Tuesday, 17 December 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister for being present to take this very important Topical Issue matter relating to the cross-Border infrastructural projects, the Narrow Water bridge and the A5 motorway.
On foot of last Thursday's UK election, it is clear that Brexit will happen in some form and that is key to the timing of Deputy Brendan Smith and me raising this matter. A commitment has also been given that in any withdrawal agreement the North of Ireland would be accorded some form of special status. More importantly, the programme for Government made a commitment that the Narrow Water bridge and the A5 motorway would be supported and encouraged.
The Narrow Water bridge will be an important economic stimulus for south Down and County Louth in the context of job creation, investment and tourism opportunities. We need to work with the new UK Government and alongside the EU to create a scheme for funding this important item of infrastructure. The Narrow Water bridge project has been 40 years growing and we all know the difficulties it experienced in the last possible round of funding. A cursory glance at the infrastructure along the Border, leaving aside the A1 and the Belfast-Dublin train line, shows that, believe it or not, we had much better connectivity in the 1950s and 1960s. All one has to do is look at the train tracks that were lifted from Dundalk, Monaghan, Enniskillen, Bundoran, Derry and Sligo.
My colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, will deal with the A5. We are aware that in recent years almost €17.4 million was offered in respect of this project and that the contract came in at more than €12 million in excess. I want to see this project being delivered as part of a commitment to the all-Ireland economy and to the people of this island, North and South.
I thank Deputy Breathnach for outlining the merits of advancing cross-Border infrastructure. The Minister will have heard me voice many times in this Chamber, and in meetings I have had with him, my concerns on the inadequate infrastructure in the Border region. That inadequacy will exacerbate problems we have and the economic challenges that will arise on foot of Brexit.
A decision was made by the then Fianna Fáil Government - in the aftermath of signing the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrew's Agreement - that the State would provide substantial funding towards the upgrade of the A5 in Northern Ireland. This project is particularly important to the north-west of the country, including County Donegal. The Minister will have heard our colleagues, DeputiesGallagher and McConalogue, speak eloquently about the need to advance that project. I am also concerned about the N2 part of that route. The Minister is aware of the ongoing public consultation process in respect of upgrading the part of the route from Clontibret to the Border and the part from Ardee to Castleblayney. It is very important that the views of the local communities are fully taken into account in deciding on the preferred route. I am very anxious for a commitment to be given to ensure that the N2 and the A5 projects will be progressed as quickly as possible. The delay on the A5 has not been on our side of the Border; it has been due to political difficulties in Northern Ireland and to a number of planning issues. We must look at our economy now as an all-Ireland economy. If the infrastructure in Northern Ireland is deficient, it is a deficit for our economy in the South. Similarly, if our infrastructure is deficient on the southern side of the Border it will be a negative for the economy north of the Border. We must look now to our economy in an all-Ireland context. We must also look to the provision and upgrading of infrastructure on an all-Ireland basis. I appeal to the Minister to send out a message that funding will be provided to ensure that there will be no undue delays in progressing the upgrade of the N2, which is critical for County Monaghan, and the A5 project, which is so important for Tyrone, Derry and Donegal.
I thank the Deputies for raising these two very important subjects, which are absolutely related to each other. The current funding arrangements in relation to the A5 are also governed by the Fresh Start agreement. Under this agreement, the Government is committed to providing funding of £75 million towards the cost of phase 1A of the A5 upgrade scheme once the statutory planning process in Northern Ireland is concluded. The implementation of the A5 upgrade project is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland authorities. As is the case for the all such capital projects, the A5 upgrade scheme is subject to the planning assessment and approval process in Northern Ireland, and since 2012 there have been a number of legal challenges to approvals related to the scheme, leading to unavoidable delays to implementing the proposed scheme.
Following the conclusion of legal action in 2018, the Department for Infrastructure updated project environmental assessments and undertook a public consultation on a number of environmental reports, including the environmental statement addendum 2019. Having reviewed the responses, the Department concluded that a further public inquiry is required. It is understood that the inquiry will be held in February 2020. Allowing for the time required for the conclusion of the public inquiry and for a new decision to be taken on whether to proceed with the scheme together with the possibility of a further legal challenge, the timeframe for the start of construction of phase 1A of the A5 project is uncertain. In view of the current state of play regarding the A5 scheme and the timeframes involved, provision is not being made in the calendar year 2020 for funding for the scheme. The Government remains committed to the £75 million contribution and the senior officials group established on foot of the Fresh Start agreement will continue to liaise regarding the project with a view to delivering on that commitment.
A Fresh Start - the Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan, includes a commitment that the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government would undertake a review of the Narrow Water bridge project with a view to identifying options for future development for consideration by the North-South Ministerial Council, the NSMC. A progress report regarding consideration of options for a Narrow Water bridge was considered by the NSMC in July 2016 and the Council decided that work should continue on the development of options. While the NSMC has not been sitting for a number of years, the senior officials group, comprising officials from Northern Ireland and the South, which is responsible for liaison in respect of the Fresh Start agreement, has been meeting. Senior officials have continued to review of options around the Narrow Water Bridge proposal, which has included meetings with relevant stakeholders. In engaging with stakeholders, officials have highlighted the need to assess all potential options objectively to ensure the best outcome for the area and the best use of public funds. In this context the criteria identified for assessing options were: linking the two communities on both sides of the Border; encouraging and enhancing overall tourism in the cross-Border region; and protecting the natural environment on both sides of the Border. Following on from that, the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure started work on preparing an business case for a Narrow Water bridge scheme. The purpose of the business case is to consider the need to construct a bridge over the Newry river and appraise options to ensure any proposal put forward is likely to represent value for money. My Department has provided input into this work.
