Will Tory-DUP deal worsen NI’s transport divide?

Writer and historian Steve Bradley has written some outstanding analyses of the economics and dynamics of his Northern Irish homeland and the SKWAWKBOX was delighted when he kindly agreed to write a guest post for this blog on the effects of the Tory-DUP deal on what amounts to a form of economic apartheid in Northern Ireland based on inequalities in the transport system:

How the £1bn Tory-DUP deal could exacerbate division in Northern Ireland

Most things in Northern Ireland are divided by religion – the legacy of 30 years of The Troubles, and the sectarian one-party state that ruled for 50yrs prior to that. This has bequeathed the province a demography sharply split along religious lines, with the western half being predominantly Catholic/Nationalist and, the eastern half largely Protestant/Unionist. Most towns or villages are understood in terms of being either catholic or protestant, depending upon the balance of their population, and it is not unusual to have two leisure centres or libraries within close proximity in parts of Belfast – ensuring there is essentially one each for neighbouring Catholic and Protestant areas. Such duplication of facilities is not only a sad reflection of the divided nature of NI society, but it is also an inefficient use of public funds.

The £1bn ‘bung’ in the Tory-DUP deal represents an opportunity to change for the better how public money is spent in Northern Ireland. Yet there is a risk it will do the opposite – particularly on infrastructure, the recipient of 40% (or £400m) of the entire deal. NI not only has arguably the worst infrastructure of any region in the UK, but the limited provision it does have is sharply divided between the east and west. As the below maps show, almost all of NI’s 60 miles of motorway and 54 train stations are located to the east of the River Bann (the province’s traditional dividing line), with the west left very much the poor relation:

MAP 1 : NI Railway infrastructure
ni map 1

MAP 2 : NI Motorway infrastructure
ni map 2

This transport imbalance in-turn influences economic activity and population as people, businesses and jobs gravitate to where transport is good in preference to where it is substandard – which necessitates further infrastructure spending in a virtuous circle.

Population distribution and density undoubtedly has had a role to play in the layout of NI’s infrastructure in the past, but only tells part of the story. Over a quarter (27%) of NI’s population live in the west, yet they have been saddled with substandard infrastructure since their railways were decimated in the 1960s (with the promised motorway replacements never transpiring). The province’s second city – the overwhelmingly nationalist town of Derry – is a regional capital, but remains the only city on the entire island not connected by a motorway or dual carriageway. And whilst there is a ‘doughnut’ of broadly consistent population density around Lough Neagh (the large lake in the middle of NI), rail stations and motorways are only to be found on its eastern and southern sides. If you overlay the province’s current transport facilities onto a map of its religious demography, however, it becomes clear that its infrastructure appears to be as much an issue of religion as it is economics, regional balance or population density.

MAP 3 : NI Railways vs religious demographic
ni map 3

MAP 4 : NI Motorways vs religious demographic
ni map 4

The old Unionist-dominated Government that ran NI until the Troubles erupted in the late 1960s was an avowedly sectarian “protestant parliament for a protestant people”. Decisions it took on everything from housing and education to economic development and even eligibility to vote were often influenced by sectarian considerations. It would therefore be incredulous to believe that their decisions on infrastructure provision – with its influence on population flows and prosperity – were not similarly inspired at least in part by sectarianism. This divide in NI’s modern-day transport provision is highlighted even more starkly if you compare it to the results of June’s General Election, in which the electorate coalesced behind two parties – the DUP for unionists, and Sinn Fein for nationalists.

MAP 5 : Infrastructure compared to Westminster election results
ni map 5

The Troubles saw no major infrastructure investment in Northern Ireland, such that the new post-conflict devolved government in Belfast has inherited from its pre-Troubles equivalent a transport infrastructure that is deeply polarised along east-west/unionist-nationalist lines. A genuinely equal society in NI will only be achieved through working to address such unhelpful legacies.

Prior to collapsing in acrimony earlier this year, the recent NI government at Stormont had agreed four flagship transport projects as its funding priorities – two in the west and two in the east. The two western projects are focused on improving road links from Derry to the two main economic centres on the island (Belfast and Dublin) by converting two key single lane A-roads into dual carriageways (the A5 and A6). Derry has topped the UK’s unemployment league table for years, has woeful infrastructure for a regional capital and was first promised a motorway to Belfast in the 1960s. Yet despite both its key road projects being priorities of the devolved government for over a decade they have faced repeated delays, have barely progressed to-date, and are still not entirely funded (with funding for the A5 even reallocated to an alternative road project in the east on one occasion). The eventual completion of these roads projects will be welcomed, but will still merely provide partial ‘catch-up’ for the west’s road network vis-a-vis the rest of the province. Meanwhile on rail, in 2014 Stormont published a strategy to map out its network improvements for the next 20 years – with all proposed new railway lines and stations focusing on services in the east. Far from working to reduce the east-west rail imbalance in the province, Stormont seems determined to amplify it.

Despite long-standing agreement on the priorities for NI’s infrastructure, only one transport project was specifically named within the Conservative-DUP deal – the York Street Interchange, to improve a junction where three motorways meet in Belfast. That project has never been an agreed transport priority for NI’s devolved government, yet has been pushed to the front of the financial queue via this Westminster backroom deal. The fact that York Street just happens to sit within the marginal Belfast constituency of DUP Deputy-Leader Nigel Dodds MP suggests party preferences are over-riding objective need when it comes to how this windfall will be spent. And with a price tag of up to £165m – approx 40% of the entire £400m infrastructure allocation – York Street appears likely to happen at the expense of either or both the long-standing A5 and A6 projects.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was built around an acceptance of the fact that all spending decisions in NI will inevitably be viewed through the prism of a divided society. That agreement therefore established a mechanism to force politicians from the nationalist and unionist communities to work together in mandatory coalition governments. In crude terms, Stormont currently ensures that the only way one side gets what it wants for its people is by ensuring the other side also gets something for theirs. More ‘one for you, one for me’ than ‘win-win’. The allocation of public money within this post-conflict society is therefore arguably more concerned with securing a politically acceptable (i.e. sectarian) balance in the distribution of those funds than it is with addressing greatest need. This system by and large functions when it comes to most spending departments, as there are schools, hospitals, homes etc in need of funding in BOTH nationalist and unionist areas across the province. But it is inherently unfit for purpose when it comes to transport – because the infrastructure inherited from the pre-Troubles days was so staggeringly imbalanced in the first place. The west of Northern Ireland has the greatest demonstrable need for transport enhancement, yet a genuine priority call in its favour seems unlikely to happen. Instead, the west is only likely to get what it needs in return for the east having its already superior infrastructure enhanced even further. With people and jobs likely to continue gravitating towards areas with better transport, the danger is that the perpetuation of Northern Ireland’s existing regional imbalance (and the sectarian inequality which that entails) may essentially be hard-wired into how the place is governed. NI’s modern devolved Assembly may be unwilling and structurally incapable of tackling the transport apartheid which it has inherited.

Steve Bradley is a native of Derry city in Northern Ireland. He works in London as a regeneration consultant, writer, commentator and social entrepreneur.

Follow Steve on Twitter: @Bradley_Steve

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  1. Such a complex issue of NI. I am hoping the money of £1b will be spent in fair all people in NI otherwise NI will go back to the old horrible days. DUP has to be very broad minded and generous for their own future. Nothing will be prosperous but in peace.

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