Narrow Water Bridge project offers 'a second chance'

Brian Murtagh
Brian Murtagh is hopeful the bridge will stimulate the local economy [BBC]

The build on the Irish border has begun.

While the official turning of the sod for the Narrow Water Bridge will happen later, preparatory works on the cross-border project, linking County Down and County Louth, have been ongoing since February.

But, in reality, this is a project decades in the making and one that does not have a publicly-known cost - with everything from €60m (£51.1m) to €110m (£93.6m) being suggested.

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.

Where is the Narrow Water Bridge located?

Building work on the southern side of Narrow Water
Building work has begun on the southern side of Narrow Water [BBC]

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.

This includes 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.

Ironically now, that location has offered them a second chance to establish themselves.

The bridge is expected to take three years to be built and when it opens it is hoped it will effectively 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.

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

It will also allow better access between the villages of Warrenpoint and Rostrevor in Northern Ireland and Carlingford across the border, with the hope being that it'll help develop the wider Carlingford Lough area into a major Irish tourism destination.

The earliest signs of work are footpath closure notices and the clearing of land for a site office on the northern shore.

There is more to be seen on the south side, with diggers already clearing a field and putting in foundations for the bridge’s approach road.

The northern side of Narrow Water
The view from the northern side of Narrow Water [BBC]

In Omeath, on the County Louth side, large parts of the village centre have been dug up to make way for new paving and walkways.

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.

Brian Murtagh lives in Omeath and, in his retirement, he 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.

“There’ll definitely be more investment and you can see it already."

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

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

He lives in nearby Carlingford village with his wife, who is from the area - 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.

"Parking might become the biggest issue but the more people the better – especially on a nice day to see people out walking with ice creams in hand, that’s beautiful.”

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

'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 the 21-bedroom Whistledown Hotel on the front shore, believes the bridge will transform the town – and has no concerns about increased competition.

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

"There is a need for more of everything in the area.

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

"There used to be so many festivals – the whole atmosphere of Warrenpoint, if you get the good weather there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.”

If the local hospitality industry is to grow, one area that needs greater focus is staff recruitment, she added.

“Sadly hospitality is still struggling to attract staff and we work with the local educators to encourage people into the industry but there’s still a long way to go.”

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

In the wake of that disappointment, a community group was founded. 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 [BBC]

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

“We want to counteract what can only be described as serious dereliction. 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.

"The bridge, when it arrives, will end that.

"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, is also hoping for a boost.

He said the local council has plans to redevelop the site and that the bridge project helps drive that forward.

“It (Warrenpoint) needs the Baths to be regenerated and the current plan that the council has in place is an excellent plan so we just need to get the funding in place to make that happen and we are confident it will happen.”

On the water, Ian was taking a group from St Patrick’s National School in Slane, County Meath, paddle-boarding.

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

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.

"It was always ‘lets go to Carlingford or Blackrock’ but the small amount of the town or village that we’re after seeing, there are so many restaurants and pubs and the whole pier walk.

"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.”

However, 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 [BBC]

Meanwhile, the Newry branch of the Royal British Legion (RBL) has said it has concerns that the Narrow Water Bridge will have an adverse effect on a nearby memorial site to the 18 soldiers who died in an IRA attack in August 1979.

The cross-border bridge will join the A2 dual carriageway at Narrow Water roundabout, about 400m from a memorial marking where the bombing happened.

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 at Narrow Water features a row of poppy wreaths along fencing at a layby beside the 16th Century Tower House.

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

Colin Whiteside, from the Newry RBL, said the memorial "has been visited many times by relatives of the murdered soldiers" and that acts of remembrance had been held there "on many occasions".

“The RBL is concerned that the proposed bridge will have an adverse effect on this Remembrance Site and its use by the families and comrades of those who are remembered there," he added.