Planners have given the go-ahead for a controversial €18 million cross-Border infrastructure project backed in the main by EU funding. However, plans to build a bridge at Carlingford Lough linking north Louth and south Down are awaiting authority from Stormont Minister for Finance Sammy Wilson before work can commence. He has yet to commit €3.36 million and is raising questions about planning procedures.
The plan could yet fall in the absence of a nod from Mr Wilson, with one well-placed source telling The Irish Times there were "weeks rather than months left" before time ran out on the funding availability.
Nationalist critics in Stormont say he is politicking with an important scheme as he has little commitment to enhanced North-South links. But he has told the Assembly there is a “political smell” surrounding the bridge plan, which has been given planning permission with what he suspects is undue haste.
The SDLP environment minister has angrily rejected this suggestion, while Sinn Féin insists that “Sammy is the only person holding up the entire project”.
Envisaged is a 660m bridge that would span the neck of Carlingford Lough at Narrow Water. The location is the scene of one of the bloodiest attacks during the Troubles, in August 1979, in which the IRA killed 18 British soldiers and seriously injured six more. The scheme will link Down and Louth just outside Warrenpoint to the north and Omeath to the south. The strikingly designed structure can also open to allow boats to access the Newry Canal and the Albert Basin in the city.
The scheme has the backing of An Bord Pleanála and the Government.
Local representatives on both sides have been pushing for a bridge for more than a generation, certain in their belief it will boost the local economy, especially tourism in the Cooley peninsula and the Mourne mountains, while easing significant traffic congestion in Newry just five miles away.
The Troubles made any such consideration an impossibility, but communities on both sides, along with Louth and Newry and Mourne councils, are now keen to see the first sod turned. Local unionists on the northern side still harbour doubts but have not been as outspoken as Mr Wilson and seem prepared not to stand in the way of the scheme as long as it does not kill off other plans for a new Newry relief road.
Pamela Arthurs, who helped lead efforts to build the bridge on behalf of district councils, said: "We initiated this in 1976 and this has been a major project, but it is not just about the fact that we will have a bridge: it is what it symbolises in how far we have come as a country."
Stormont environment minister Alex Attwood has sounded both an economic and a constitutional note when he claimed the bridge would be the most significant cross-Border scheme since partition.
Mr Wilson, however, provoked one of the stormier scenes in the Assembly in December when he questioned the propriety of Mr Attwood's prompt planning approval decision and suggested there was "a political smell" about the move. The previous month his party had demanded an inquiry into EU funding for the scheme.
Sinn Féin and the SDLP have been hounding the DUP minister on the issue ever since, privately believing he is the guilty party when it comes to politicking and insisting he commits his relatively small share of funding so that completion will meet the 2015 opening date.
Earlier, First Minister Peter Robinson called for an inquiry into the granting of EU funds for the plans to the growing ire of nationalists.
“This proposal attracts cross-community and cross-Border support. It is a planning application that builds trade, tourism and relationships,” Mr Attwood has said.
“It is an application that Europe wants to support, Dublin wants to support and Belfast should support. It is hard to fathom why a few want to impede its progress.”
Sinn Féin South Down Assembly member Caitríona Ruane said: “Sammy is now the only person who is holding up the entire project.
“There has been positive support from the floor of the Assembly to a motion calling for the construction of the Narrow Water bridge and we now need to consolidate all the positive work by all parties on both sides of the Border, and by elected representatives in Europe and the local Chamber of Commerce and start to plan the construction of this bridge.
She also sounded a warning note: “The positive economic benefits of having this bridge have been expressed many times, but we cannot continue with a minister who seems reluctant to spend money outside of greater Belfast.
"We need to embrace the same position as Irish transport Minister [Leo] Varadkar, who has given the go-ahead for the project to move to the next stage, as even [former] US ambassador Dan Rooney has lent his support for the project by saying there is a compelling case for its construction during a recent visit to the site."
DUP sources, from Sammy Wilson down, say they are wary the final bill for the bridge could be left with the already cash-strapped Stormont Executive. But SDLP South Down MP Margaret Ritchie and Sinn Féin president and Louth TD Gerry Adams reject this.
"If Sammy Wilson would just approve the remaining funding package then the financial package already put forth [by the EU] will not be lost and the bill will not be left with the Northern Ireland Executive," said Ms Ritchie who alleges the DUP wants funds diverted from cross-Border plans to loyalist urban areas instead.
Mr Adams said: “Every effort now needs to be made by the Irish Government and the Executive to expedite the construction of this bridge.”
Mr Wilson's office has confirmed the issue rests with him and a decision is due.