Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

United Ireland dream shunted onto lay-by as A5 plan parked

Dublin's shelving of the A5 road project is a kick in the teeth for northern nationalists. But that's the reality of partition, says Henry McDonald

After seizing power in the Petrograd putsch - aka the Russian Revolution - Lenin was asked to define, on a practical basis, what communism meant.

The leader of the Bolsheviks's rather unromantic and hard-headed reply was: "Soviet power plus electrification."

Forever the cold-blooded realist, Lenin believed that only real, tangible changes in Soviet people's lives, such as bringing electricity to villages that had barely changed since medieval Tsarist times, would win over the masses to the Marxist cause.

In the late 1990s and first years of the 21st century, a version of this Leninist-pragmatism was prominent in the thinking of nationalism north and south of the border.

With the abandonment of the 'armed struggle', Sinn Fein and, indeed, the greener elements of Fianna Fail and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin sought out a new roadmap towards a united Ireland.

Back in the heady days of the Celtic Tiger, there was a view that the Republic's seemingly never-ending prosperity would be the best means to absorb the north.

And when the Republic, for the first time in its history, surpassed the UK in terms of GDP, it bolstered the concept that by economic stealth the south would take over the north.

The most symbolic example of the long arm of the Celtic Tiger reaching over the border was the A5 road project, which would ultimately link Dublin and Derry, cutting the journey between the island's biggest city and its fourth-largest by 55 minutes. The motorway would become the ultimate projection of Irish nationalist power.

Where once it was a ballot box and an Armalite, Sinn Fein's dream of a united Ireland would now come about with a jackhammer in one hand and JCB control box on the other.

Predictably, unionists got spooked over the implications of the project, which would be co-funded by the then Fianna Fail-led government. Others, including the son of civil rights activist PJ McClean, objected to the road construction on purely environmental grounds; arguing that the new route would destroy their homes, farms, communities and way of life.

Since the over-inflated property boom/bust, when the southern taxpayer had to bail out the avaricious, profligate gambling syndicates known as the Irish banks, the grand designs on a united Ireland have been subjected to a reality check.

The Republic is virtually broke and this winter must take more than €3bn-worth of austerity measures to drive down its enormous, crippling national debt. One of the casualties of this fresh round of cost-cutting will be €700m in capital spending projects.

Among the programmes that the Fine Gael-Labour coalition have junked are the Metro North underground system, which had been planned to link Dublin city centre with the airport, and the proposed connecting of the two Luas tramlines that run north and south of the River Liffey.

These decisions will prove to be far more politically controversial and possibly costly at the ballot-box than the spending freeze on the A5 motorway.

While the axing of the A5's construction may costs votes in Donegal, the majority of those who will feel its impact (for better or worse) live in Northern Ireland and don't have the right to vote in Dail, local government or, as we have just seen, presidential elections. Republic-Realpolitik always dictated that the A5 would be a prime candidate for the axe.

Yet the biggest shock surrounding this decision is the surprise of nationalist politicians in the north.

Pat Doherty, the Sinn Fein MP, say it runs contrary to the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, when then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern agreed that the north-south link between Dublin and Derry would be an agreed component of the accord leading to power-sharing.

The SDLP, too, has been howling to the sky in protest over the suspension of spending on the A5. One wonders what planet - or, more accurately, island - either party has been on over the last turbulent 12 months in the Republic's history.

The state teetered on the brink of national bankruptcy and was only rescued thanks to the largesse of the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

In fact, it is quite amazing that the coalition is going ahead with certain other big capital spends, costing hundreds of millions of euro, at a time when the eurozone remains mired in a mortal crisis.

Moreover, the reality is that Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore's administration was always going to chose to save a capital building programme, like the construction of a National Children's Hospital on the site of the Mater in north inner-city Dublin over a motorway much of which cuts through another state.

As with the presidential election and all the controversy surrounding Martin McGuinness's (above) bid to become head of state, the convenient dumping of the A5 motorway (for now anyway) underlines that the interests of one state on this island are not always in tune with the interests of the other. Such is the impact of partition's continued existence.

The Republic has indeed 'taken over', in one sense, some parts of Northern Ireland, including unionist redoubts in Co Down.

Around Dromore, for instance, almost every blade of grass is in the hands of the Irish state after the Republic's toxic bank, Nama, was forced to handle the assets of an Ulster property dealer who had borrowed from the now-disgraced Anglo Irish Bank.

Of course, Nama and the Irish government would rather be done with owning a piece of solid unionist earth. It has cost the southern taxpayer millions and they would gladly hand it back to the British or the unionists if they would agree to share the financial burden.

Such is the reality of politics and partition as we move ever-closer to the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 2016.

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