Move to proceed with massive motorway revamp plan is greeted warmly

A declaration that a massive rejig of Belfast’s motorway system looks set to press ahead has been broadly welcomed – though the minister responsible has been accused of “hokey cokey decision-making” on the issue.

Sinn Fein transport minister Chris Hazzard yesterday announced that the proposal to develop the York Street traffic intersection will now proceed to the stage of a consultation with “key stakeholders”, even though even though it is not certain that all the money to pay for the project is in place.

It comes less than a month after procurement work on the scheme was revealed to be on hold.

At the time, Mr Hazzard had said the Brexit vote had jepordised European funding for the project – something which was anticipated could cover up to 40% of the total cost.

The Northern Ireland Office had responded to last month’s news by saying the Treasury will step in to ensure funding for projects of this kind, so long as they are signed off before Brexit happens.

Meanwhile TUV leader Jim Allister had said that blaming the UK’s decision to quit the EU for problems with the motorway scheme amounted to “looking for excuses”.

On Tuesday morning, Mr Hazzard announced on his Department for Infrastructure’s website that he has now “confirmed the scheme should progress”.

He said “consultation will now begin with key stakeholders including local communities” – although exact details, such as how long this will last, were not available on Tuesday.

However, Mr Hazzard added that the European cash remains “in doubt”, adding: “I am committed to do all that I can to deliver the scheme within the current financial context, working with the finance minister and other Executive colleagues.”

The scheme centres on an area close to Cityside retail park at the northern end of the city centre, where the M2 motorway (leading north) connects with the M3 (leading east) and the Westlink.

It is currently a source of significant rush-hour congestion, and the idea is to remove traffic lights from the area and allow vehicles to flow more freely.

Business lobby groups the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association both hailed Tuesday’s announcement by the minister.

The UUP likewise welcomed the news, and said that the scheme should be Northern Ireland’s “top priority for infrastructure spend”, whilst the DUP described the plan as good news for “wider business right across the Province”, and noted that last month’s news of a possible halt to it had caused “a great deal of concern”.

Meanwhile SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan attacked minister Hazzard for “playing politics with a critical infrastructure project”.

“First he cast doubt on the viability because of Brexit, now he’s issuing a notice of intention to proceed,” he said.

Referencing the song hokey-cokey, with its lyrics about being “in” one second and “out” the next, Mr McCrossan added: “Hokey-cokey decision making doesn’t provide stability or certainty.

“We want this interchange built… but what faith can anyone have that this minister will deliver it given that he appears to change his mind every month?”

McGurk’s bomb memorial ‘likely to move’:

Tuesday’s announcement came as the Department for Infrastructure published a report from a public inquiry into the scheme, which began almost exactly a year ago, saying that the minister has accepted the recommendations it contains.

Its authors state that the need to replace the current road system “has been demonstrated” and says the department should forge ahead with it, whilst continuing to consult a range of people, including freight operators and residents.

It also adds that it is “virtually certain” that a memorial on the corner of Great Georges Street and North Queen Street commemorating the UVF bombing of McGurk’s pub in 1971 (an atrocity which claimed 15 lives) will have to be moved.

The report said the authorities should “work closely with the families of those who perished in order to ensure that the recreation of this very significant memorial is carried out in accordance with their wishes”.

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