A £500 million-plus roads and hospital building programme in Northern Ireland will provide a 3,000 job boost to the region's beleaguered construction industry, Stormont ministers have pledged.
Leaders of the powersharing executive heralded the range of infrastructure projects due for completion in the coming four years at a cost of £584 million as proof they were taking decisive action to battle the economic downturn.
The announcement has been welcomed by construction industry representatives.
The money - to be spent on three main road upgrades and construction work at three hospitals - has been redirected from the planned A5 cross-border dual carriageway project, which hit trouble when the Irish government withdrew substantial funding support.
Two sections of the A5 upgrade will proceed under the package announced in Belfast today, at a cost of £330 million, but funds that had been earmarked for improving other stretches of that route have been reallocated to other capital builds.
Just over £90 million will be spent building a ward at the Altnagelvin hospital in Londonderry, providing improved accident and emergency facilities at the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald outside Belfast and fast-tracking work on the planned new hospital in Omagh.
An upgrade to the A2 road between Belfast and Carrickfergus will cost £57 million and £105 million will be spent on the A8 from Larne to Belfast.
In regard to the A5, work will proceed on turning the stretches between Londonderry and Strabane and Omagh and Ballygawley into dual carriageway.
Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson said the Executive was working together to tackle the downturn.
"As a result of the decisions reached this morning, these projects will create or sustain over 2,500 jobs on the roads and approximately 500 jobs on hospital spend for Northern Ireland's hard-pressed construction industry; further improve our roads infrastructure; and significantly upgrade our healthcare infrastructure in Belfast, Omagh and Londonderry," said the Democratic Unionist leader.
"This is an important day for the Executive in helping to address the impact of the economic downturn particularly on the construction industry.
The economic difficulties that are being faced by Northern Ireland are as a result of the global economic downturn, but the Executive is playing its part in helping keep Northern Ireland moving forward."
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said: "Every now and again we get some very disappointing news and there could be an inclination at times to lie down under that.
"This Executive is not prepared to lie down under that, this Executive has stood united and foursquare behind trying to improve the lives of our people and this initiative today, which puts people back to work at providing vitally important infrastructure in terms of roads and hospitals, it is a very clear signal that we are going to continue to battle against the odds that are placed against us, we're moving forward."
The route of the proposed A5 is a matter of contention, with many land-owners and farmers fearful they will lose out.
The Northern Ireland stretch has been subject to a public inquiry, which will be published later this year.
The upgrade was originally planned as a much bigger cross-border joint investment by the Dublin and Belfast administrations.
The scheme would have included road improvements between Monaghan and Aughnacloy and Letterkenny and Lifford in the Republic of Ireland.
But the project hit trouble last year when the Irish government withdrew substantial financial support as part of austerity measures south of the border - it has still provided £50 million and insisted it remains committed in the longer term.
Mr McGuinness and Mr Robinson both expressed hope that Dublin would being able to reinvest to the project in the future.
The Deputy First Minister said: "The announcement by the Irish government (last year) as we all know was very disappointing, however the Executive has managed to refocus our investment on the two sections of this very important route and we are hopeful that the Irish government can revise their decision and increase their commitment at some point over the coming years."
While today's package drew a welcome from construction industry representatives, some expressed concern no further projects were given the green light.
John Armstrong, managing director of the Construction Employers Federation (CEF), said: "We welcome the fact that the Executive has confirmed that the funding originally allocated to the A5 project will be invested in infrastructure and public buildings.
"The clarity on which specific projects will proceed is also positive. This investment is important for Northern Ireland's economic development and the sooner the work hits the ground the better.
"However, there is no mention in today's announcement of an increase in the overall levels of investment in our public buildings and infrastructure. It is a redistribution of funding that had already been earmarked for this purpose.
"If the Executive is truly determined to rebuild and rebalance the economy it must urgently take decisive action to reverse the substantial declines in funding for capital investment."
RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) Northern Ireland director Ben Collins said: "We strongly welcome the allocation of funds for capital spending.
"RICS Northern Ireland has said for some time that there is the potential to direct more money to capital spending from current spending, and we think this underlines the fact.
"We would however encourage the Northern Ireland Executive to be more strategic in its approach to allocating funds; rather than having to do things piecemeal, it would be more impactful for the construction sector and the economy to have a fuller capital budget from the get-go."
Wendy Blundell, director of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), added: "Our profession is delighted that funding which had been allocated to the A5 upgrade has been retained to deliver critical infrastructure across Northern Ireland. Such balanced investment brings benefit not just to road users but to our wider society and economy.
"Creating dual carriageways along sections of the A2, A5 & A8 roads will ease congestion, provide employment and act as a major stimulus for trade and investment across the region.
"Civil engineers throughout Northern Ireland are well placed to provide the requisite knowledge and expertise to ensure that this investment is efficiently implemented, to the benefit of all in our society."
Roads Minister Danny Kennedy and Health Minister Edwin Poots joined Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness at the announcement inside Stormont Castle, with Finance Minister Sammy Wilson having outlined the programme on the floor of the Assembly earlier.
Ulster Unionist Mr Kennedy said: "This investment will provide a significant boost to the local economy and help to encourage inward investment. It will provide job security for many and create much needed, jobs in the construction industry, across environmental and engineering consultancies, suppliers, contractors, infrastructure specialists and others. It will also offer opportunities for the long-term unemployed, apprentices and students.
"In the longer term it will serve as a catalyst for wider economic growth. If we want Northern Ireland to prosper we have to construct the infrastructure to enable us to compete effectively."
Mr Poots said the investment in the health estate was good news.
He thanked his executive colleagues for the "rational and sensible" approach they had taken to funding bids from his department.
"Given the circumstances that prevail and financial difficulties that prevail, we can continue to invest in our health estate and ensure that we have an estate that is able to meet the needs of the public and redevelop that estate for the future," said the DUP minister.