Ireland is now more accessible than ever.
A new network of motorways and dual carriageways connecting urban centres on both sides of the border has massively slashed journey times between major towns and cities, benefiting the economy and tourism industry.
The latest development sees the opening of the final section of the multi-million pound Newry bypass today, five months ahead of schedule.
The official unveiling of the 12.7km (7.9 miles) Beech Hill to Cloghogue dual carriageway brings to an end almost 20 years and £150m worth of work to develop a continuous motorway, or dual carriageway, between Ireland’s two largest cities.
Now, the roundabouts outside Lisburn will present the only stop on the 104-mile journey.
The official opening of the A1 completes the key strategic route and is expected to slash journey times for motorists by at least 10 minutes — possibly more during peak times — and means, for the first time, travelling by car could be quicker than the train.
Roads Minister Conor Murphy said the upgrade marked the achievement of the Department’s commitment.
“This project is the final link on the key strategic route between Belfast and Dublin on Ireland’s eastern seaboard and makes a substantial positive contribution to the social and economic well-being of our communities,” said the Minister.
“The A1 also provides access, via Newry, to the port of Warrenpoint, one of our strategically important regional gateways and convenient road connections to the cities of Lisburn and Newry and the towns of Dromore, Banbridge, Dundalk and Drogheda.”
The original Newry bypass opened in 1996 with four roundabouts, but was deemed inadequate within 10 years.
In 2007, the Newry to Dundalk road opened, completing a motorway from Dublin to the border.
Newry, however, soon became a bottleneck because the road ended at the Cloghogue roundabout.
Preliminary site works began on the bypass in February 2007 and the first section, the flyover junction at Cloghogue, was opened in December 2009.
Last month, both lanes in a section of the newly-completed carriageway had to be dug up after they began to subside. Work to excavate and rebuild the lanes at a section north of Sheepbridge lasted around six weeks, but did not impact on the completion date.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Regional Development said there were no additional costs for the blunder.
Roads enthusiast Wesley Johnston, who runs the Northern Ireland Roads website, said: “The scheme is very significant since it means that, for the first time in history, there is a continuous dual-carriageway or motorway from Belfast to Dublin. The journey could now be done in two hours or less, which is actually quicker than the train.
“The most challenging part of this scheme was the section at Cloghogue, which involved blasting away thousands of tonnes of solid rock to create a path for the road. Newry has been such a bottleneck for years, this scheme will be welcomed very much by motorists who have been watching it develop over the past three years.”
A spokeswoman for the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau added: “Investment in access and infrastructure is critical to the success of tourism in Belfast and Northern Ireland. The completion of the bypass will have a positive impact on business and leisure opportunities for the tourism sector.”
Meanwhile, construction on many road across the Republic has dramatically improved travelling south of the border.
In May, the final 41km stretch of Ireland’s longest motorway opened in Co Laois, bringing the drive from Belfast to Cork down from seven-and-a-half hours, to four. Motorists can now travel non-stop from the Dunkettle interchange on the outskirts of Cork city to the M50 circling Dublin.
We’re going to be bypassed, but we’re not worried, say Newry traders
It bypasses both towns, but business leaders in Newry and Dundalk have welcomed the opening of the new A1.
Completion of the multi-million pound route brings to an end decades of congestion in their central streets and misery for motorists stuck in bottlenecks.
Jack Murphy, chairman of Newry City Centre Management, who has run a jewellerry shop in the heart of his city for almost 40 years said: “I think it is a good thing. It’s going to take a lot of the traffic out of the centre of town.
“A big percentage of that traffic was going through anyway, they didn’t want to be here, we were frustrating them. I know from going to towns where I used to be frustrated it is a lot easier to get parked now. When you talk to traders, their initial fears were unfounded. If we didn’t have a strong attraction, in Newry we have built up such a reputation, that I think we’ll be all right.”
Passing trade accounts for 70% of his annual revenue, but Mr Murphy is not concerned at the possibility of having to take a temporary hit.
Mr Murphy added: “I know there was some concern while people got used to the new exit up at Cloghogue. The signage was very poor and the layout was totally different. That has now been rectified and people are now finding their way into town.”
Last Christmas, Paddy Malone, chairman of Dundalk Chamber of Commerce, had voiced fears about the impact of the new road. By last night he had changed his mind.
“I don’t think it is going to be the problem we thought it was going to be,” he said. “I would like to think there will be a two-way traffic flow. It’s all about perception and a number of things have changed since last Christmas; there has been a marginal decrease in VAT from 21.5% to 21%. In the UK VAT is going up from 15% to 17.5%. Many southerners believe that has already happened.
“We had a very bad Christmas weatherwise, which meant that people didn’t travel north in the week after Christmas.
“In Dundalk, the busiest day of the year was New Year’s Eve and that meant local people were in the shops and looking at the prices.
“Yes, there is a small difference, but they realised that it wasn’t worth their while queuing up at the Buttercrane or Quays for two hours.
“I believe Newry’s heyday has come and gone. I would prefer to see it on an even keel. I hope that both will complement each other.”