A Northern Ireland council is to engage with the Shared Island Unit following a Stormont department’s refusal to move on a £50m open bridge plan.
Newry, Mourne and Down District Council (NMDDC) has agreed to lobby the Republic of Ireland government body to fill a financing gap, following a refusal (in a letter to the council) by the permanent secretary of the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) to do so and instead progress with a closed bridge design.
The Southern Relief Road non-opening bridge will look to link traffic from Warrenpoint harbour area to the A1 bypass for onward journeys to Belfast and Dublin.
However, NMDDC reps support an open bridge plan to allow tall ships to sail into the city’s Albert Basin as a tourism boost to the area.
Newry City SDLP councillor, Michael Savage said: “The sentiments from the permanent secretary (DfI) are disappointing, that said I thought there would have been more conducive discussions taking place, when you hear from permanent secretaries that there is nothing, but problems with budgets.
“But when a potential budget arm that could be available through the Shared Island Unit and fund has not been explored or to quote the permanent secretary’s letter, is a ‘matter for the Irish government’, you would think there would be more reason to collaborate across the island in relation to mutual infrastructure projects.
“I believe that DfI are planning to meet with us in the coming weeks to outline in more detail in relation to this in an engineering perspective. But the bottom line is this is about more than engineering and more than budgets.
“I understand that the economic appraisal element of this would have been very difficult to stand up for anybody or any minster regardless of who they were. But what value do you put on future potential for tourism development, which is one of our key economic drivers within council.
“That’s a question, that I don’t think any permanent secretary or anybody counting the beans would be able to give or evaluate on.
“That said, I firmly believe that there is an opportunity, before we go down this route of a fixed bridge that it appears DfI are determined to do , that we exhaust the opportunities with the Shared Island Unit.”
The Shared Island initiative, was set up in the Republic in 2020, to harness the full potential of the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement to enhance cooperation, connection and mutual understanding on the island and to engage with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future.
The Irish government has already allocated over €50m from the Shared Island Fund to move ahead with strategic investment projects such as the Ulster Canal, Narrow Water Bridge and the North-South Research Programme.
In the last week, the Albert Basin hosted a flotilla of boats as part of Carlingford Cruise Week, a tourism attraction, the chamber heard would be an example of what would be lost with the closed bridge option.
Cllr Savage added: “I have spoken with NMDDC senior management, which is yet to receive a response from the Taosieach’s office in relation to engagement with the Shared Island Unit.
“What I would ask would be alongside the meeting with DfI, is that we invite the Shared Island Unit to come to council, to discuss the possibilities in how they could potentially provide funding for projects of a mutual interest on this island. And potentially give us an update on Narrow Water Bridge.
“At least they had the foresight to have a lifting element of that bridge, whenever the design was put together.
“The overall feeling I have is that this is disappointing and it’s so matter of fact in (DfI’s) response that we need to continue to push and exhaust all options, until such time they are exhausted, that we don’t just rubber stamp to a fixed bridge, just because it suits people in the Civil Service, who just get it processed and over the line.
“Now, I know there is an urgency in this in relation to Warrenpoint port, I understand that, but if we are going to do this, we need to do it right.”