Belfast hub plan could spark new Battle of the Boyne with Sandy Row residents
Sandy Row residents set for fight to save historic bridge due to be flattened as part of proposed £150m transport gateway
Residents of the Sandy Row area in south Belfast are preparing to fight a new Battle of the Boyne... to save a historic bridge which took its name from the scene of King William's still-celebrated victory over King James in 1690.
And the campaigners have vowed that they won't surrender in their struggle to keep the Boyne Bridge standing against the wishes of planners who may flatten it as part of a new £150m transport hub for Belfast.
Standing in the shadow of a massive mural to King William at Sandy Row, another William - former councillor Billy Dickson - said the blueprint for the hub around the existing Europa bus centre and Great Victoria Street railway station was a bridge too far.
Translink launched a public consultation process about their plans yesterday after 18 months of discussions with local stakeholders, but Mr Dickson, who's chairman of the Blackstaff Residents Association, said he had already talked to a number of residents and they were all opposed to taking away the Boyne Bridge which was built in 1932.
However, Mr Dickson said the bridge's historical significance lay in the fact that arches from its predecessor - variously called the Great Bridge, the Saltwater Bridge and the Brickill Bridge - built by Lord Edward Chichester in 1642, were incorporated into the new, more modern structure.
"Two of the original arches which were built of local blue whinstone rock and covered a 46-feet stretch were deemed by the new builders to be good and sound."
King William is said to have crossed the old bridge on his way to the Boyne on June 19, 1690 along with the heavy artillery of his second-in-command, the Duke of Schomberg.
Mr Dickson also said that the bridge was part of the old route between Belfast and the south of Ireland and that the first water supplies for Belfast flowed under its old curved arches.
The ancient structures are not visible any more, but a number of supporters of the new hub have suggested they could be preserved and used as historical features within the new proposals.
Mr Dickson said: "The Great Bridge of Belfast has been buried in a concrete coffin, without a nameplate to indicate its former existence, or even its place of interment.
"It's an important part of Sandy Row's character. Take it away and this wouldn't be Sandy Row anymore"
Translink's group chief executive Chris Conway said the new hub would be exciting and iconic and the train station would include eight railway platforms, double the existing number which he believed would allow the company to run an hourly train service to and from Dublin, moving the Enterprise away from Central Station.
The existing bus centre and railway station are the busiest in Belfast with eight million passengers using them every year, but Mr Conway said the "conservative" estimate was that the figure would soar to 13 million in the next 14 years.
The plan is for Translink to construct a 'world-class gateway, inter-change and masterplan development' covering 20 acres from Great Victoria Street to the Royal Victoria Hospital.
Half of the site would be used for the transport hub while the remaining 10 acres would be earmarked for commercial development that would include a large number of shops, offices and restaurants around a station square beside the bus and rail links.
"We see an opportunity to develop and to regenerate the local area and the community," said Mr Conway, adding that the new hub could create upwards of 2,500 jobs, with the building work planned to start in 2018 and the first phase completed two years later.
Regarding the Boyne Bridge, Mr Conway said the best way forward for the hub and the regeneration would be to have the bridge reduced to ground level.
"It would allow people to come out of the station and go up through Sandy Row into south Belfast. But we want to work with the local community - one of the oldest in Belfast - to retain the history in the area like the site of the old Great Northern Railway, but we want to move forward at the same time."
Mr Dickson said he hoped people in Sandy Row would establish a pressure group to stop the removal of the Boyne Bridge. He added that the hub could and would still go ahead even without making any changes to the bridge.
However, Mr Dickson denied he was standing in the way of progress to preserve a piece of history.
"That's not the way I see it at all," he said. "Culture and history are very important and the bridge is part of all that.
"This area has been run-down enough already." On the streets of Sandy Row yesterday, few people appeared to be on track with the plans for the hub.
But even so most of them still said they wouldn't want to see any alterations to the Boyne Bridge.
Brenda Norris said she didn't object to the new transport hub. "But I wouldn't like the bridge to be taken down," she added.
"It's part of our heritage."
Two women working in the busy Supreme fish and chip shop couldn't envisage what benefits the new transport hub would bring to Sandy Row.
Paula Curry said: "There's a lot of history to the bridge. And besides the railway and bus stations have been coping all right for years now. We could survive without the new ones."
Avril Edgar said: "They're claiming that people coming out of the stations would be coming our way. But they'll just head in the opposite direction to the city centre like they always do."
Edna Rodgers, who was doing her shopping, said she didn't believe protests would halt the proposals for the Boyne Bridge.
"They've got their minds made up," she said.
"It won't matter what people do. It's a done deal."
Another woman who didn't want to be named said: "They shouldn't take the bridge away. It's always been there.
"Why would you want to get rid of it? It's part of Sandy Row."
The hub is one of the Northern Ireland Executive's flagship projects and a former lord mayor of Belfast, Tom Ekin, who developed the nearby Weaver's Court commercial development that employs 450 people in Sandy Row, said he applauded the plans for the new hub which he thought would be a major boost to re-energise the entire area.
"I believe that the existing bridge is a barrier to normal activity in Sandy Row," he said.
"You will find very few people who will walk over it.
"And besides, there could be a whole lot of imaginative projects developed to celebrate the history of the bridge.
"I think the transport hub and the other flagship projects like the York Road interchange should go ahead and show that this Assembly of ours is active and doing things to send out the message that Northern Ireland really is part of the 21st century."
Gordon Clarke, of the Sustrans organisation which is trying to encourage more people to engage in cycling and walking, said it supported the hub because it fully endorsed the development of public transport alongside active travel.
"And when you see new stations elsewhere in Britain, the regeneration projects result in lots of new jobs and here the hub could create a new environment which would extend the city centre towards Sandy Row," Mr Clarke said.