Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney argues that the finger of blame for the treatment of the
Derry-Belfast rail link should point directly at the Ulster Unionists - but MPs Mark Durkan and Gregory Campbell could have helped more
Sinn Féin was the only party when in a position to influence investment in the North West to actually prioritise it.
While in the Department of Regional Development (DRD), former Minister Conor Murphy committed to spending over £1 billion on the infrastructure here – the biggest single investment ever witnessed in this region.
Even with a 40% reduction in his DRD Capital budget to the tune of almost £2bn, and clearly facing significant pressures, he determined to provide for delivery of all three key infrastructure projects in the north west - A5, A6 and the Derry/Coleraine Rail link.
His budget proposals included starting preparatory development work on the A6 Dungiven to Derry, and starting the Coleraine to Derry rail track improvement project by the end of the Budget period;
He also prioritised the construction of the Aughnacloy to Derry dual carriageway in conjunction with the Irish government.
The track relay work was due to happen in 2013, which would have meant the track between Coleraine and Derry closing for a year to facilitate the necessary upgrading. But DRD were lobbied by Derry City Council and others not to close the line at that time because of the run-in to City of Culture 2013. DRD responded to this l and postponed work until 2014 to prevent disruption to the service at this crucial time for tourism for the City.
Taking this delay – at the request of local interests – into account, Conor gave assurances that all these projects were still live. That in itself was an achievement given the economic climate in which he was working.
When he came into office, Conor Murphy lifted the investment restrictions placed on the line between Coleraine and Derry. This was in contrast to the inaction from Mark Durkan as Finance Minister and Gregory Campbell when DRD Minister - both locally-based Ministers. These restrictions ruled out the possibility of accessing EU funding for the line. Indeed, between 1999 and 2002, only £1·5m. was invested in the line.
If the present Minister Danny Kennedy showed the same commitment to the North West as Conor Murphy displayed he would find a way to continue with the plans already set out.
During Conor Murphy’s tenure as DRD Minister there was a planned investment on the line between Coleraine and Derry at an estimated cost of £70m., which would have created a passing loop. The intention was to speed up the train service between Belfast and Derry and allow commuters to arrive in Derry before 9am for the first time in many years.
He also committed to deploy two additional trains on the Derry line, to enable increased services and capacity. This is an example of the capital projects to which Conor had committed to improve frequency and service on the Belfast to Derry line. £70-£80million was included in the Department’s spending plans and voted on as part of the Budget in March of this year. Of course the SDLP voted against the Budget, including this provision for the Derry/Coleraine line.
Much research confirms the need to view rail services in a long-term, strategic manner and that’s exactly how Conor Murphy approached this issue. We will never achieve the full potential of tourism or economic development in the North West if, for example, infrastructure development is carried out in a piecemeal manner — as has been the case in the past — without any recognition of the needs of areas such as Derry.
Conor Murphy was in the process of setting in train a programme to redress past neglect. It would seem that Danny Kennedy – true to the historical Ulster Unionist Party approach to everything that would benefit Derry - is determined to dismantle all of the foundations for progress laid by Conor Murphy. Remember the University, the Cancer Services at Altnagelvin and the original obliteration of rail services in the Derry area! All denied to Derry by the Ulster Unionist Party!
Now that another Ulster Unionist Minister is denying necessary investment to Derry I am disappointed that certain people with vested political interests prefer to direct their criticism at the only Minister who placed the infrastructural development of this region at the top of his agenda. That criticism should be directed at the Minister who is now intent on undoing all of the good work, or at the two local Ministers who, when in a position to influence decisions on investment, failed to do so.
People are protesting and rightly so, but without any acknowledgement of the positive work done by the Sinn Féin Minister.
The people of Derry want the first-class services to which they are entitled. They do not want to hear Ministers bleat about a lack of money. Although he could have done that, too, Conor Murphy as Minister for Regional Development chose not to. He recognised that there is a fundamental need for investment in Derry’s infrastructure. He knew that if the North-West is to prosper, and if it is to compete for inward investment and exploit the huge tourism, he had to give it the infrastructure. He determined to do just that. He was committed to turning those aspirations into reality.
I have absolutely no doubt that if the present Minister follows the blueprint drawn up by Conor Murphy that we can have the rail link to Belfast that we are entitled to. Then we could concentrate on reinstating the link to Dublin also.