The road to modernity

WHEN I was a child, in the 1960s, we were lucky to have a small car and were able to travel around an Ireland which is now consigned to the history books. A regular jaunt was from our home in Newtownabbey to south Derry. Though only 90 miles, it could take the best part of a day to reach our grandparents’ house. There were no motorways and no service stations with toilet facilities. The trek involved taking minor roads to Templepatrick and Antrim, then Toomebridge and Castledawson and on to Maghera. There was little traffic but the journey was long and tedious. My sister Hazel complains that I quickly grew bored and tormented her in the back seat for most of the way. Her only relief was when we stopped for Italian ice cream in Randalstown. Sometimes I would accompany Dad on a business trip to Derry city. We would break up the journey with a night in south Derry before tackling the steep Glenshane Pass.

Going any further involved crossing an international frontier.

I remember my first trip to Donegal, the purple Lough Swilly buses and the giant potholes in Letterkenny. There was no electricity in the guesthouse at Churchill. On a family holiday in Dunfanaghy the caravan proved too primitive for my mother’s tastes so we decamped to a guesthouse near Muckish. In the morning we learned the children of the household had been thrown out of their beds to make way for the paying guests and our hosts lived without running water. I recall my first trip to Dublin. It took all day to reach the guesthouse in Drumcondra. A trip to Cork took two days and we stopped in Dublin overnight. On our way to Mayo, it was dark by the time we reached Ballina and Dad could get no petrol. Mother was convinced we were doomed to spend a night by the side of an old bog road. The sight of a flashing pink sign at the Dolphin guesthouse in Crossmolina came as a great relief.

Today I can be in Derry in two hours, Dublin in less than three, Ballina in four and reach Cork before nightfall.

As early as 1765 legislation allowed for taxation to build and repair roads and in 1778 Taylor and Skinner’s book of maps revealed 8,000 miles of highways in Ireland. Vehicle and driver taxation in 1909 provided substantial funds for road construction and the first motorways arrived in Ireland in the 1960s. The ability to get around this island took a giant leap forward in the 1980 and 1990s with the aid of funding from the European Union. New roads and bridges transformed communications bringing with them industry, tourism, jobs and higher living standards. The donkey and cart was consigned to postcard rails in the offices of An Post.

Travel and living standards are set to take another giant leap forward under the Republic’s revised National Development Plan, revealed last month. It will see €165 billion spent on transport, water, education, housing and health by 2040. There will be an extra runway at Dublin airport and light rail systems in Cork and Galway. Around €1 billion in funding has been earmarked for North-South projects, under the government’s shared island initiative, which will reduce the isolation of Donegal from Dublin. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar claims significant progress had already been made on some projects and there will be no penny-pinching. “We will borrow to invest in public infrastructure, in schools and healthcare and housing, in climate action, trains, buses and roads. And I’m convinced that this is the right approach.”

It is an ambitious plan, particularly in a post-Covid and climate-conscious era, though short on detail for those who wish to see how the government will ensure public money is not wasted. It will undoubtedly face pressures from many directions. The 10-year Sláintecare initiative, which proposes to make healthcare affordable and available to all, has already run into difficulties. Nevertheless the NDP is a bold and confident statement about Ireland’s future, a future which will see the population rise to almost eight million people, a figure not seen since the eve of the Great Famine.

On our family adventures in the 60s it was clear that roads and the standard of living were superior in Northern Ireland. The Republic had a long way to go to catch up. Today it is quite clear the road system in the South is superior, the standard of living is comparable, if not higher, and the North is falling behind.

The Northern Ireland Executive launched a Regional Development Strategy back in 2012 which outlined investment until 2035. It was long on promises and short of detail but did include some overdue road projects including improvements on the main routes to Derry. However there were few concrete proposals for Belfast which is a city of 672,522 and gridlocked morning and night. Keeping pace with the Republic will be a major challenge. Stormont cannot borrow on international markets, cannot raise taxes, it has no voice in the European Union and little clout with the Treasury in London. A development gap between the two parts of Ireland will open up again – only this time the six counties will be the poor partner.

On my last visit to Maghera I took my aunt Jean, aged 95, out for a bit of lunch. From the window in Walsh’s Hotel we watched heavy traffic pile up as trucks sought to negotiate the narrow crossroads. The town is a major junction south of the Sperrins and a bypass is required. Outside the old inn you will find a boulder embedded in the pavement on the corner of the road to Coleraine. It is a relic from the days of horse drawn coaches and was put in place to allow the ladies to alight with safety and dignity.

I fear the north is in real danger of becoming a coach stone on the road to modernity.

mneill1@ymail.com