A claim that Brexit is to blame for freezing progress on a huge Belfast road project has sparked claims that the Sinn Fein minister behind the move is simply “looking for excuses” not to proceed.
Both Sinn Fein and the DUP came under heavy fire from political rivals over the decision by transport minister Chris Hazzard to place the York Street Interchange plans “on hold”.
They plans involve radically revamping the huge junction and approach roads in the north end of the city centre.
It had been anticipated that up to 40% of the project would have been funded by an EU programme called the “Connecting Europe Facility”.
On Thursday Mr Hazzard issued a statement claiming that access to EU funds had been a factor in his decision to put pause the scheme.
The Northern Ireland Office responded by stating that the UK chancellor will guarantee funding for projects – including this one – so long as they are signed off before Brexit happens.
The Prime Minister has previously said she will activate Article 50 (the formal trigger for Brexit) before April 2017.
Mr Hazzard’s department said the next opening to apply to the EU programme for funding for the interchange looks set to be in early 2018, and the outcome of that not is likely to be known for another a year or more.
As such, “the project is unlikely to be signed off before Brexit” it said.
TUV leader Jim Allister (MLA for North Antrim) said Mr Hazzard “is clearly playing politics when he seeks to blame any delay in upgrade the York Street interchange on Brexit”.
He said: “It is clear that the Sinn Fein Minister is asleep at the wheel, looking for excuses or is spreading clearly inaccurate information.
“If there is any delay in this key project it won’t be because of Brexit.
“This is just yet another scare story and black propaganda spread by the bad losers of the referendum.”
The UUP’s Jenny Palmer (MLA for Lagan Valley) said it was “the most important road scheme in Northern Ireland”, and would help to ease “major congestion” in the area, which is where the M2 motorway connects with the city centre from the north and joins with the M3, running from the east.
She asked if the DUP are “happy enough to let Sinn Fein use Brexit as an excuse for doing nothing”?
Meanwhile, the SDLP said that the freezing of the project was “the first casualty of DUP/SF Brexit confusion”.
Daniel McCrossan (MLA for West Tyrone) noted that the DUP were the sole Northern Irish party to press for an exit from the EU, adding: “Now that their posturing has come back to bite them and these funding streams are in danger, the DUP are completely at a loss on a way forward for these infrastructure projects.
“Perhaps this is why they were so keen to keep their hands off the infrastructure brief and allowed their hapless Sinn Fein colleagues to make their excuses for them.”
The DUP’s William Humphrey (MLA for Belfast North), who is chairman of Stormont’s transport committee, said he wanted to discuss Chris Hazzard’s claim that the scheme would be unable to take advantage of the UK’s pledge to replace EU funds “at the earliest opportunity”.
He said: “I have heard calls today from the UUP that borrowing facilities within the Fresh Start Agreement must be used to fund this scheme. The UUP of course previously slammed the provision of such facilities and demanded the Executive borrow no more money.”
Mr Humphrey added that the SDLP “believes the solution to all our problems is some ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland within the EU, yet they cannot even persuade the other half of the Opposition to support their grand plan”.
He added: “I firmly believe in the importance of the York Street Interchange, but I also live in the real world where there are competing priorities for a finite budget.”
The interchange project has been in development since before 2009, and has been estimated to cost up to £165m.
A video showing what it is supposed to look like is available online at www.yorkstreetinterchange.com .