Probably the worst road in Northern Ireland

News has just reached me of yet another fatal crash on the A27 Portadown-Newry road. My sympathies are with the family at this time.

The A27 is one of the – if not the – worst trunk roads in NI. Whereas most trunk roads are generally of good quality with occasional lapses, this one is little better than B-class for most of its length, with only short stretches of quality (ironically, the best section of the whole A27 is the non-trunk section between Portadown and Lurgan). This is the official route between the third-largest urban area in NI and Dublin?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the 1960s, the proposal was that a motorway – the M11 – would run from Lisburn to Newry, and the Craigavon Development Plan had provision for road links from this motorway to the New City. But the motorway plans were shelved and Craigavon itself was abandoned half-built, with several roads that it didn’t need and without several roads that it did.

I have a personal hatred for the A27, having lived south of the border for the last few years. Driving north to visit family I face the unappealing prospect of twenty miles of substandard road, and on most occasions I avoid it altogether. I prefer to take the 5-mile C-class road from the A1 at Loughbrickland to Gilford instead – although it is of much lower quality, it is relatively short and almost always deserted. This is of course far from ideal.

The ideal solution would be a new trunk road that takes the most efficient route across country between the A1 and Craigavon, and would replace not only the substandard A27 but also the substandard A50 between Portadown and Banbridge. If the B3 from Lurgan to Gilford was also upgraded, it could take further traffic out of Waringstown and Banbridge. The economic benefits of improved connectivity to the A1 Belfast-Dublin strategic route would be substantial, and lives would be saved. 10 miles of safe new road to replace 20 miles of deadly old road sounds like a bargain to me.

The island of Ireland is a political straitjacket

One of the great ambiguities about modern Ireland is the confusion between Ireland the island and Ireland the independent state. Both officially go under the same name, although one can often avoid ambiguity by using prefixes (Republic of Ireland, island of Ireland). This actively contributes to Ireland’s political problems, because it closes one of the escape valves normally used to resolve ethnic conflict – redefinition.

When Austria-Hungary was divided up into its component parts after WWI, the border between Austria and Hungary was redrawn. A sliver of land which was traditionally part of Hungary had over the years become majority-German speaking. On independence, this area (today known as the Burgenland) was transferred to Austria so that the border more closely matched the ethnic divide. Effectively, the words “Austria” and “Hungary” were redefined to suit changed reality.

That option is not open to Ireland. Unlike land frontiers, coastlines cannot be altered at the stroke of a pen. The Ulster Unionist movement redefined the boundary between the UK and newly-independent Ireland by creating a Burgenland of their own, Northern Ireland. But the escape was not clean – the word “Ireland” stubbornly remained in use for the entire island, and was included in the name of the new state (despite the efforts of many to adopt “Ulster” instead).

To confound matters, the sea boundary between Ireland and Scotland also forced NI to be defined maximally so as to ensure a viable territory – by contrast, the Burgenland is only 5km wide at its narrowest point. If NI had been created merely as a two- or three-county state the ethnic balance would have been much more equitable, but politically it would have been less stable. Consider a counter-factual – if Scotland and Ireland were connected to each other by a land bridge, it is likely that the frontier between them would have shifted back and forth several times in history. The plantation of Scots in Antrim and Down would have been expansionism, not colonisation. An eventual redrawing of the Ireland/Scotland frontier a few miles further into Irish territory would likely have been (reluctantly) accepted as the price of peace, as it was in Hungary.

But the North Channel is an immovable frontier, and Ireland’s status as an island is thus a political straitjacket. Its extent is fixed by the sea in perpetuity, and an equitable repartition would leave NI as an unviable state. In addition, the island as a “natural” political unit has both an economic logic and a romantic appeal – it is no accident that ethnically-divided islands provide more than their fair share of the world’s intractable conflicts. Ethnic nationalism can sometimes work if practical frontiers can be found. But islands frustrate this process, and in Ireland no such practical frontiers are possible.

One cannot define an ethnic Irish identity, because the geographical Irish identity is in conflict with it, and cannot be altered to match. Ethnic nationalism is thus doomed to failure in Ireland, because ethnic-Unionists (“Huns“) cannot submit to an Irishness based on ethnic-Nationalist (“Taig“) identity, but neither can they escape it. Political and cultural neurosis is the inevitable result.

The need for cross-border infrastructure

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.

Time for change … change the time that is

Seán Barrett TD, chair of the Oireachtas committee on climate change, proposed in a press release on Wednesday that Irish Summer Time be retained year-round:

Brighter evenings in the winter would significantly reduce peak electricity demands, saving hundreds of thousands of CO2 emissions, equivalent to removing many thousands of motor vehicles from the roads.

He runs through the usual arguments in favour of lighter evenings, although he gets a little mixed up at one point:

There is no coherent reason why we should not synchronise our time with Europe in the interests of increased economic activity.

