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Pros and cons of Belfast bus lanes aside, the fines are a bit steep

By Paul Connolly

Published 18/09/2015

MLA John Dallat
MLA John Dallat

Good to see vigorous argument in the pages of the paper over matters other than Stormont and the IRA. The Great Bus Lanes Debate is one of those arguments over seemingly mundane things that arouses passions for and against.

The Belfast Telegraph's disclosure that more than 15,000 motorists were hit with penalties in the first eight weeks of a new bus lane crackdown was really quite eye-opening.

One camera alone, at Donegall Square East, had snapped 5,727 vehicles illegally using bus lanes there. Andy Boal, from Belfast, wrote to the editor to reveal the shallow waters of his sympathy for the offending motorists.

"The shocking thing about the bus lane fine statistics detailed in the Telegraph is the disregard for the law that they disclose," he wrote. "It is frankly inconceivable that more than a tiny minority of 15,000 people could be visitors unfamiliar with Belfast."

And he cited other cases where "in the face of comprehensive signage" people continue to drive in bus lanes. The prosecutions, he said, were "not a failure" but "a vindication of the cameras, because their presence has revealed how many drivers are prepared to jump queues to the detriment of law-abiding motorists".

Mr Boal has a point - the bus lanes were well-publicised and the signage is adequate, if not explicit. However, it is surely right that the authorities did not mean to criminalise - if that is not too strong a word for it - 15,000 people in one fell swoop.

This is an important point and therefore an important story. MLA John Dallat is correct to want explanations, including whether the signs are good enough, and if the policy was adequately executed.

My own personal view, supported by anecdote rather than science, is that the increasing criticism of Belfast's transport policy is one that many motorists will agree with. Surveys repeatedly show city centre journey times to be awful even by UK conurbation standards.

In most places the transport minister would have his feet held to the fire about issues like this. Heck, motorists, who potentially constitute one of politics' mightiest lobbies, might even band together to form a group to hound the minister over his policies.

Not here: whether we're too soft or perpetually distracted historically by the Troubles and, more recently, the eternal peace process, effective citizens' protest bodies rarely spring up. Not ones that give ministers any sleepless nights, anyway. Perhaps it's time to change that.

Another month, another threat to a journalist. It was only in August that Tim Brannigan was disgracefully subjected to a three-hour attack on his home that included racist threats from a crowd because of the colour of his skin.

Writer Tim lives close to the site where a republican bonfire was held to mark the introduction of internment without trial in 1971. But when he raised concerns about the fire he was racially abused and bricks and bottles were thrown at his house.

This week, in an unrelated incident, a severe death threat was made against an Irish News journalist. The threat emanates from a murder investigation and is a deeply disturbing event. The journalist's personal security has been reviewed and I'm sure adequate steps will have been taken.

Like most Belfast media, the Irish News has been in this position before. It will stand up for freedom of the Press, just as it has in the past. Nevertheless, it was good to hear firm leadership from local politicians, including Martin McGuinness, over the threat.

It would be nice to hope this will be the last such incident. The past, unfortunately, tells us it won't be.

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