As someone who travels the A1/N1 route on a semi-monthly basis, the official opening of the new Newry bypass, months ahead of schedule, is very welcome news. I have watched it take shape over the last few years and have been a regular user since the M6 reached Athlone and made the alternative routes from Galway to Portadown or Belfast comparatively less attractive (I enjoy the scenery on the N17/N16/A4 route, but not getting trapped behind a tractor). For those people travelling to Belfast, three at-grade roundabouts at Hillsborough and Sprucefield are the last remaining obstacles to a stress-free journey, and long-overdue upgrades to these junctions are now at the planning stage. These upgrades, and the A5 upgrade now in development, show a welcome new commitment to improving cross-border links from Dublin to Belfast and Derry.
But I don’t normally travel directly to either city, and my typical journey exposes where the cross-border infrastructure strategy falls down. The Craigavon urban area has a population similar to that of Derry or Limerick, and larger than Galway, but has no (existing or planned) high-quality road link to Dublin, or anywhere else across the border for that matter. To get to Portadown I have to leave the high-quality A1 and travel for twenty miles at low speed along one of the worst A routes in the country, or alternatively stick with the A1 as far as possible and take a rural short cut, which satisfies my need not to be trapped behind traffic but probably doesn’t reduce my journey time. This reflects many years of short-sightedness in official circles, when the border was treated as an edge and roads to destinations beyond it did not deserve investment.
The neglect is now starting to ease, thanks to high-profile projects such as the A1 and A5 and small-scale ones such as the reopening of severed rural roads, but in the middle there is a glaring gap in provision. With Dublin Airport offering the only direct international flights to many destinations such as the USA, links to it from regional towns in NI are just as important as those to Belfast International. The same applies to Dublin and Rosslare ports. The north-south economy is not limited to Belfast and Dublin, and concentration of infrastructure on a single axis does not bring the fruits of co-operation to regional towns. Much has been written about the economic disadvantages of the border region – foremost among those is a lack of infrastructure. Border and near-border towns such as Craigavon, Armagh, Monaghan, Cavan and Enniskillen need infrastructure links to both Dublin and Belfast if they are to become attractive places to locate businesses – with the possible exception of Armagh, each of these is currently only well-connected to one or the other.
The solution is a programme of investment in not just major cross-border routes but regional ones such as Craigavon-Newry, Enniskillen-Cavan and Cavan-Monaghan-Armagh. To complement this, consideration should be given to reopening the Belfast-Sligo railway line which used to pass through the heart of this border region, and would link up with the newly-reopened Sligo-Galway-Limerick route. The money for such investment may not be available in the current climate, but it’s not too soon to make preparations for a time when it is.