Narrow Water bridge project hangs by a thread
If funding shortfall can’t be met within a month, politically important bridge will not be built
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, who visited Belfast on Friday, said he would like the bridge to go ahead, but that it was a question of “hard cash”. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire
A cross-Border bridge, finally approved in July, may be lost unless a multimillion euro funding gap is resolved urgently.
It is understood that unless agreement on a funding package of up to €15 million is secured “within weeks”, EU monies already dedicated to the project will have to be reallocated to other viable projects.
The cost of the structure, which would link counties Down and Louth at Narrow Water between Warrenpoint and Carlingford, has spiralled since the EU, the Stormont Executive, the Irish Government and local councils on both sides of the Border decided to go ahead with the €18.3 million scheme less than two months ago.
The leading bid has costed the bridge at over €30 million leading to a funding gap which, if not met, will force the abandonment of the politically and commercially symbolic scheme which has been years in the making.
The bulk of the money is coming from the European Regional Development Fund, courtesy of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) headquartered in Belfast. About 25 per cent of the original estimate has been allocated jointly by Stormont, Dublin and the East Border Region Ltd – an umbrella organisation for local authorities.
However, with the projected cost rising to nearly double original estimates, informed sources claim the scheme has about a month to secure the required funds. The increase in the projected cost is understood to be due to a range of factors, not least the price of imported raw materials. Cost rises are normal during the tendering process, and are even expected.
Newry and Mourne Council in Co Down and Louth County Council have increased their commitments while a private benefactor, whose identity is known to The Irish Times, is also understood to be working on a €4 million package to help secure the scheme. However the remaining funding gap is of a scale that, realistically, only the Government or the Northern Executive can meet it.
Stormont has already made clear that no additional funds above its original commitment will be offered. The Government in Dublin is adopting a cautious approach in the run-up to the budget.
Privately, at least one senior Minister has said the Narrow Water scheme will not be lost. However the Department of Transport has said it will “consider the matter further” only if the Stormont Executive reviews its decision.
“Such a consideration would take place in the context of a further planned reduction in expenditure on roads next year and the fact that the Government has decided to focus the limited resources on maintenance and upkeep of the existing road network, rather than expenditure on new projects,” the department said in a statement on Friday.
This year a political row erupted at Stormont when former finance minister Sammy Wilson criticised enthusiastic Sinn Féin and SDLP backers of the project for creating a “political smell” around the scheme, about which most unionists are lukewarm at best.
Mr Wilson eventually committed some €3.6 million in Stormont funds to the plan, shortly before he was replaced in the Executive by his DUP colleague Simon Hamilton. His approach and that of Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar are now viewed as central to the viability of the plan.
Despite the rising cost projections, the SEUPB says there remains a sound business case for the bridge.
“In the meantime I know there is a group of private developers very interested in putting a ferry across Carlingford Lough, which would allow people travelling that beautiful road along the coast along Antrim and Down to cross [the lough] without backtracking inland.
“If that were up and running earlier it might give the piece of infrastructure tourism needs relative to Carlingford. But the permanent solution is the Narrow Water bridge.”
Parties and public bodies on all sides agree that the coming month is both critical and highly sensitive.
SDLP South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said: “There is now frustration at political and community level that the project is subject to further delay.”
Calling it an “iconic and economically-vital North-South project”, she said it was “vital that we continue to harness the political and community support behind this project”.
Sinn Féin Assembly member Caitríona Ruane believes “there would be no better use of taxpayers’ money than to give the residents of north Louth and south Down an economic catalyst that will enhance their everyday lives”.
“I am confident that a cocktail of funding can be brought together if everyone plays their role.”
Meanwhile, the SEUPB remains “in discussions on the financial viability and deliverability of the Narrow Water bridge, with the project’s lead partner, the East Border Region Ltd”.
“Until these discussions are concluded, the SEUPB is unable to comment further on the matter,” it said.