It was to be a showcase of cross border cooperation, but it looks like the showcasing is going be stalled for a while.
There was anger north of the border in Ireland last week when the Dublin government revealed that it was pulling back from an agreement to put up €470 million to significantly upgrade the A5 road in Northern Ireland.
The money would have been spent on a 50-mile section of the road from the border town of Aughnacloy in county Tyrone to Derry City.
But even as the Republic’s transport minister Leo Varadkar protested that the withdrawal of funding was more a delay than an outright cancellation, the Irish Times was reporting that leading North politicians, including the first and deputy first ministers, were up in arms over the funding roadblock.
According to the Times, deputy first minister Martin McGuinness was accusing the Dublin government of reneging on a major commitment while first minister Peter Robinson was expressing his disappointment at the decision.
Under the St. Andrew’s Agreement, the Dublin and Belfast administrations were to share the £800 million cost of upgrading the 50 miles of road, a project which would additionally have improved road access to Letterkenny and North Donegal.
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Minister Varadkar said that he was “politically committed” to begin work on the project sometime before 2016 and was treating the decision as a deferral of work rather than a cancellation of the project.
“We remain politically committed to this project and expect work to commence during the lifetime of the 2012-2016 capital program. The exact timeframe and sections to be commenced/completed during the program will have to be worked out with the Northern Ireland Executive in the coming months,” said a spokesman for his department.
The long fingering did not sit well in Belfast, however.
“There is a big difference between being ‘politically committed’ and ‘financially committed’ to the project,” a senior Northern Executive source told the Times.
Citing a senior political source in the South, the daily reported that Varadkar had little option as just €45 million was likely to be allocated (in the Republic) over the next five years for capital road projects.
“In the current circumstances it would have been very difficult to justify spending £400 million on a road in Northern Ireland,” the source said.
Deputy first minister McGuinness, fresh from his Irish presidential campaign and back in the saddle in Belfast, said he was “bitterly disappointed” at the decision and would raise the matter with the Irish government at the earliest opportunity.
Mr. Robinson said the decision would come as a considerable blow to the local construction industry, which has already suffered greatly during the economic downturn.
“It will therefore be our priority to identify projects that will ensure that construction jobs are supported,” he said.
SDLP Foyle MP, Mark Durkan, said the decision was “hugely regrettable” although he was conscious of the financial constraints facing the Dublin government.
“We needed this project to go ahead, not just for Derry but for the whole of the Northwest. It is a project that is necessary for Donegal, and it is also needed for Tyrone and Fermanagh,” Durkan said.
North finance minister Sammy Wilson, meanwhile, sought to reassure the North construction industry that money which would have been spent on the A5 would now be allocated to other projects such as schools and hospitals.