The Union Connectivity Review was carried out by Sir Peter Hendy, Chair of Network Rail, who was appointed by the UK Government to lead an independent review into how transport links between the four regions of the United Kingdom could be improved and to bring forward funding to accelerate projects.
In his recommendations, Sir Peter backed a case for the upgrade of the A75 road in Scotland which has been supported by the borough council in association with Dumfries and Galloway Council. The route connects Cairnryan to Dumfries and Gretna and onwards to England but some sections are still single carriageway.
The review also encourages the Scottish government to improve the A77 route to Glasgow.
Mid and East Antrim has also welcomed a proposed reduction in air passenger duty.
Speaking at a meeting of the council, Larne Lough DUP Councillor Gregg McKeen said a key issue that needs to be addressed is the cost of ferry crossings between Larne and Cairnryan.
Carrickfergus Alderman Billy Ashe said: “We have built these partnerships with our friends in Scotland. It is more important for us now we have championed their case for an upgrade, we need to make sure we are not getting left behind now and we are in a position to benefit from the upgrade of this road, in particular the port of Larne.”
Knockagh Ulster Unionist Councillor Andrew Wilson pointed out that the government has given no commitment on the A77 road to Glasgow.
He also reported 1,000 road defects in Mid and East Antrim and 16,000 across Northern Ireland.
Larne Lough Alliance Councillor Danny Donnelly commented that the A75 upgrade would have economic benefit for Mid and East Anrrim and Dumfries and Galloway.
He proceeded to ask for the council’s Union Connectivity Group to be wound up saying he believed that would be the case once the review was published with another set up according to d’Hondt representation.
Bannside Sinn Fein Councillor Ian Friary asked if the council should not be considering connectivity between the north and south of Ireland.
Bannside TUV Councillor Timothy Gaston rounded on Cllr Friary saying that he should show respect for the name of the country and members should be encouraged to use the name of the country they live in.
Knockagh DUP Cllr Peter Johnston said that the report has not gone far enough.
“It still falls short in terms of bolstering that connectivity. The recommendations have not gone far enough in terms of national air passenger duty.”
Cllr Johnston asked why the council’s Union Connectivity Group had not met since August.
Acting chief executive Philip Thompson said that there had been discussions around the Union Connectivity working group and a call-in.
A call-in provides a mechanism for councillors to intervene when they feel that a decision being made needs to be reconsidered.
“Until that call-in is dealt with, we are not in a position to meet. It is still with the legal team,” explained Mr Thompson.
Coast Road Sinn Fein Councillor James McKeown commented: “I welcome a lot of the report. Our party’s focus would be on an all-Ireland approach to connectivity, We in the north of Ireland or Northern Ireland would have to work for the best results for all our people.”
Knockagh Alliance councillor Alderman Noel Willams asked that the council’s response includes a request for a reduction in air passenger duty from April 2022.
Cllr Gaston went on to say he was “surprised” by the tone of the report.
“It appears Sir Peter is very keen to advance an all-Ireland agenda through the rail network. I was expecting more of an opportunity for Northern Ireland to reconnect into parts of the UK. I think that priority needs to be given to bolstering links with the United Kingdom.”
Ald Ashe added that he was “alarmed” to hear that the group could not meet because there was a call-in.
“I suggest that this council tries to get a meeting with Sir Peter and voice our opinions on this report which is weak for Northern Ireland. East/west is our bread and butter and MEA needs to champion it.”
Larne Lough Alliance Councillor Robert Logan stated: “The report is a bit weak in certain areas. It is just window dressing by the Conservative Government.”
The council then voted in favour of officers’ recommendations to write to Sir Peter to welcome the report, Grant Shapps MP to seek clarification on the next steps and the Northern Ireland Executive to seek engagement on delivery of Sir Peter’s recommendations.
The vote was carried by 27 in favour with 10 abstentions from Alliance and Sinn Fein.
Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter