North/South Ministerial Council: Roads and Transport

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 7 November 2011.

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Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make a statement on the eleventh meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in transport sectoral format, which was held in Armagh on Friday 21 October 2011. I attended the meeting with the Minister of the Environment, Alex Attwood MLA, who will make a separate statement on road safety issues directly after my statement and the question and answer session. The meeting was chaired by Minister Varadkar TD, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

The Council discussed progress on the A5 and A8 road projects. Ministers noted that public inquiries into the A5 north-west gateway to Aughnacloy and the A8 Belfast to Larne projects ended on 1 July 2011 and 23 June 2011 respectively. The Council also noted that the cross-border steering group has produced an agreed report and that, subject to final approval at the North/South Ministerial Council plenary sitting, a further request for drawdown of £3 million will be made.

The Council discussed progress made on the five priority areas of the All Island Freight Forum (AIFF), which were meetings with the relevant regional and local authorities, including Dublin City Council and Belfast City Council, about more sustainable freight transport operations in Dublin and Belfast; an event involving 50 delegates — I wish that there had been only 49 — from public bodies and industry, from which key issues relating to a safer, more compliant and eco-efficient road freight industry were identified; a meeting of representatives of ports, railway companies, shipping lines and exporters to explore further the potential of rail freight and coastal trade and short sea shipping; the establishment of a comprehensive baseline in relation to international connectivity on all regular scheduled roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) and lift-on/lift-off (lo-lo) services and identification of key industry clusters; and a review of existing freight data for Northern Ireland and Ireland and a related user consultation and stakeholder workshop, which was held in Dublin Castle on 5 October, to identify potential information gaps. Ministers noted that the freight forum will hold a second plenary event on 7 November 2011 — today — in Belfast to address issues that are relevant to the freight sector.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. I appreciate that he is, perhaps, restricted in what he can say regarding the A5, as he awaits the inspector’s report on the public inquiry. However, he said that the Council discussed the A5 proposal, and he advised when he hopes to receive the inspector’s report and when he would expect to make a decision regarding the proposal. Will he also advise what the agreed report referred to in his statement was on and what conclusion it arrived at? Finally, will the Minister advise the House whether the authorities in the Republic of Ireland have confirmed that finances will be available for the proposal, and, if so, will he advise on the timing for drawing down those moneys?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful to the Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee for his questions and for his ongoing contribution. The Member is right in saying that the A5 and the A8 schemes were discussed at the sectoral meeting in Armagh. As I indicated in my statement, we noted that the cross-border steering group produced an agreed report. A plenary meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council is due later this month, when we will seek approval for a further request for the drawdown of £3 million towards the scheme. As the Member will be aware, the A5 and the A8 schemes are being taken forward as the result of an agreement between both Governments to upgrade the two key transport corridors. Those projects will greatly facilitate economic growth and provide good value for money to the people of Northern Ireland.

I had previously indicated that, when I receive the inspector’s report and recommendations, I will consider spending priorities across my Department, including the impact on the strategic roads programme. I am limited in what I can say, particularly in respect of the A5 inspector’s report, given that it has not been received by my Department. We expect it to be presented some time before Christmas, and I will take early consideration of it. The A8 report has been received and is being considered by departmental officials. I will attempt to bring forward a view on that as quickly as possible.

The Member will know that there is ongoing speculation as to the overall economic situation in the Republic of Ireland. No firm conclusions have been indicated yet by the Irish Government in respect of their funding.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. My question regarding the A5 has already been asked by the Member opposite and has been answered by the Minister.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

The Member has got two for one, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Minister indicated that there was a discussion about rail freight and about the benefits that can flow from it. Is the Minister aware that the port of Larne is one of the few ports within which there is a railhead? Does he believe that, as a result of the discussions, there is potential for growth in that port and in the importance of the Larne-Belfast railway line?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful to the Member for his question. Given that he represents East Antrim, I would, of course, expect him to be very supportive of Larne port and to encourage its use. Whether anything can be explored with rail freight is worthy of some consideration from a departmental point of view and on a North/South basis. The general view hitherto has been that there is insufficient opportunity for freight to be moved by rail across the island of Ireland, and I am certainly content to explore any possibilities that may exist for improved lines and facilities.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I thank the Minister for his statement. As other Members indicated, he answered the question on the A5 project to the best of his ability. I will pursue the matter that Mr Beggs raised about the use of the railways for freight. There are immense opportunities to improve the impact of freight on the environment by getting it off our roads and on to rail. Will the Minister indicate that he will at least explore discussions with Northern Ireland Railways and CIE to see what advantages could be created between the port of Larne and the port of Dublin?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful that, even with my limited ability, the Member was able to find an elucidating answer to the previous question. I am happy to explore opportunities for rail and rail freight. At the very early stage, there will, perhaps, be challenging issues in bringing forward proposals, but I am happy and content to explore those opportunities.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I too thank the Minister for his statement, albeit that it was a bit woolly and indecisive. I want to ask him about the A5. At the time of the election, the Minister’s party made much ado and play about the fact that it was opposed to the A5 project. I do not want to misquote him, but I think that he said today that there was no firm indication from the Irish Republic Government on the £400 million that they intended making available. That seems to be a change: I thought that there was a firm commitment from the Irish Republic Government that they were prepared to put £400 million into the project. I know that that sum was, perhaps, committed before the crisis. However, can the Minister be a wee bit more explicit and tell us whether he is in favour of the scheme and when exactly we can expect the inspector’s report on the public inquiry?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful to the Member for his question, which was, as usual, robust. Of course, the Member has kept his own record in place in that he did not indicate his view or his party’s view on the A5 project, yet he would like me to do so. Today’s statement obviously relates to the North/South ministerial sectoral meeting, and I have reported accurately the situation on what the discussions on the A5 and the A8 brought forward. It is not a state secret: even Lord Morrow will be aware that there are significant economic pressures in the Irish Republic and that, at this point, we are simply awaiting the outcome of deliberations there.

Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Can the Minister elaborate on the establishment of the comprehensive baseline for the international connectivity on all regular ro-ro and lo-lo services and on the identification of key industry clusters?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP 12:15, 7 November 2011

It may be the acoustics in the House, but I did not quite catch the question. I apologise to the Member for that.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Perhaps the Member will repeat what he was saying.

Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin

I was looking for elaboration of the:

“comprehensive baseline in relation to international connectivity” which the Minister referred to in his statement.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

The All-Ireland Freight Forum has five priority issues — I referred to this in the statement— including the establishment of that comprehensive baseline in relation to international connectivity. I will attempt to get the Member further information on that to see what the present situation is.