Belfast Telegraph

Back then: Putting the brakes on Ring Road plan: People power halts proposal for Belfast in its tracks

EDDIE McILWAINE

IT wasn't high summer festival time or Christmas or Easter, so why did a group of young men build a monster from old cardboard boxes with wheels, give it glaring eyes and haul the ugly creature through Sandy Row?

The answer is the long-haired chaps were protesting against a road that was about to be built.

Not just any meandering road out of Belfast.

This was the infamous Belfast Urban Motorway and it was causing a lot of ire, as can be seen in this 1973 picture of fellow protesters following along behind the cardboard monster and its handlers.

I recall the saga of the Ring Road, as it came to be known, today because one Wesley Johnston has picked up his pen to write the story down.

What a yarn it turns out to be in his tome from Colourpoint at £15, which he calls simply The Belfast Urban Motorway ... Engineering, Ambition And Social Conflict.

Don't think for a moment this is just another book about a road thought of by the Northern Ireland Government (it was in 1967 when the idea was first mooted) as a genius piece of planning which would provide a feast of engineering for the country.

As the title with its mention of ambition and social conflict implies, this is an intriguing story of how it all went wrong in the end.

The original plan was for an elevated three-lane motorway – the Ring Road – around Belfast city centre.

The planners envisaged cars whizzing at speed up above the city while mothers pushed their prams in peace and quiet underneath and old men sat in the sun and dreamed their dreams in the heart of the newly-acquired quiet of the city.

Are they trying to turn us into another New York with those motorways up in the sky, I remember wondering at the time.

The Ring Road, the planners admitted, would cause demolition on a grand scale – and the good folk of Sandy Row were just one city group who didn't want their place wiped out.

Hence the protests, not just in Sandy Row, but all around the city with people lying down in the street in front of buses and cars and bringing traffic to a standstill.

There were people with vested interested opposed to the plan who came up against those with personal ambitions who wanted it to happen.

The Ring Road never came to anything and by 1977 had been dismissed as a nightmare that happily never turned into reality.

But there are hints in planning circles today that the Urban Motorway still has its backers, so is it possible the Ring Road could be resurrected?

You'll have to read Wesley's book to find out.

He has a PhD in software engineering, but his passion is local history.

He has studied old maps and researched the roads of the country (which I'm sure few people have done until Dr Johnston came along).

His wife and daughter must be very patient when on a drive in the country he suddenly veers off to take pictures of some obscure piece of engineering infrastructure.

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