In the wake of bombs like those in Boston earlier this week, people say all sorts of things. Remember the Omagh bomb? British and American politicians hurried to the town to join in the general sense of outrage and to assure local people of their support in rebuilding. Nothing would redress the terrible loss of life but everything possible in material and emotional terms would be done to restore the town. Simpleton that I was, I believed their reassurances.
It didn’t happen. Talk to business people in Omagh and you’ll find that no flood of American or British money came in to transform the stricken town. Walk down the main street today and while you don't get a sense of deprivation, you're a long way from the hum and bounce of a town that's thriving. And now this week, the decision to build the A5, running from Derry past Omagh to Aughnacloy has been put on hold because, we're told, the Department of Regional Development screwed up in assessing the road’s impact on the environment. The road will now be built in two years’ time. Maybe. MAYBE.
It is indeed a big maybe, a MASSIVE maybe. For a number of reasons.
- It’s west of the Bann. That’s the place where a lot nationalists/republicans live, a place that’s got a touch of the political desert for unionism. Few or no votes to be won there by unionist parties. So why would any unionist Minister bust a gut in the interests of people opposed to his/her party's political thinking?
- Danny Kennedy of the UUP is in charge of the scheme and Sammy Wilson is the Finance Minister. Sammy is on record as being agin the scheme - not against building roads, but just not there. Kennedy was on TV on Monday night and sounded as pumped up about the project as a balloon that's had an argument with a bull-dozer. Best not look to Danny as an A5 saviour.
- Several dozen farmers along the route, most of them unionist, are opposed to the A5 scheme. Tens of thousands of business and non-business people in the area, most of them nationalist/republican, are very much in favour of the scheme, which would provide a much-needed injection to employment and business. But do you think the superior numbers will mean anything? That the will of tens of thousands is bound to win the day? Uh-uh. We’re talking power here, not a head-count of population.
- The southern government originally promised £400 million towards the building of the A5. A couple of years ago it announced that, um, it’d done some sums and they’d now be giving something under £50 million. Considerably under. It’s kind of like the thing about urging people from the south to be ‘patriotic’ by shopping in the south rather than the north. Of course the Dublin government recognises that all of us on this island are Irish, it’s just that some are more Irish than others. Count yourselves lucky to get a quarter of what we promised.
Maybe at this point you’re half-thinking “Well, tough on the Omagh ones, and the Derry ones too, but we’re not going to be spending much time driving on those roads anyway”. Or maybe you’re thinking “Since those sodding southerners have gone back on their promise, of course it won’t get built, but that's life”. I don’t blame you if you're thinking along those lines. But here’s the question: do you think the decision to build or not to build will be made on environmental or financial grounds? I think not. They’ll be factors, of course. But in the end it’ll come down to a political decision. So if I were a businessman in Omagh, or someone who longed for a Derry-Dublin road that’d match the Belfast-Dublin road, I’d be opening a big box of chocolates before settling down to press Play on my favourite escapist movie. Because in my gut I’d know that once more, west of the Bann is at the end of the line.