What he is proposing is not synchronisation with “Europe” (which has multiple time zones for a start), but would create a novel Irish time zone which would align with that of France and Germany (Central European Time) for just five months of the year. While most countries in Europe would continue to change their clocks forwards and backwards, Ireland would remain a constant rock in the surrounding tide.

Of course, any such time zone would stop at the Border, and local residents would certainly be displeased about yet another arbitrary dividing line being drawn across the land. But there would equally be an outcry if NI were to have a different time from London for five months of the year. It would appear that the only politically uncontroversial way for the Republic to change time zones would be as part of a co-ordinated effort with the UK.

Luckily, there are quite a few voices saying similar things in London. Veteran time zone campaigner Tim Yeo MP appeared on Newsnight on Monday (H/T @athtrasna) to argue a similar case – although his proposal envisions a uniform one-hour shift to CET/CST, a system often known as Single/Double Summer Time. This was used in the UK between 1940-45 and again in 1947, during which time Ireland used Barrett’s favoured year-round summer time, the only period since 1916 that Dublin and London failed to synchronise clocks. A later experiment with year-round summer time in 1968-71 was a joint project which was abandoned due to unpopularity in northern parts of the UK, but the National Farmers’ Union in Scotland has reportedly softened its opposition to revisiting the proposal in recent years. Another three-year experiment may be on its way soon.

Daylight saving time is almost universal in Europe with the sole exception of Iceland, despite daylight saving being invented specifically to offset the effects of northern latitudes. Although it lies far enough west in the Atlantic to justify using GMT-1, Iceland runs on GMT all year round, with the same net effect as Barrett’s proposal. Perhaps when a country is so far north that the sun barely rises at all in December, it isn’t all that important what time of day it happens.

The only European country to change its time zone in recent years was Portugal, which ran on CET/CST for a few years in the 1990s but reverted to Western European Time after public complaints. Some of these objections raise a smile, for example (from Hansard):

It caused particular inconvenience through its impact on schoolchildren, which became a big issue in Portugal. The change had a very disturbing effect on children’s sleeping habits as it would not get dark until 10 or 10.30 in the evening. It was difficult for children to go to bed early enough to have sufficient sleep.

In Galway this week it hasn’t been getting dark until nearly midnight. But perhaps sleep cycles owe a lot to culture and ingrained habit and can’t be easily unlearned. Western Australia has been trying, and failing, to introduce summer daylight saving for decades (from United Press):

Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett said he had voted for daylight savings but predicted before the count that his side would lose.

“It’s a very clear result,” Barnett told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “West Australians don’t like daylight saving. We’ve just got to accept the reality, West Australians don’t like daylight saving and we simply won’t have daylight saving.”

The issue pits business owners, who support daylight savings in the summer, against farmers, who oppose it. The state tried a trial period, ending March 30.

Those crazy farmers again.

More on continents

I posted before that the borders of Europe are purely arbitrary. It occurred to me that it might be amusing to test this theory to destruction.

A continent is pretty easy to define – it is a large landmass entirely or almost entirely surrounded by ocean. By this definition, Europe and Asia are not separate continents but a single Eurasia. If we disallow any exceptions and remove the word “almost”, we find that Africa is not a separate continent either, and North and South America are also one. Most people would not go this far, and since it would end my blog post prematurely, I won’t either.

The definition above is thus full of subjective terminology: “large” and “almost entirely surrounded”. We should be careful to pin these down, and the best way to do so is to examine the edge cases. Australia is generally considered a continent but Greenland, the next largest landmass, is not. This is generally attributed to Greenland’s proximity to North America, making it an island thereof, but this cannot be sufficient to disqualify a continent. South America is closer to North America than Greenland is – you can’t get much closer than touching, after all. A better distinction would be that Australia has its own tectonic plate (as does South America), whereas Greenland shares one with the rest of North America.

So what about “almost entirely surrounded”? Considering the Americas and Africa, we see that their umbilical cords of land are narrow compared to their coastline. Determining the lengths of coastlines is mathematically tricky since they appear to get longer as you examine them more closely (this is a common property of fractals). Land areas are more stable quantities – we could therefore compare the square of the width of the narrowest point (roughly the area of the largest postage stamp that can be dragged from one continent to the next without getting its edges wet) with the total area of the continent. In the case of Africa, this ratio is roughly (200km)^2/(3*10^7km^2) = 1/750, which is certainly small. Let us be generous and define “almost entirely surrounded” as meaning that any land bridge has square width less than 1% of the area of the continent in question (in the case of Europe, this ratio is greater than 100%).

So our definition of a continent might now read:

A landmass that is surrounded by ocean, save for any land passage whose square width at the narrowest point is less than 1% of the total area, and which constitutes the greatest such landmass on a particular tectonic plate.

