AN IRISHMAN'S DIARY

 

THE fanfares and the dancing girls unleashed upon the world to celebrate the Dublin Northern Cross motorway suggest that its completion means we have finally mastered the arcane arts of cold water fusion or time travel. Not quite. What we have managed to achieve is to build a strip of motorway 11 kilometres long of the kind the Netherlands completes every week or so, with no more than a discreet flourish of a celebratory tulip. It certainly would not be the cause amongst the solemn Dutch of the kind of cosmic celebrations which the Northern Cross has occasioned.

I made my first stately journey along the Northern Cross the other day, on my way up North. Very nice. A motorway, no less, of the kind which Germany had built hundreds of miles of 60 years ago. Perhaps it was because I was beside myself with excitement at travelling on 11 whole new kilometres, of motorway that I did not notice the signs which the very properly pessimistic planners have erected to warn travellers that they can expect a 20 minute queue in order to exit this splendid, new, world beating 11 kilometres of motorway.

Something Missing

I must be missing something here. If merely to exit a motorway can be expected to take 20 minutes more than travel time - and if they warn of 20, we may presume they mean more at peak travel times - what precisely have we gained from the £70 million spent on this splendid new route?

No doubt eager Japanese and awestruck Californians can be expected to shuffle up to examine this eighth wonder of the world, and to talk to the stationary drivers sitting in their cars and ask them what they think of this splendid example of Irish road building. But is that it? Is that the sum total of our road building endeavours for the year?

It probably is. We are probably meant to look pleased when we hear that completion of the southern part of the motorway, linking with the Wexford road, might take another four years. Given our timekeeping in such matters, perhaps we might expect the slip road to the main road to Wexford to take a little longer - perhaps that extension might be complete by, say, the 30th anniversary of our joining the European Community? That would be nice after all, it was accession to the EC which led to the road from Belfast to Wexford being designated an official European route.

Within three decades of joining the European Union, despite the Golconda of money which has poured into our train de gravee from Brussels, we have still not managed to enable drivers to get from Dublin to Belfast without an intimate exploration of the innards of Balbriggan or the suburbs of Drogheda and Dundalk and drivers south heading for the great Europort of Rosslare might spend a happy hour or two in Ashford or Arklow, pondering upon the meaning of life.

Interesting Suburbs

And really, the little bits of motorway which have been built here and there, the only real purpose of which seems to be to facilitate airborne invaders landing by gliders, have not reduced travel time between Belfast and Dublin at all. Oxford taxis in Belfast in the 1970s used to pride themselves on getting from the centre of the Northern capital to RTE in Donnybrook in two hours 10 minutes. I made the journey from north Dublin via the utterly splendid, world beating, God it makes you proud 11 kilometres of Northern Cross - to the centre of Belfast the other day in two hours and 15 minutes. The first 50 miles - that is to say, in the Republic, and including the quite amazing, eat your hearts out you envious Yanks Northern Cross - took one and a half hours. The next 50 miles, through Northern Ireland, and including the Newry by pass which managed to open without a ha'pworth of publicity, took just half that time, 45 minutes.

There were no delays between the Border and the centre of Belfast. None. It was a clean run, unimpeded by anything save a traffic light 100 yards from Donegall Square. In Dublin it was moderately different. To reach Balbriggan, via that intriguing complex of traffic lights and roundabout outside Dublin Airport - no doubt the economies of not building a cloverleaf junction made so much sense at the time - took more than 30 minutes. Balbriggan it self provided such an acutely protracted longueur that it was no doubt that which caused the auxiliaries to burn the place down in 1920. I would have one the same myself, had I had any matches on me. I certainly bad the time to.

And then there was Drogheda and Dundalk - what exquisitely interesting suburbs the "by-passes" take one through what a procession of truly fascinating traffic lights await the vigilant traveller ever restless or more entertainment as he or she lingers, awaiting movement on the rocky road to Belfast. And then between the two of them there is sweet Castlebellingham, which must now have the distinction of being the most juggernaut ravished village in Europe.

Dublin is Choking

What I find puzzling is not these failings - we are merely human after all, and little imperfections such as making a complete and utter mess of roads and transport policy over nearly three decades might happen to any one of us. What is astonishing is the political quiescence which greets this monumental, blundering State incompetence and inertia. There is no outcry. No heads roll. Careers continue unabated in an unabatedly mediocre way.

No price is paid except by the traveller and by the economy.

The economy ah yes, the economy. Celtic tigers and all that nonsense. We preferred to featherbed uneconomic farming rather than building an infrastructure for a modern state, and soon we shall be paying a high price for this reckless improvidence. Dublin is choking - the other day there was a two hour queue to get out of the new Jervis Street centre, and mobile phones were being passed around to let families know all was well and no ransom was required.

This year, nearly 130,000 new cars will be registered in Ireland - where will they all go? Stupid question - on the spiffing new 11 kilometres of Northern Cross, of course.