It is the case that the proposal for the Narrow Water bridge must be considered in light of welcome developments relating to the Newry southern relief road, NSRR, since 2016. The NSRR, which is included in the Belfast city deal, would provide an alternative route for strategic traffic that avoids Newry city centre and links to the eastern seaboard, the A1-N1 Belfast to Dublin key transport corridor, which includes road and rail links between Larne and the border at Newry, facilitating onward travel to Dublin and improving access to other regional gateways. The Department for Infrastructure has conducted a community consultation on the NSRR this year to help identify clearly the advantages and disadvantages in environmental, engineering, economic and traffic terms of the preferred route.
The current proposal for the NSRR is likely to include pedestrian and cycling provision as well as connectivity to the B79-RI73 Fathom Line leading to Omeath and Carlingford. The overall assessment of the case for a Narrow Water bridge, including in the context of developing a wider tourism initiative for the region, is not at a stage where there is a clearly defined and costed scheme. It is not possible, therefore, to ring-fence funding for a Narrow Water bridge scheme in advance of future decisions on the scheme, including consideration by a reconvened NSMC.
I appreciate the Minister's candid response. I reassure the Minister that Louth County Council has reconfirmed that planning permission is in situon both sides, and more importantly that both planning permissions have not expired. They are in situ. To date Louth County Council has expended €2.2 million on this project. We need to follow that investment for what I consider an iconic symbol of our preparedness to continue on the road of cross-Border co-operation and to not allow that expenditure go to waste. We have had 21 years of peace. A changing of the political landscape should afford us the opportunity to commit to the Narrow Water bridge as a symbol of peace. We hear plenty of talk ABOUT building bridges. If there are people with a vision to build a bridge from Larne to Stranraer in order to link the North of Ireland and Scotland, then this project of a bridge spanning 660 m is infinitely more achievable. A development such as this would bring great trade, tourism and connectivity to both communities.
There appear to be further delays with the proposal to get the A5 upgrade going, which is regrettable.
That is beyond the powers of the Oireachtas or any Minister here. A clear message could go out if the Minister ensures the N2 upgrade is progressed as quickly as possible. Monaghan County Council will do a very good job as the project promoter for the planning and design work on behalf of itself and Louth County Council. The message should go out that there will be no delays following full consultation with the local people and local communities. It is extremely important.
I emphasise that the north west and north east have particular challenges due to the fact we have a Border. We will have additional challenges with Brexit because it will have nothing but adverse impacts regardless of what way Britain leaves the European Union, and we sincerely hope it will leave with a good deal for the European Union and Britain. We need to send out a clear message that the Government and the State are fully committed to cross-Border infrastructure and its development.
With regard to what my colleague, Deputy Breathnach, said on the Narrow Water bridge, in my early days in politics I remember when we spoke about restoring the then Ballyconnell-Ballinamore Canal people told us it could not be done. That was back in the early 1990s. It was transformed and the engineering ability was there. It has become the very successful Erne-Shannon Waterway. The political vision was there to do it at that time and that is what we need again.
If I can satisfy Deputy Smith, and it is probably something that is difficult to do, I would certainly say the commitment of the Government to both of these projects is absolute and total. There is absolutely no pullback on them whatsoever. As the Deputy said, the commitment in terms of funds is there. The £75 million is committed to and we stand absolutely 100% behind it. There will be no pullback on that either. As the Deputy said, and as he knows, what is happening is there are perfectly legitimate, and very regrettable in many ways, delays on this and they are on the other side of the Border. We cannot do anything about them. They have been going on for a long time and every time there is one legal action it seems to be followed by another. These are proper planning objections and they are right. Those of us in a hurry to benefit the Border region and benefit tourism and show commitment to cross-Border roads and bridges regret this is happening but we must allow these procedures to happen.
Let me assure the Deputy that our commitment to the A5, which is a cross-Border commitment and a cross-Government commitment, is as great as his was when he was in government. At the earliest opportunity, that cross-Border project will go ahead. It is not our doing that is holding it back. We are particularly conscious of this not just in the light of what the Deputy has been saying continuously, which has been helpful, but because of what is happening in Brexit. We understand fully the need to promote, and we have acted upon it, activity in the Border regions.
This applies equally to Narrow Water bridge raised by Deputy Breathnach. There is no hesitation there either but there are certain difficulties because of the options presented. Whereas our commitment is equally strong in that case, we cannot actually ring-fence money for something that is not defined at this stage. Our commitment is there and the Deputy can take my word that substantial funding will be made available at the appropriate time when the project is defined and costed properly.