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Michelle O'Neill welcomes Belfast to Derry road through Seamus Heaney homeland court ruling

Green campaigner vows to continue his fight

By Alan Erwin and Jonny Bell

Michelle O'Neill has welcomed a court ruling paving the way for a £160 million dual carriageway going through landscape made famous by poet Seamus Heaney.

Meanwhile the green campaigner behind the legal challenge has vowed to continue his fight.

Chris Murphy was challenging plans to build a section of the A6 Belfast to Derry upgrade close to wetland where migratory birds forage. But a judge rejected claims that the proposals breach a habitats directive on specially protected areas.

The ornithologist took legal action in an attempt to halt construction of the part of the road near Moosbawn, Co Derry - the childhood home of the former Nobel laureate poet.

The route was identified following a public inquiry nearly a decade ago.

With commuters regularly facing rush-hour gridlock, former Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard gave the green light to the scheme last year in a bid to significantly improve a major transport corridor.

Proceedings centred on ecological checks made to potential disturbance to whooper swans on Lough Neagh and Lough Beg from the disputed Toome to Castledawson stretch.

Mr Murphy claimed the plans will cause irreparable harm to an area worthy of word heritage status.

Dismissing his case, Mrs Justice Keegan said: "The decision reached was lawful and rational."

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill welcomed the development.

"The A6 upgrade represents an investment of over £160m and has long been a key priority for Sinn Fein," the Mid-Ulster MLA said.

"It is a key infrastructure project to help redress regional balance and was significantly moved forward by Sinn Fein Minister Chris Hazzard when preparatory work began last year.

"Today's court ruling is an endorsement of the minister's approach and clears the way for the work to move onto the next stage.

"When the project is completed in 2019, it will greatly reduce travel times between Derry and Belfast, a development which will be greatly welcomed by the many thousands of people who make that journey every day."

In impassioned submissions in court Mr Murphy compared building a road through the site to cutting away at a Rembrandt masterpiece.

Further assessments have been carried out since the Department first made checks on the presence of nesting birds, badgers and bats.

But the court had to determine whether these actions were part of a fulfillment of obligations under the relevant habitats directive.

He also contended that swans foraging on the wetland close to the route are more disturbed by people than roads or cars.

Following the ruling, Mr Murphy said he would appeal the decision and move to put in place an injunction to stop any further work.

"I will lodge an appeal and seek an injunction to prevent further damage to the priceless wetlands. They are of equal importance to man and nature and were so loved by Ireland’s greatest poet, Seamus Heaney.”

Ruling on the case, Mrs Justice Keegan rejected all arguments advanced by the bird watcher.

"I find no breach of the habitats directive," she said.

"I do not consider the decision making is procedurally flawed."

Praising Mr Murphy on how he had acted, she added: "He conducted his case impeccably, with the assistance of his wife.

"I know he will be disappointed by this decision, but I commend him for the care and attention he has applied to this case and for raising environmental awareness of this important issue."

The Department for Infrastructure is to seek costs against the environmentalist. It said 18,000 road users and the local community would benefit from the decision and when the work is complete.

A spokesperson said: “The new dual carriageway will reduce journey times and improve road safety. The scheme is predicted to result in a saving of almost 600 collisions over its 60 year economic life. The ruling has also recognised the care and attention we take, with the statutory environmental bodies, to preserve, protect and develop environmentally sensitive areas under consideration for road development.

“The local construction industry will also see a considerable benefit with this £160million scheme delivering local jobs and investment. The department has committed to introducing ‘Buy Social’ clauses into this contract which will generate new entrant trainee employment in the form of apprenticeships and graduate jobs. The works will specifically create between 15-20 new paid employment and training opportunities over the construction period.

“Preliminary works on the project have continued to be progressed in accordance with the environmental commitments given and the objective is to complete the scheme in 2021. It is the Department’s intention to commence major construction works on the scheme as soon as possible.”

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