This works brilliantly for the Americas, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. It also, surprisingly, works for Eurasia as a whole, if we are willing to gloss over the fact that Eurasia spills over onto a few tectonic plates other than its own:

Tectonic Plates (from

Tectonic Plates (from

For an even more detailed view of tectonic plates, try this.

So what, I hear you say. You’ve taken two screenfuls of analysis to reach an obvious conclusion. Yes, I reply. But I can extend that analysis a little further. How do we treat those large parts of Eurasia that do not lie on the Eurasian plate? There is already a precedent – the Indian subcontinent, which is separated from the rest of Eurasia by mountain ranges and which corresponds almost exactly with the Indian tectonic plate. Despite a Wikipedia entry to the contrary, the term “subcontinent” has not been consistently applied to any other geographical area. I propose that it should.

Tectonic plate boundaries mostly lie underwater; ocean ridges generate new seafloor, which creeps across the globe and disappears back into the mantle at the bottom of trenches. Constructive dry-land boundaries, such as the one currently opening in the African Rift Valley, do not stay dry for long (in geolocical terms) as their floors sink and eventually the seawater pours in. Destructive dry-land boundaries on the other hand, are spectacular, giving us the great non-coastal mountain ranges of the world. This is exactly what happens at the land boundary of the Indian plate: not only has it created the Himalayas, but an entire chain of fold mountains from Baluchistan to Burma.

So perhaps we can define “subcontinent” by modifying our definition of “continent”:

A landmass that is divided from the rest of its continent by a plate-boundary mountain range, save for any land passage whose square width at the narrowest point is less than 1% of the total area, and which constitutes the greatest such landmass on a particular tectonic plate.

The above definition fits not only the Indian subcontinent but also an Arabian subcontinent corresponding closely to the Arabian plate, the mountains of south-eastern Turkey and western Iran quite effectively separating it from the rest of Eurasia. More interestingly, it would also fit a “Cherskian subcontinent” in far-eastern Russia, which roughly matches that part of Eurasia that lies on the North American plate, and is separated quite effectively from the lands to the west by either the Chersky or Verkhoyansk ranges (the Chersky range corresponds more closely to the plate boundary, but the Verkhoyansk range is more prominent). Since plate boundaries are not particularly useful on the surface (which exact fault do you draw the line along?), watersheds would seem more useful:

Watersheds (from

Watersheds (from

Note that the watersheds drawn by the image author are by no means exhaustive: at least one watershed can be drawn between any two points on the coast of a single landmass (possibly more if the landmass has endorrheic basins, as shown in grey above). You can clearly see the Indian and Arabian subcontinents picked out, despite the author’s less than ideal choices of endpoints (I would move in the eastern boundary of the Indian SC to somewhere on the west coast of Burma, and include the thin Levantine coastal strip in the Arabian SC). Not shown is the watershed defining the Cherskian subcontinent, but it can be seen below as the eastern bound of the Lena catchment:

Lena catchment (from s3)

Lena catchment (from s3)

I’m quite taken with Cherskia – it’s the size of India but with the population of… well, I have no figures to hand but I can tell you it’s not much. Unfortunately it doesn’t hold water as a modern cultural region, unlike the Indian and Arabian SCs, but perhaps in the distant past when the Paleo-Asiatic cultures were more widespread in the area… who knows?

And still I haven’t found a boundary for Europe (told you it was hard). But we’re nearly there. Using watersheds as boundaries has a long pedigree, and the world map above has some pretty good ones despite its flaws. If we consider “core Eurasia” as the bit left over after removing the three subcontinents, it divides nicely by watershed into three further regions: “Atlantic Eurasia” west of the watershed between Hatay and either Nordkaap or the White Sea (pick one); “Pacific Eurasia” east of the watershed between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Burmese coast; and “Central Eurasia” between the two. Surprisingly, these correspond reasonably well to historical cultural areas, but also to emerging modern regions. “Pacific Eurasia” is the modern Asia-Pacific. “Central Eurasia” was the heartland of the Altaic peoples (Turks, Mongols etc.), then mostly came under Russian and Soviet influence. “Atlantic Eurasia” corresponds more closely with the likely extent of the E.U. in 2025 than does the standard geographical definition of Europe.

There are still flaws. The definition of “Atlantic Eurasia” is not as clear as its Pacific counterpart – due in no small part to its lack of good mountains. The watersheds that run through European Russia are unremarkable on the ground. But perhaps we see some of the attraction of Central Asia for Russians – throw a bottle in the river in Moscow and it will wash up on the shores of the Caspian, not of America. Meanwhile, the snowmelt in Kiev flows into the Med.

Update – It suddenly occurs to me that the presence or absence of ice-free ports might be a practical way to define the northernmost tip of the Atlantic/Central Eurasian watershed. This of course is subject to global warming, so may not be sufficiently permanent…