A Bridge Too Far

The old bridges at Annaghroe and Knockaginny are very peaceful these days.

Crossing the River Blackwater from Tyrone into Monaghan over the bridges today can only be achieved on foot. Strollers can absorb the wildlife of the nature trails of Annaghroe Meadows, but the amidst the natural beauty of the wider area is harboured a graveyard for past ruins of historic connection.

The Great Northern Railway, the Ulster Canal and more recently the Annaghroe and Knockaginny Bridges were both economic, cultural and physical connections between the Northern border counties to the rest of the Ireland. While the canal and the railway fell victim to changing times, the two bridges hide the scars of a more distinct and violent modern era.

Destroyed in the 1970s by the British Army as security measures, the two routes remain the last of the Tyrone/Monaghan cross-border crossings that have not reopened since the IRA ceasefire. The British Army closed more than one hundred border crossings during ‘the troubles.’

All is set to change however when later this month construction begins to restore the Annaghroe and Knockaginny Bridges, reopening it to vehicles.

But not everyone is happy, UUP MLA Tom Elliott has criticised the move as totally unnecessary and a waste of valuable money by government.

Strange days indeed, as the money for the project does not come from the pockets of Mr. Elliott’s tax paying constituents, but from the Irish Government. The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA states, “I questioned the wisdom and need for these bridges at a cost to the Irish Government of €1.5 million at a time when their economy was in meltdown.”

Elliott even goes as far to suggest that, “Building the bridges could hamper good community relations and cross border co-operation in the area.”

The concept of cross-border initiatives has never sat easily with unionists. The MLA claims the bridge reopening “does not command support of many local residents”.

During consultation evenings held in March 2008 in both Glaslough and Caledon, where between 50 and 60 locals attended, suggest a significant amount in favour of the construction of the bridges. Only 15% opposed constructing bridges in any form, while 19% objected to the bridges being used by vehicular traffic.

Building bridges in Northern Ireland has never been an easy process, whether of a physical or cultural nature. The destruction of the Knockaginny and Annaghroe crossings unnaturally severed the cross-border connection between Caledon and Glaslough. One community in effect became two, adding nine miles to what had previously been a relatively short journey.

Both Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail have previously called for the bridges to be restored as part of the normalisation of the border areas. The bridges remain one of the last symbols of the troubles on the Tyrone/Monaghan border, which has seen checkpoints and watch towers replaced by traffic cones and road works improving road networks. The Irish Government has pledged hundreds of millions of euros at projects improving cross-border road networks including the ongoing A5 project.

Despite the economic perils besetting the Dublin Government, there appears a willingness to invest in the cross-border bodies. Where other government bodies have experienced cuts North and South, cross-border bodies set up under the Good Friday Agreement such as Waterways Ireland have been cushioned from the recession.

Chief among Tom Elliott’s concerns appears to be the effect the bridges will have on the tourist strategy for the area. Arguing against bringing more people into the area may not hold much weight however. The greater symbolism of restoring the bridges appears to trump any localised concerns the increase in traffic might have.

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About AldousDuke
Mid Tyrone journalist, not so freelance any more.

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