Friday, June 3, 2016

The first cross border bridge since partition

Narrow Water Bridge Community Network in the Dáil

I love the Cooley peninsula and its two mountain ridges. I have walked Slieve Foye, Maeve’s Gap and the tranquil valley of Glenmore that lies below them, many times over the years. Long before I was elected as a TD for County Louth the Cooley mountains were for me a place of relative peace and welcome. With Dundalk Bay on one side and Carlingford Lough on the other it is a stunning landscape, with seascapes, to take the breath away.
Standing on Slieve Foye you can see Slieve Guillon inland to the west along with the ancient volcanic hills of south Armagh. 60 Million years ago Guillon was a volcano and the ring of Guillon is the remnant of a volcanic dike. Across Carlingford lough to the north and north east stretch the Mourne Mountains. It’s also an ancient granite volcanic range with high peaks, including Slieve Donard, Slieve Muck, Slieve Commedagh and many others. Nestled in between is Silent Valley with its huge stretch of clear mountain water that satisfies the thirst of the people of county Down and Belfast.
From the Cooley peninsula, to Guillon, and the Mourne's the region is full of exceptional areas of beauty, special areas of conservation and environmentally sensitive areas. It is a region of unsurpassing beauty.
It also has a rich past of myths and legends and a history that stretches back thousands of years.
There are cairns and passage graves and ring forts from the Neolithic period. Guillon contains what is left of around 20 large stone tombs. At Clontygora, and Ballymacdermot there are two of the best examples of Court Tombs in Ireland.
Legends of ancient heroes including Fionn MacCumhailll, and the Fianna, and of Cú Chulainn, and Queen Maebh are part of this landscape. The Táin Bó Cúailnge- the Cattle Raid of Cooley- is probably the best known of the epic tales of Ireland.
From the Vikings to the Normans foreign invaders have also left their mark on medieval towns like Carlingford. Norman castles are dotted across the region. In more modern times the impact of partition has had an enduring ad adverse impact on life in the region. The disruption to communities and to business and trade has been enormous. It is no accident that the border region suffers disproportionately from higher than average levels of unemployment and social deprivation. Nor does it receive the same levels of investment, particularly in tourism, that other regions do.
I tell you all of this because in an effort to enhance the economic and tourism potential of the area there has been a long standing campaign to build a bridge across the stretch of water close to Narrow Water Castle, just outside Warrenpoint. The bridge would connect south Down with north Louth.
In recent years Louth County Council, Newry and Mourne, and Down district council, local community organisations and political parties supportive of eth project came close to beginning construction. And then it all fell apart. Higher buildings costs and the refusal of the government to provide additional funding to fill the gap saw the project stall. But it hasn’t gone away.
Last September in the negotiations that led to the Fresh Start Agreement I raised the issue. In a separate section dealing with the Narrow Water Bridge the Irish government confirmed that it “remains committed to the concept of the Narrow Water Bridge, which would provide a valuable North-South link between counties Louth and Down with potential to provide jobs and a significant boost to tourism in the area.”
The Agreement went on to state that ; “The Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government agree  to undertake  a review of the project with a view to identifying options for its future development , for consideration by the North South Ministerial Council in June 2016.”
Last week I asked the Taoiseach about the bridge. He confirmed that “initial discussions were held by a group of officials from the North and South which took place in December. Further meetings have taken place and a report will be provided for the June meeting. In addition, officials from North and South met in Newry in April with a view to dealing with the extent of the review. The Government is committed to the Narrow Water bridge concept, which has the potential to provide jobs and a significant boost in the future.”
The meeting of the North South Ministerial Council is due to take place next week, on June 10th in Dublin.
Also last week I hosted a meeting in the Dáil for TD’s and Seanadóirí where they were briefed by Jim Boylan and Adrian O Hare of the Narrow Water Bridge Community Network. If you want any more information on the bridge and its economic significance I would urge you to check out their Facebook page- it’s excellent.
Both men and their colleagues spoke eloquently of the importance of a bridge at narrow Water for the local economy and especially for tourism. They pointed to the regions unique location midway between Dublin and Belfast with their airport and harbour hubs. The potential to increase tourist numbers through walking and cycling holidays, golf, angling and equestrian activities is clearly enormous. Thee financial implications of additional tourists was spelt out by Adrian when he quoted Fáilte Ireland tourism which states that for every one million euro of tourist expenditure 34 tourism jobs are created and one thousand additional tourists into the Cooley’s, Guillon and the Mourne’s can support 18 jobs.
The recent appointment of Sinn Féin MLA Chris Hazzard as the north’s first Infrastructure Minister gives an added impetus to the Narrow Water project. In his first statement in the job Chris acknowledged that there “are a number of significant projects underway to develop our road network including the A5 and A6 and I will be working with the Dublin government on progressing projects like Narrow Water Bridge and the Ulster Canal.”
So, there is real opportunity to achieve a quantum leap forward in economic development and tourism for south down, south Armagh and north Louth. We need to persuade the Irish government to move beyond agreeing with the “concept” to investing in the bridge.
A bridge at Narrow water would be the first cross border bridge project since partition. Now isn’t that a goal worth achieving.

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