A BRIDGE TOO FAR?

In March I wrote about the ongoing controversy over the plan for a new cross-border bridge at Narrow Water linking County Down near Warrenpoint with Omeath in the Carlingford peninsula in County Louth. Now the project has been given the go-ahead by the Northern Ireland Finance Minister Sammy Wilson of the DUP and the way has been cleared for funding of €17.4m to be obtained from the Special EU Programmes Body under the INTERREG scheme. The BBC reports that the scheme for the bridge 660 metres (2,165 feet) long will be subject to various conditions in relation to its upkeep by Newry and Mourne Council as well as Louth County Council.

Proposed Narrow Water Bridge

Proposed Narrow Water Bridge

They have been talking about the project since 1976 when the East Border Region committee was formed by ten councils on both sides of the border, years before the Anglo-Irish agreement or the Good Friday agreement. The provisional EU offer of help last year was welcomed by the EBR Committee Chair, Councillor Jackie Crowe, a Sinn Féin member from Monaghan.

Proposed Bridge

Proposed Bridge

The approved scheme is for a single carriageway cable-stayed bridge across Carlingford Lough, which will be able to open to enable tall ships, leisure craft and other marine vessels access to Victoria Lock and the Albert Basin in Newry. The total length of the scheme is 660m while the towers have a height of 90m and 37m respectively. The design is by Roughan O’Donovan Consulting Engineers, who were also responsible for the new Boyne Bridge on the M1 near Drogheda.

Margaret Ritchie MP

Margaret Ritchie MP

The SDLP MP for South Down Margaret Ritchie has taken a keen interest in the project since her involvement with the East Border Region Committee as a Councillor in 1985. She paid tribute to people such as her predecessor Eddie McGrady, Jim McCart, Donal O’Tierney and Barney Carr, who she said had never faltered from their belief in the bridge and who had shaped the economic debate for it and kept the project alive during very difficult political times in the North. In March she had raised questions with Sammy Wilson and accused him of dragging his feet in approving the Stormont contribution to the project.

Following a meeting with the Minister today Ms Ritchie said she was delighted to confirm that residual funding had been secured to allow the construction of the Narrow Water Bridge, which she described as one of the most important North South projects to be brought forward.

“Narrow Water Bridge will enable, not only many jobs to be provided in construction, but also will be a vital gateway to the Mournes on completion. It will be an important catalyst for economic investment and tourism not only in South Down and the Cooley Peninsula but throughout the island of Ireland. The project is a shining example of how far we have come as a community and in our North South relations. It also symbolises the future of our economy, which is in our tourism product, and this is now something, thanks to the peace process that we can export worldwide“, she said.

The MP said she had been making robust representations to secure funding for this project for considerable time and previously had met with all other funders including the Taoiseach, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement Committee in Dublin. She said today was a very positive day for the Narrow Water Bridge project, the people of Warrenpoint, Kilkeel and the Mournes and she thanked everybody who she said had worked so hard to bring the project to this now very advanced stage.

Narrow Water project

Narrow Water project

UPDATE: Tuesday 9th July
But wait a second! Just when it seemed that Northern approval for the project was almost ready, there’s been a development on the other side of the border with Louth County Council placing the project on hold, owing to high tendering costs (and I wonder how much has been spent already on design fees and other preparatory work).

South Down SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie has demanded a meeting with the Taoiseach over the delay and says she wants both the British and Irish Governments to provide alternative resources to ensure the delivery of the Narrow Water Bridge project. She said:-

“I am disappointed by the decision of Louth County Council to put the Narrow Water Bridge project on hold due to the fact that tenders for the construction of the bridge were much higher than the financial envelope available for the project. I acknowledge the fact that Louth County Council has put the project on hold whilst they pursue alternative sources of funding.

