For many years the politicians of Northern Ireland have avoided the ‘bread and butter’ issues and focused on more sensitive topics such as violence, policing and power-sharing.
This, together with long-term underinvestment, has left Northern Ireland the legacy of a deteriorating infrastructure. Now, as the violent pictures of the last few decades fade and the deadline for devolution fast approaches, public policy seems to be focusing on the local economy and infrastructure. The Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland (ISNI) sets out an investment of £16bn over the next 10 years in more than 300 projects. The long-term aims of the ISNI are to address the infrastructure deficit and to promote economic growth.
At the start of the millennium Northern Ireland’s public transportation system was failing. Buses and trains were old and unreliable and, as a result, passenger numbers remained static. In December 2000 the Northern Ireland Assembly (NIA) funded Translink, a state-owned company, to purchase 23 new trains, which came into service in June 2005. February 2005 saw the introduction of the new Metro system, with new buses, routes and timetables. As a result passenger numbers have increased by more than 30 per cent.
Over the next 30 years £25m is to be invested annually in updating facilities and services. There are also proposals for a rapid transit network in Belfast that would service the Titanic Quarter area of the city.
The ISNI proposes a £1.4bn investment into the roads of Northern Ireland. This is a vital investment for the development of industry, as 99 per cent of the country’s freight is moved by road. Projects will include the improvement and extension of the existing Westlink, the widening of the M2 and the improvement of other major roads.
Northern Ireland’s communications infrastructure, with four fixed-network service providers – BT, Cable & Wireless Communications, NTL and Eircom – is state-of the-art. In fact, Northern Ireland is the first region in Europe to achieve 100 per cent broadband coverage.
Last month BT announced the 21st Century Network, its newest communications system, which will see an investment of £260m in Northern Ireland. The new network will see internet access speed triple by 2010. It will also see 160 telephone exchanges reduced to three, with two in Belfast and one in Portadown.
The Single Electricity Market (SEM), which is due to become fully operational on 1 November 2007, is the first step in the establishment of an all-island energy market. It is hoped this will lower the cost of electricity and improve the reliability of supply across the whole of Ireland.
Over the past few years Airtricity has been expanding the number of windfarms right across Ireland. On Tappaghan Mountain the first of many windfarms planned for Northern Ireland was commissioned in February 2005. The windfarm is now generating enough electric to power 12,000 houses a year, reducing CO2 emissions by approximately 60,000 tonnes a year. Airtricity has recently commenced works on Bin Mountain and planning permission has been granted for Bessy Bell. Airtricity has a further six sites in Northern Ireland currently at the pre-planning stage.
Water and waste
For many years the water service has been paid out of general taxation and regional rates. From April 2007 the controversial household water and sewerage rates will be phased in. However, should the NIA sit, it will hold the power to reverse the water charges policy. The water rates will fund the investment needed over the next 20 years to bring the water and sewerage services up to European standards.
In an attempt to improve the quality of the drinking water in Northern Ireland and to comply with European directives, a number of water projects are in the pipeline. Project Alpha, led by the Dalriada Water consortium, recently reached financial close. This project will see the provision of new and improved bulk treated water supply schemes at five treatment centres.
Project Omega, which is also to close soon, will provide four waste water treatment facilities and two sludge recycling facilities. Other forthcoming projects include £80m for the water mains across the province and a £100m investment into the sewers of Belfast.
Over the next 10 years Northern Ireland’s health service is to see an investment programme of £2.9bn. There are five different level of projects: local health centres, community health centres, local hospitals, acute hospitals and regional centres of excellence. Across the province projects have already been completed at all levels and include the new cancer centre at Belfast City Hospital and the extension of Altnagelvin Hospital.
With the Review of Public Administration and the Bain Report, together with a review of academic selection, the announcement of £3bn of investment in schools over the next 10 years may have been overshadowed. Major projects include the upgrading of Belfast’s schools and the creation of a number of new colleges.
The preferred bidder, Ivywood Colleges, was recently announced for the construction of the new Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (BIFHE) College in the Titanic Quarter. BIFHE is the largest supplier of further and higher education in the UK and the new campus will see the centralisation of five main campuses, five smaller sites and 120 out-centres. Local members of the consortium include Ulster Bank (funder), Todds Architects (architect), CFR Solicitors (legal adviser) and the Patton Group (construction contractor). The construction is set to be completed by 2010.
The Titanic Quarter has been heralded as ‘Europe’s largest and most exciting waterfront development’. The development, which will bring both employment and investment opportunities to Belfast, will be home to places of business, education and leisure, as well as boasting apartments. The £1bn development, which is co-promoted by the Titanic Quarter and the Port of Belfast, will be built on the site where RMS Titanic was constructed. A landfill site on Belfast’s Dargan Road is at the centre of plans to regenerate the area.
Work has commenced at the site of the former Maze Prison, which closed in September 2000. Some of the original structures, such as the prison hospital and one of the H-blocks, are to be retained. The government’s proposals for the site include a multisports stadium and an international centre for conflict transformation.
The Northern Ireland Assembly
The NIA was established by the Belfast Agreement. The last NIA, which was elected on 26 November 2003, never legally met. The 2007 elections, held on 7 March, highlighted that the people of Northern Ireland are more interested in fundamental issues rather than the violence of the past. Bertie Ahern, on the day of the results of the election, said that this was the “first time Northern Ireland’s been able to have that kind of election on the kind of issues the prime minister and I deal with every day”.
The Irish government has pledged to invest millions in improving Northern Ireland’s infrastructure if devolved government is restored. Projects that could hope to receive funding include the restoration of the Ulster Canal, development of the Dublin-Belfast railway, extension of the runway at Derry City Airport and construction of a road linking Belfast, the North West and Dublin.
With violence now in the past, Northern Ireland is developing, both socially and economically, at a tremendous rate. Inside and outside investment has brought about the improvement of all aspects of the infrastructure and the construction of major projects. Northern Ireland can only wait to see if the politicians seize this opportunity for change.
•Lisa Boyd is an assistant at CFR Solicitors in Belfast