided for the improvement of the road between Monaghan town and Emyvale, the road in the village itself needs funding for improvement too. Only a short number of weeks ago, a truck overturned in the village. It is a dangerous stretch of road and needs immediate attention. If some short-term funding could be provided to deal with that, it would be very welcome, regardless of what the long-term implications are for this project.
Will the Minister consider the establishment of a cross-departmental group to drive the A5 and other road projects?
I understand the Government agreed to put aside £25 million per annum in the 2015 and 2016 budgets for cross-Border road improvement projects. However, that £50 million has not been provided in the Department’s capital budget, and it has sought guidance from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. What is the update on this position?
I am concerned about the shortfall of €50 million on the Narrow Water bridge project. How did such a discrepancy arise? Has Louth County Council given a credible explanation for this? Experts are working on these projects, and it is worrying.
How does the Minister propose to address the issue of the Narrow Water bridge project and road upgrade projects at the next North-South Ministerial Council meeting in April?
Monaghan County Council wants €1.5 million to complete the design phase of the N2 Clontibret-Aughnacloy upgrade. The Department, however, estimates that the upgrade costs will be in the region of €2 million. We put this to the Monaghan county manager yesterday and he reiterated that it would cost €1.5 million. Will the Minister provide more clarity on his Department's position on this?
I thank members for their questions. I want to emphasise that I accept that to address the development needs of the region, we must improve the road infrastructure in the area. My challenge is that I need to meet those needs in the context of a fixed budget. The budget will always be fixed in the future. However, as we see economic recovery, I am aiming to ensure that not only will funding be there to better maintain what we have, but there will be funding to progress projects needed for the economic development of the entire island. When we get to that point, the projects raised here this morning will be considered. Members will be aware that I have representatives from many parts of the country making different points to me regarding projects in their areas. The A5 project has a political reference in terms of recent agreements that have been made to give it a particular status.
I have always recognised that in other contributions I have made to this committee.
On the proposal in regard to the working group on North-South connectivity, my initial response, although I will give it further thought, is that the North-South Ministerial Council, in which I participate regularly, is the mechanism through which my Department and I aim to progress these matters. I will share with the committee the minutes and communiqué that came out of the last North-South Ministerial Council, which touch on many of the points made here today. It is the main mechanism through which I progress these issues and matters in relation to the A5.
The issue of the Narrow Water bridge project was raised. It is an issue on which I touched earlier in my response to questions from Mr. Conor Murphy, MP. My understanding is that the final tender price was double the initial estimate. The project was estimated to cost €15 million and the final cost, which became apparent towards the end of the process, was approximately €30 million. I do not assign singular responsibility for this to anybody, because that is the work of others. None the less, it is important to make the observation that if a project doubles in cost during the tender process this poses acute difficulties for everybody, including the Government, the local authorities and anybody else making a contribution to it. I am sure some of the members here today could make the point that an additional €15 million in the context of the overall size of my capital budget could easily be found. However, the fundamental point is that if a project doubles in cost and is very different from what people originally expected, finding the additional funding for it is exceptionally difficult. The disappointment expressed by many speakers today is shared by Government.
In regard to progress in this matter, before I can get into how funding for it will now be committed, or, as Deputy Kirk said, how we propose to plan for these things in the future, I need further clarification about the project. Senator Jim D'Arcy asked who will do this.
Let us not scapegoat Louth County Council. It is the only body that has spent money on this project. It has spent more than €1 million to date on it. Nobody else has spent a penny. The estimate was provided by Roughan and O'Donovan and not Louth County Council. The costing was analysed, including by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Everything was above board. I would be very annoyed if Louth County Council, which took on this project on behalf of everybody else, was blamed for what has happened. It succeeded in getting the then Minister, Deputy Varadkar, to change his mind on the tender issue. I have all of the relevant letters. We need to move forward with this project and discontinue blaming Louth County Council for what went wrong. Louth County Council deserves only credit for driving this project. The Minister's official, Mr. Dominic Mullaney, knows that. He has assessed the situation and has been very fair about all of this. Let us move forward with this project.
I pointed out in my earlier contribution that I am not assigning responsibility for what happened to anybody. I said that. Lest there be an inference that I am in a position of assigning blame or responsibility for what happened, I draw everybody's attention to what I said. I have the height of respect not only for members here but for Louth County Council, the officials of which I have met. I draw everybody's attention to what I said in my earlier contribution in response to a question from the Chairman. I do not ignore questions from committee members. I clearly stated that I am not assigning responsibility for what happened to anybody. These are complex engineering projects comprising many different moving parts. Alongside that, it is a fair observation to make that if a project doubles in cost it causes difficulties.
I accept the Minister's final point. We have an effective, efficient and dynamic working group which puts a particular emphasis on the technical challenges that will apply in every case. The consultants' estimate of the Narrow Water bridge project needs to be analysed. Hopefully, when the recommendations are being made to the Minister and his counterpart the underlying reason for the additional cost will be identified. There must be some underlying reason for it. We need to know if this was the result of an error of calculation on the part of the consultants or an underestimation of the issues involved. It is important to bear in mind that the work involved is specialist work. That point should not be overlooked.
The Minister mentioned that people come to him from all over the country with different projects and so on. The remit of this committee is implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
I agree with my colleagues' remarks on the Narrow Water bridge project. I could not believe what happened. I thought it was a certainty. It is important that we get clarification on who made the mistake. It is critical that we get that information.
Was the local authority on the other side of the Border as enthusiastic about this project as Louth County Council? As I understand it, the whole county had bought into that project. Were the people on the Six Counties side as enthusiastic about it? I have heard rumours.
That is a question for other people to answer. I was very clear in answering the question that the Chairman put to me. I am not today seeking to assign responsibility or blame for what happened to any individual or party. As a Minister who is accountable to the Dáil for how money within my Department is spent and who deals with issues such as this all the time, I stand over my observation that projects that double in cost cause grave difficulties in terms of progress.
On the question regarding the Government's commitment to the A5 project, this was recorded as recently as the Stormont House Agreement. I have reiterated that the Government is committed to providing €25 million across 2016 and 2017. Yesterday's meeting of Monaghan County Council and the two matters arising were mentioned. On the difference between the estimates of €1.5 million and €2 million, I regret that I am unable to answer that question now, but I will forward a response on the matter to the committee. In regard to the commitment to provide €1.5 million to progress that work, I cannot give that commitment now for all the reasons I have outlined. I will take on board what the committee has said on this matter.
I understand Louth County Council is responsible. It is a statutory responsibility. We have asked how the discrepancy arose and if the county council has given a credible explanation for this. Has it given a credible explanation for the €15 million in question?
If the question is addressed to me, I cannot give an answer. I am sure we engaged with the council on the project when the original decision was made in 2013. That is when the tender process was completed. Across that period is when the cost would have changed. I can revert to the committee about the discussions we have had with Louth County Council.
We were very confident it would happen. If mistakes have been made, they should be highlighted at a committee like this. I look forward to the Minister returning with the information and some explanation as to why the project doubled in cost. It caused much embarrassment for everybody involved. This committee would be right to ask those questions.
To respond to Senator D'Arcy's point about my not answering the question, I did not do so as I am not in a position to answer the query with hard facts and information. I will not make comments that I cannot stand over. I will revert to the committee within the next two weeks with our own observations on what happened in the process.
I thank the Minister and his officials for coming before the committee today. The discussions have been very informative and productive. We look forward to working towards implementation of the A5, the Narrow Water bridge and many other infrastructural projects.