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Upgrading the A5 and A8 is not only about safety - this is constitutional politics in concrete form

Shared Island initiative avoids gauche claims of literal nation-building but it was impossible to ignore the subtext: a road in a unionist area to balance a road in a nationalist area

Leo Varadkar is getting only two cheers in Northern Ireland for the €600 million the Government has announced to upgrade the A5 road through counties Tyrone and Derry.

Dublin originally pledged £400 million in 2007, half the scheme’s cost at the time, in a deal linked to the St Andrews Agreement. This funding was unilaterally withdrawn in 2011 by Varadkar, then transport minister, due to the financial crash. The projected cost of the scheme has since doubled.

Only Herculean restraint can have prevented the British government thanking the Taoiseach for finally honouring an international commitment. However, that is far from the richest irony in the A5 saga.

Dublin’s original offer also included funding for a smaller scheme to upgrade the A8 between Belfast and Larne. There was no official admission this was a road in a unionist area to balance a road in a nationalist area but it hardly needed to be said.


The A8 upgrade was able to proceed thanks partly to funding from the European Commission. The EU had drawn a line on the map from Larne to Seville and declared it a “priority transport corridor”, known as European Route One and sadly not as the Orange Route.

A leading proponent of the upgrade was Sammy Wilson, Larne’s DUP MP and Stormont’s finance minister. When the new road opened in 2015 he was already campaigning for Brexit.

The overall Shared Island initiative package announced this week is worth €800 million for cross-Border transport and tourism projects. While there is obvious political significance in the Government spending serious money in Northern Ireland, that should not obscure the political significance of the infrastructure itself. The A5 and A8 are constitutional politics in concrete form, whoever ends up paying for them. The port of Larne connects Northern Ireland to Scotland – “union connectivity”, as the British government has taken to calling it. The A5 promises to reorientate the western half of Northern Ireland away from Belfast towards Dublin, economically and psychologically.

Upgrading the A5 has become a road safety priority and its political subtext is rarely made explicit, but again this is hardly necessary. Sinn Féin pressed for the scheme at St Andrews and presented it as a win for nationalism.

The Shared Island initiative, established in 2020 by Tánaiste Micheál Martin, avoids gauche claims of literal nation-building. It makes concrete the somewhat queasy peace process philosophy of former taoiseach Brian Cowen: “Let’s go on a journey and forget about the destination.”

At this week’s announcement Martin and Varadkar both portrayed the investment as a neutral benefit to everyone, North and South. A €50 million contribution to Belfast’s Casement Park GAA stadium was described by the Taoiseach as “an east-west project”, serving the UK and Ireland as joint Uefa hosts.

But nobody ever quite forgets their destination, of course. It takes Herculean restraint for Northern nationalism not to openly welcome every cross-Border project as another step towards a united Ireland, although former critics of Martin’s gentle approach are starting to acknowledge the Shared Ireland initiative’s success. Sinn Féin, which had attacked and then dismissed the initiative, has now embraced it at Stormont, where it holds the infrastructure portfolio.

The UK’s 2021 Union Connectivity Review lacked any such subtlety. The British government specifically intended it to strengthen the union. Nevertheless nationalists at Stormont have been too hostile to a process that recommended cross-Border rail, co-ordination with the All-Island Strategic Rail Review, and more funding for infrastructure within Northern Ireland. London’s agenda made its cash and concrete unacceptable.

Unionists are no longer as suspicious about Dublin. “Some will see demons in the dark in regards to this, I simply don’t,” UUP leader Doug Beattie said of the Shared Island package.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson issued a more defensive statement. “It is not the job or the responsibility of the Republic’s Government to provide financial support for the provision of public services and general Northern Ireland infrastructure,” he said.

However, Donaldson welcomed “support from the Irish Government for genuine cross-Border projects that demonstrate mutual benefit to both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland”.

The DUP wants to head off any misconception that Dublin is funding Stormont’s day-to-day spending as this could be seen as creeping joint rule. The party is also touchy about Casement’s cost over-run. One of its ministers will be responsible for signing off any Stormont contribution and other sports would want a matching bonus.

Some DUP supporters do not want the GAA getting anything, or at least anything more. But the DUP has no apparent concerns about cross-Border roads, railways or bridges, even where the Republic is taking the lead. That could be seen as an achievement. Or it could just be that the DUP thinks such projects make no more difference to national allegiance than a road from Larne to Seville.