A recent post over on Slugger attracted a lot of attention because it made an apparently unanswerable case that there is an infrastructural east-west divide in a Northern Ireland. Although I myself have long been strongly supportive of improved road links to the North West, I would suggest the case that the West is particularly poorly served by infrastructure is, at the very least, debatable.
The maps in the linked post appear obvious – all of Northern Ireland’s motorways bar a small stretch of the western M1 and all of Northern Ireland’s railways except the scenic Coleraine-Derry line lie east of the Bann. Obviously, therefore, the West is poorly served?
Well, not necessarily. Here, for example, is the straightforward Google map covering all of Northern Ireland:
Sure, all of the blue seems shifted to the east, but what about the green? If you choose to focus on primary roads rather than specifically motorways, suddenly the West does not seem particularly poorly served at all.
It is true that there is only a limited amount of dual carriageway in the west, but there have been notable expansions to the dual carriageway network there in the past few years, including the extension of the A2 from the outskirts of Derry to the airport and the extension of the M1, as the A4 expressway (the first in Northern Ireland in fact) to Ballygawley. There were also pre-existing stretches which clearly hinted at greater things to come before the Troubles intervened (notably the A29 north of Cookstown). Much of the single carriageway network in the west is in fact superior to that in the west; with their hard shoulders, the A6 single carriageway is better west of Toome than east of it and the A4 in Fermanagh is generally much better than, say, the A3 or even the A7 further east. Therefore, in terms of the basic primary route network, it is far from clear there is a west/east divide.
It should be noted that there are also stretches of road, most obviously between Lisburn and Newry (currently still a basic dual carriageway, not even an expressway), which are blatantly sub-standard but which serve significant social and economic corridors.
Then we come to population density. This again can be visualised here, courtesy of Wikipedia:
The Belfast “Travel to Work” area accounts for less than a sixth of Northern Ireland’s land mass, yet it contains half the population. Not only is it therefore inevitable that the wider (multi-lane) roads are generally found there, but also that money will be spend on freeing up major intersections to improve traffic flow. Railways and expressways require critical mass – of the type found in areas as densely populated as Greater Belfast and the area around it, but not in rural Tyrone. Furthermore, even purely objectively, the above map shows there is at least a case for prioritising the Belfast-Armagh-Dungannon corridor (more or less the old Linen Triangle) ahead of any other – as was done when it received the first motorway.
The above map also demonstrates rather clearly why the A5 corridor (well to the west) was never prioritised before the Irish Government offered specific money towards it. In fact, the priority North-South corridors (linking M2/A6 to M1/A4) would objectively be Antrim-Lisburn and Magherafelt-Cookstown-Dungannon. Building an expressway to link such comparatively small population centres is not redressing a balance, but rather shifting it clearly in favour of the west. There is an economic case for doing that (albeit a highly contested one), but we need to be clear that is what is proposed.
The map also shows why it is difficult to maintain railways in the west. With such a low population density, in practice people need cars to move around from and to precise locations at precise times. With the population thinly spread and cars necessarily predominating, there is simply no chance that mass transit will be widely used. Overlay the current Northern Ireland rail network on the above map and you will see it is far from illogical that it serves where it serves.
On top of all of this is the reality (countered only by a heavily subsidised airport in Derry) that Northern Ireland’s ports of entry are in the east. Again, it is understandable why two ports and two airports are positioned in the Belfast area (and a third main port along the Belfast-Dublin corridor), given that most people and goods are arriving in from the east and, not least as a consequence of that, that is where most people live. Noteworthy also is that Northern Ireland’s main cross-border corridor is (understandably for the same reason) along the east coast to Dublin. This does not just mean that people entering Northern Ireland generally do so (again, to emphasise, for wholly understandable reasons) in the east, but so does freight. To get goods into Northern Ireland requires in practice bringing them in to Belfast (either directly or via Dublin along the east coast) and then distributing from there. It is hardly surprising, in this context, that infrastructure will reflect this reality. Put another way, good infrastructure around Northern Ireland’s ports of entry serves everyone in Northern Ireland, not just those who happen to live near them.
It is interesting, therefore, that we hear plenty about “evidence-based policy-making” but we do very little to explore the basis on which that “evidence” is developed. Clearly people living in the west, and perhaps Nationalists in general, will prefer to promote aspects of the Slugger article linked above to make their case, and they are not wrong to; but people in the east and perhaps Unionists more broadly will prefer to emphasise the points above. The notion that there is one set of “evidence” on which all decisions must be based is flawed. It depends, somewhat, on exactly what your vision is and what you are trying to achieve.
Nevetheless, we can say with certainty that the case that the West is uniquely poorly served by infrastructure in Northern Ireland is less clear objectively than it is to people in the West!