I have already requested a meeting with the Taoiseach to impress upon him the importance of delivering this important piece of North/South infrastructure, and the fact that this project, on completion, would act as a stimulus to the local economy through increased visitor numbers, business investment opportunities, and make a contribution to job creation in the construction industry.
Already, the Bridge has received planning and marine consent as well as the financial support of the Special European Union Programmes Body, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.
Furthermore, we await the outcome of the decision on the Bridge Order from the Minister for Regional Development, and only yesterday I had urged Minister Kennedy to process that application for the Bridge Order to approval stage as quickly as possible. Due to the importance of this bridge to under-pinning economic investment in the local area, I would be urging the Taoiseach to explore and to try and provide additional funding for the project and to examine if the European Union might have resources to assist with reducing the shortfall.

Undoubtedly, this will be a blow for the local community in Warrenpoint and in the Cooley Peninsula who fought hard for the project, and knowing their determination, I know they will not allow this setback to daunt them in pursuit of the Narrow Water Bridge. I and my colleagues in the SDLP are determined to continue our fight for this project along with the local community, the Chambers of Commerce, and other public representatives to ensure that this important piece of North/South tourist infrastructure is delivered to the Carlingford Lough area. At this time, the financial support and solidarity of both the British and Irish Governments as well as the Northern Ireland Executive is required to deliver this project which would assist in making a contribution to the local economy in South Down and the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth.”

So perhaps it will be a bridge too far, after all the talk.

CHURCH & STATE

Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Knock (Picture RTÉ News)

Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Knock (Picture RTÉ News)

Listening to an interview given by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny to RTÉ News (This Week) at Knock airport in his Mayo constituency, he answered one question with the comment: “I have my own way of speaking to my God”. He had been asked about the Catholic hierarchy’s response to the proposed legislation for limited abortion, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. Cardinal Brady who was visiting the Marian shrine at Knock held out the threat of refusing communion to politicians who supported the bill, saying “that (excommunication) is down the line at the moment as far as we are concerned”. During a national prayer vigil for the right to life of mothers and babies the Catholic Primate of all-Ireland pointed out that the exact legislation that would be introduced was not yet known. “We know what the law is about excommunication, about abortion, that’s a fact. But…the most important issue at this moment is to win the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland to decide with the pro-life“, he said.

Cardinal Sean Brady (Picture RTÉ News)

Cardinal Sean Brady (Picture RTÉ News)

On Friday, after a meeting of the hierarchy, Cardinal Brady said the scandal involving clerical child sex abuse did not exempt the bishops from the duty of proclaiming the good news of the gift of life. He also said that while the job of TDs and senators was to legislate, they did not have the “power over life”. In response to the Cardinal’s intervention in the debate, Mr Kenny said “My book is the Constitution, the Constitution is determined by the people, it’s the people’s book.”

As Fr Tony Flannery points out in The Journal, many people in this country no longer follow the teaching of the Catholic Church and it is the task of our politicians to legislate for all citizens. He says Cardinal Brady comes across as “stiff and authoritarian” and the choice of him as a spokesperson for the bishops’ campaign is a big mistake. Another good point he makes is that by coming out so strongly, in such an aggressive and black-and-white way against the proposals, the Catholic hierarchy have effectively ruled themselves out of any real engagement in the process from now on. “They will condemn, and they will lobby individual legislators, but their public position is now fixed and unbending. This is not the way to go about influencing a democratic process“, he says.

Fr Tony Flannery (RTÉ News)

Fr Tony Flannery (RTÉ News)

So there we have it. The battle lines are being drawn up for what will be a major turning point in church and state relations in Ireland, a debate that is no doubt occupying the minds of many Fine Gael backbenchers are the moment. I think this has been a particularly important weekend which will show the waning influence of the Catholic hierarchy in Irish politics. Added to the previous debates about contraception and divorce and the ongoing discussions about the level of Catholic religious involvement in education, I think we are witnessing a very significant step in the increasing secularisation of the Republic.

