Belfast Telegraph

Riding roughshod over farmers will put us on the road to ruin

By Eamonn McCann

Sunday was the loveliest day of the year - and Victoria Bridge the balmiest place to be.

The 'climate camp' on a field that rolled down to the river near the Tyrone village presented a picture of morning glory, yurts and tents and tepees and veggie breakfasts served with a smile as the sun warmed the mist off the earth to unveil the rise of the Sperrins on one side, the hills of Donegal in the distance on the other and everywhere the exhilaration of being in tune with bounteous nature.

There was less of a hippie vibe than might have been expected. Or less of the vibe than those out of touch with hippiedom had expected.

Nothing to off-put local farmers, who arrived later, after church or a Lord's Day lie-in. I could not but notice that campers made short work of the impressive tray of burgers and sausages one farmer had fetched along.

"I am a veggie, all right," explained a woman with hair in comely corn-rows. "Except when it's sort of ceremonial." Must remember that one the next time I'm caught having a crafty fag.

The purpose of the camp was to highlight and discuss ways of thwarting the A5, the huge project by Conor Murphy's Department of Regional Development to impose a wide ribbon of concrete on the countryside from Derry to Aughnacloy to create a dual carriageway which might clip 15 minutes off the journey time to Dublin at a cost of a £1bn, and of attracting more cars on to the roads to spew bigger volumes of CO2 into the atmosphere, of ripping farms into fragments and disfiguring beauty.

No one who took part in discussions during the day denied that stretches of the road need urgent upgrading, widened here, passing lanes installed there, or a three-lane road coupled with reinstatement of the Derry-Portadown railway.

But neither did anyone see a case for proceeding with the biggest and by far the most expensive road-building project ever in the north. Both the farmers and the climate campers insist that no such case has ever been presented by proponents of the project. There was no talk of an 80km dual carriageway five years ago. In March 2006, the DRD said there were no plans to dual the road. Accepted policy for relieving traffic-choked towns and villages had been for upgrades and by-passes.

Strabane is now by-passed in two sections, Newtownstewart was by-passed in 2003, Omagh in two stages by 2006.

The first indication of a new 'dual' policy came in October 2006 - the month of the St Andrew's talks, when Dublin officials revealed that their National Development Plan would include co-funding road projects in the north. The Republic has since pledged half a billion euro of taxpayers' money to the scheme.

The dualling of the A5 is a political project. The politics override any commitment to cut greenhouse gases and take precedence over the wishes and interests of the farming community.

A statement two years ago of Executive climate-change objectives declared that: "The Programme for Government . . . in line with sustainable development strategy, has set an ambitious target for reduction in local emissions of greenhouse gases. A substantial reduction is required from road transport by 2025 . . . Planned investment in buses, trains and facilities aims to promote increased utilisation of public transport and reduce dependency on the private car, thereby contributing to climate change targets."

The A5 project contradicts that undertaking. Ballygawley dairy farmer Laurence Heslip fears the worst. Current plans would ram the A5 through the farm, dividing it in two and leaving parts of it isolated. His neighbour, William Robinson, told Chris McCullough of Farm Week: "The valley I farm is unspoilt natural beauty and will never be the same again should this road get the green light . . . I don't understand where both the Northern Ireland Government and the one in the Republic will find the money to fund this road. They can't even afford to fill in potholes, so how can they afford millions for this harebrained scheme?"

Whether Dublin and Stormont find the money will depend in large measure on whether those whose jobs and services are endangered by cutbacks will tolerate this skewed sense of priorities.

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