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Warrenpoint-Omeath bridge offers ‘a second chance’

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Cormac Campbell ,BBC News NI south east reporter

BBC Berni LivelyBBC

Berni Lively, the general manager of the Whistledown Hotel in Warrenpoint, says it is great news for the local economy

The build on the Irish border has begun.

Preparatory works on the Narrow Water Bridge – a cross-border project, linking County Down and County Louth, have been ongoing since February.

On Tuesday political representatives from both sides of the border gathered as the project was officially launched.

This is a project decades in the making that does not have a publicly-known cost – with suggestions from €60m (£51.1m) to €110m (£93.6m).

Whatever the official tab, it is due to be picked up by the Irish government who included Narrow Water in €800m (£681.4m) worth of investments as part of its Shared Island unit.

Building work on the southern side of Narrow Water

Building work has begun on the southern side of Narrow Water

Where is the Narrow Water Bridge located?

Narrow Water is a site that effectively marks the meeting point of three counties – Down, Armagh and Louth – and two jurisdictions, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

It is also a site that has seen more than its fair share of significant events, including the Narrow Water bombing of August 1979, where 18 soldiers were killed in an IRA double bomb attack.

It is also believed to be the point where US President Joe Biden’s ancestors crossed from County Louth before sailing across the Atlantic from Warrenpoint.

Once a tourism hotspot, Warrenpoint and Omeath’s border locations effectively became their stumbling block during the Troubles.

Now that location has offered them a second chance to establish themselves.

The bridge is expected to take three years to build.

When it opens it is hoped it will create a new tourism destination along the island’s main transport corridor, equidistant between Belfast and Dublin and linking in the Mournes, Ring of Gullion and Cooley mountains.

Taoiseach Simon Harris, Tanaiste Michael Martin and NI Infrastructure Minister John O'Dowd stand with others at the breaking of ground at the Narrow Water Bridge

Taoiseach Simon Harris, Tanaiste Micheal Martin and Stormont Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd attended the ground breaking on Tuesday

The bridge will connect the A2 Newry to Warrenpoint dual carriageway in Northern Ireland with the R173 at Omeath in the Republic.

It is also hoped that it will help develop the wider Carlingford Lough area into a major Irish tourism destination, linking access between the villages of Warrenpoint, Rostrevor and Carlingford.

The final pieces of a cross-border greenway, which will link Carlingford village and Newry, are also under way.

It will intersect with the bridge.

Speaking as ground was broken, the Taoiseach (Irish PM) Simon Harris said the bridge would be a “symbolic” and “practical” piece of infrastructure that would “unlock the full potential of this beautiful border region”.

The Tanaiste Micheál Martin said the project had the potential to be a “defining, iconic symbol of the journey our country has made”.

Northern Ireland’s Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd said the bridge was “connecting communities. It is connecting history. It is connecting to the future.”

Brian Murtagh

Brian Murtagh is hopeful the bridge will stimulate the local economy

Brian Murtagh lives in Omeath and helps out the local Tidy Towns committee on litter picks twice a week.

He is hopeful the bridge will stimulate the local economy, and that the former Park Hotel and Dublin House Pub, which have been long closed, will re-open as a result.

“It’ll certainly get busier and you might end up with more rubbish on the road to get picked up, but it’ll be good for the business community,” he said.

Patrick Wall

Patrick Wall feels Omeath and Warrenpoint have nothing to fear from an influx of visitors

Patrick Wall, originally from Melbourne, is working on that public realm scheme in the centre of Omeath.

He lives in nearby Carlingford village.

It’s already a tourism hotspot and he feels Warrenpoint and Omeath have nothing to fear from a potential influx of visitors.

“If you come down at the weekend it is packed down here,” he said.

“Parking might become the biggest issue but the more people the better.”

The northern side of Narrow Water

The view from the northern side of Narrow Water

‘Competition is no bad thing’

Across the lough in Warrenpoint, talk is also brewing about what derelict buildings will be redeveloped.

Berni Lively, the general manager of Whistledown Hotel on the front shore, has no concerns about the possibility of increased competition.

“Obviously we will benefit but also the town as a whole. Competition is no bad thing,” she said.

“I think Warrenpoint will go back to how I remember it as a child.”

In 2013 a previous attempt to build the bridge collapsed after £14.5m of European funding was withdrawn.

Since then, the Narrow Water Bridge Community Network has led a campaign for the bridge to be built.

As one member, Bill Reilly said: “If you keep turning over stones you might eventually find what you were looking for.”

Adrian O'Hare

Adrian O’Hare, of the Narrow Water Bridge Community Network, said the bridge would be transformational

Now that the big stone has been overturned, the group’s secretary Adrian O’Hare is pointing ahead to new battles.

“On the seafront we have a swimming pool (The Baths) that was once the pride of Edwardian Ireland. It is now the biggest eyesore in the area.

“We have a number of hotels that have been derelict for a generation and we are also aware of other investment coming into the area because of the bridge.”

Ian Cumming, who runs the East Coast Adventure Centre out of the Baths building, said the local council has an “excellent” plan to redevelop the site and that the bridge project helps drive that forward.

“We just need to get the funding in place to make that happen and we are confident it will happen,” he said.

Leah Kells

Leah Kells, a teacher from County Meath, has been impressed by what she has seen in Warrenpoint

On dry land is teacher Leah Kells – she’s been impressed by what she has seen in Warrenpoint.

“I never really thought of coming to Warrenpoint.

“There is so much to do that I wasn’t aware of for someone who is only a stone’s throw away. So it being brought to everyone’s attention can only be great for the place.”

This isn’t a low-cost project.

To be successful, the private sector must respond with investment and increased tourism spend must follow.

If it does, it’s hoped the bridge can prove transformative for this stunning region.

Royal British Legion’s memorial concerns

Colin Whiteside

Colin Whiteside from the Newry branch of the Royal British Legion has expressed concerns the proposed bridge will have an “adverse impact” on a nearby memorial site

Meanwhile, the Newry branch of the Royal British Legion (RBL) has concerns that the Narrow Water Bridge will have an adverse effect on a nearby memorial site.

The cross-border bridge will join the A2 dual carriageway at Narrow Water roundabout, about 400m from a memorial marking where 18 soldiers died in an IRA attack in August 1979.

William Hudson, a 29-year-old from London who was standing on the other side of the lough, in the Republic of Ireland, was also killed by Army gunfire following the attack.

The memorial has previously been targeted by vandals with wreaths thrown into the water.

Colin Whiteside, from the Newry RBL, said the memorial has often visited by family members and acts of remembrance have been help “on many occasions”.

“The RBL is concerned that the proposed bridge will have an adverse effect on this Remembrance Site,” he added.

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