Newry and Warrenpoint roadworks moves forward

Bore hole drilling at Gerry Brown Park
Image caption,
Bore hole drilling at Gerry Brown Park

Progress on one of Northern Ireland's biggest road building projects has taken a step forward.

A Newry GAA club, whose pitch lies in the middle of the preferred route, has agreed to move to another site.

The Newry Southern Relief Road (NSRR) is a scheme valued at about £100m.

It aims to link the A1 Belfast-Dublin Road with the A2 Newry-Warrenpoint dual carriageway which is expected to improve access to Warrenpoint Port and Newry city centre.

The bulk of the funding for the project is to come from Newry, Mourne and Down Council's dividend for supporting the Belfast Region City Deal.

But between the two main roads are a number of significant hurdles.

These include Gerry Brown Park, which is the home ground of Newry Mitchel's GAA club; Newry Canal, which regularly attracts Tall Ships into the city centre, and a number of homeowners in the Fathom area who will have to sell their homes to allow the road through.

This week it was confirmed that the first of these hurdles has been removed after Newry Mitchels agreed to move to alternative council owned facilities at Derryleckagh - about three miles away.

Image caption,
Newry Mitchels' new home at Derryleckagh

That followed a letter from Down GAA's county board to the council which said that "John Mitchel GFC have a proud tradition and history in the Newry area and we would be very anxious that they were able to fulfil their home fixtures at one particular venue as opposed to being in a situation that changed from week to week".

The letter added: "There would be goodwill throughout the Down GAA family to ensure that Mitchels were facilitated if possible at Derryleckagh Playing Fields."

This arrangement will last until the end of March 2020. But SDLP Newry City councillor Michael Savage is hopeful it could become permanent.

"Obviously the Mitchels have been severely impacted by this as they will lose their pitch as a result of the southern relief road," he said.

"We've managed to secure another pitch for at least another 12 months and the view then would be working hard to get them a permanent, long-term home. It's one of the oldest clubs in this city."

But major challenges remain for the project.

It will see a small number of homeowners forced to sell their homes and that is something that councillor Michael Savage acknowledges will be a tougher proposition.

Image caption,
Councillor Michael Savage said nine families are impacted by the move

"The residents of the Fathom Line are the people I represent. I brought them together with Roads Service over the last number of months," he said.

"It's a historic area with ancient woodland. It's also been occupied by families for generations. There are 13 families of which nine are impacted.

"I've brought those families together with Roads Service to make sure their concerns are heard and their voices are listened to.

"The route has generally been agreed but where it impacts on their properties still has to be agreed."

The BBC called on one of these homeowners on Thursday. She didn't want to be interviewed but said she had come to terms with the reality that the road was going ahead.

But the strong maritime lobby in Newry still requires considerable reassurance.

Newry Ship Canal opened in 1769. The port of Newry may have moved to Warrenpoint in the 1970s, but Tall Ships and pleasure boats continue to travel up the canal to berth in the Albert Basin in the city centre.

As such, Peter Maxwell of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI) says that the final design of the road must include a section that opens to allow vessels through.

"Our association was formed in 1954 to stop the building of fixed bridges over the River Shannon and we were successful there," he said.

"Now here we are in Newry and they are proposing to put in a bridge that won't have an opening span over the canal. That means that nearly every single yacht in the Albert Basin would not be able to get there.

"(A fixed bridge) would need to be over 100ft high - that's 30 metres, but it's proposed it would only be around 30 feet. The problem is that the Tall Ships that visit Newry frequently need that clearance and the council stated in 2008 that any bridge must have a clearance of 35 metres."

It's understood that a structure with an opening span over the canal would cost around £25million more than one with a fixed bridge.