GARDA ADRIAN DONOHUE RIP

Garda Adrian Donohue

Garda Adrian Donohue

There has been widespread public revulsion at the killing of Detective Garda Adrian Donohue in County Louth. His state funeral is taking place in Dundalk. His remains were removed from his home at 11.30am to St Joseph’s Redemptorist Church in  Dundalk arriving at 1.00pm. The main celebrant will be Fr Michael Cusack, who was with Caroline Donohue and her family until late last night, preparing for the funeral. Following requiem Mass, the cortege will proceed to Lordship Cemetery for burial. It was at Lordship credit union that Garda Donohue was shot dead during a raid by an armed gang on Friday night.

The Irish League of Credit Unions has offered a reward of €50,000 for any information leading to arrests and prosecutions in the case. In the Dáil, the Taoiseach led tributes to the 41 year-old detective, a married man with two young children. The Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said Garda Donohoe had died in the defence of other citizens. He said the death provoked memories of the killing of Jerry McCabe by the IRA in June 1996. He went on to apologise to Mrs McCabe, the McCabe family and to Garda Ben O’Sullivan, who survived the shooting. The Louth TD also apologised to other members of what he called “state forces” who were killed by republicans in the course of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Books of condolences have been opened at many centres including Dundalk Garda station where Garda Donohue was based and the Mansion House in Dublin. The tricolour has been flown at half mast at Garda stations since the shooting. But it will only be lowered today on government buildings and at Aras an Uachtaraín. On Saturday, passing by the Aras, I was surprised the flag had not been lowered as a mark of respect and again when I was there yesterday it flew at its normal position. I was informed that the Department of the Taoiseach decides the protocol. Yet when Garda McCabe was shot dead, the tricolour (or so we are told) did fly at half mast soon after the killing. Today the nation is in mourning for a dedicated servant of the people. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Memorial at Garda HQ Phoenix Park

Memorial at Garda HQ Phoenix Park

PAT FINUCANE CASE & DEALING WITH THE PAST

Speaking at an engagement in Belfast at the University of Ulster, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny has repeated his support for a full public enquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane. The well-known solicitor was shot dead by the UFF in front of his family at his home in North Belfast on February 12th 1989. It was one of the murders I reported on during the troubles and this was among the most high-profile cases. Standing beside the police cordon a well-known BBC reporter came over to me and my cameraman and said “you know who it is?”. He then told me it was Pat Finucane. I had interviewed the lawyer a few times, including at a controversial inquest at Craigavon courthouse. According to the BBC’s Political Correspondent Martina Purdy, Mr Kenny said relations between the British and Irish governments had never been closer, but there were areas where there was a difference of opinion. Paying tribute to Mr Finucane’s widow Geraldine for the way she has campaigned with “great dignity and courage”, Mr Kenny said he supported her in the campaign for a full public inquiry into the killing.

Patricia McKeown, Alan McBride, Geraldine Finucane

Alan McBride from the WAVE trauma centre in Belfast who lost his wife and father-in-law in the IRA Shankill bombing also spoke about his own experience. He said the past was not going to go away and he supported the Finucane family’s right to have a full public enquiry. Alan also described how on a visit to the United States alongside some republicans, a former IRA man had told him he was sorry for the Shankill bomb and what happened was wrong. He had helped to humanise his loss, he said, and had acknowledged my pain. Former ICTU President Inez McCormack also addressed the meeting. As NI Secretary of UNISON she had helped to set up the handshake in West Belfast between then MP and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and President Mary Robinson in June 1993 at Rupert Stanley College. I remember that occasion as one when the media were kept firmly outside the door in order to ensure that no pictures of the handshake were taken. Yet it was a defining moment in the lead-up to the IRA ceasefire the following year. Here is one account of the occasion from the Independent.
UPDATE: The News Letter reports that the Taoiseach’s comments were strongly criticised by the UUP chair Lord Empey and MLA Danny Kennedy.