Looking at Northern Ireland’s road network objectively, only a crazed observer would pick the A5 as the next road requiring an upgrade – and, if they did, there is no way even a crazed observer would suggest it should be effectively replaced by a new motorway. Advertised as the “main Derry-Dublin road”, in fact it really links Derry to a few towns in West Tyrone. Even the Republic of Ireland, which now enjoys the finest expressway network in the world, has not bothered to build its equivalent road to a similar status as far as the border coming the other way.
That the road still receives any coverage is pure Nationalist fantasy, led by Sinn Féin. The problem is, such fantasies cost serious money – they result in allocations of money to projects which will never materialise, and therefore away from where it is really needed.
The most serious recent example was welfare reform. In the words of commentator Deirdre Heenan, Sinn Féin has now “capitulated”, agreeing to implement welfare reform provided £90 million is set aside for “mitigation” for “vulnerable people”. Sinn Féin has no idea what “mitigation” means, nor who these “vulnerable people” are, but that is not the worst of it – the worst of it is the same deal would have been agreed two years ago if Sinn Féin has asked for it, but its grandstanding has resulted in £200 million which could have been used for “mitigation” for “vulnerable people” in this part of Ireland instead heading back over the water to Britain.
In some ways, the same applies to Corporation Tax reduction, an issue on which Sinn Féin tosses away its left-wing ideology to pursue an all-island rate regardless of whether or not it is appropriate. It can be argued whether reducing Corporation Tax is a good thing or not, but to do it purely because it was done in the Republic of Ireland (with its less generous income tax bands, higher VAT and new public sector levies that no one in the North cares to mention…) is the height of madness.
So it is with the A5. At the height of the Celtic Tiger, the Irish Finance Department was throwing money about left and right, offering half the funding for the A8 upgrade from Belfast to Larne and the A5 upgrade from Derry to Aughnacloy, theoretically on the grounds they would assist Southern Irish traffic (heading for Scotland or Donegal). The funding never seriously materialised, but the offer skewed road priorities in Northern Ireland so that the Belfast-Larne (A8) and Derry-border (A5) routes suddenly, and for no good reason other than the money on offer, became more important than Belfast-Derry (A6). The A8 expressway is due for completion in May but was in practice a much smaller project than the 80-kilometre A5, which has not even commenced on the ground. Neither project should really have been higher priority than the outright dangerous bottle neck through Moneynick on the A6 (between Randalstown and Toome) and even the Dungiven Bypass. Yet again, however, in the Stormont House Agreement the A5 appears, with the Irish Government offering a paltry further £50 million (probably not even 5% of the funding actually required and not enough even to commence work on the ground) and Sinn Féin suggesting that this offer means somehow the A5 should continue to be prioritised despite the absolute lack of evidence for so doing.
It would be useful of course if Sinn Féin had a serious opponent in the form of a party prepared to say that fantasy projects – whether cross-border or not – cost us all in the long run. Unfortunately, the SDLP in its current guise is every bit as populist as Sinn Féin on such matters.
Put simply, Nationalists want to spend £800 million on a single road for which there is no budget – double the amount to achieve the same outcome on the Derry-Belfast route, six times the most we have ever spent on a road project here, and roughly equivalent to the entire annual spending of our Economy departments! Oh dear. Unfortunately for Northern Ireland’s collective interests, we are therefore doomed to dealing with those who believe in fantasy finance for the foreseeable future.