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Direct rule jeopardises Ulster's transport plans

DELIVERY OF transport projects in Northern Ireland could be stalled by this week's suspension of the power sharing assembly, sources told NCE this week.

Direct rule was imposed on the province on Tuesday following collapse of the power sharing administration.

Ministers including Peter Robinson, the Democratic Unionist in charge of transport, resigned on Monday and were being replaced with direct rule ministers as NCE went to press.

Sources in the Northern Ireland Office feared that a direct rule minister could reverse the policy under which transport was made a top funding priority.

Before power sharing, years of under-investment during direct rule from Westminster brought the province's road and rail systems to the brink of collapse (NCE 10 August 2000).

'Assembly ministers agreed in January that transport would have as big a priority for funding as health and education, ' said one official source. 'The priority transport will be given under direct rule ministers is uncertain.'

Attention will focus on transport budget negotiations for 2003-2004 which were under way when the assembly was suspended. These were expected to be complete by Christmas.

It is also feared that decision making on transport projects will take much longer. 'One of the difficulties of the last period of direct rule in 2000 was that ministers wouldn't take any decisions at all, ' said Robinson's special advisor on transport Richard Bullick.

A 10 year regional transport strategy for the province was approved in July. Under this, the province would get £1.3bn over and above the £2.13bn it is forecast to get over the next decade under its current funding regime.

This would fund a rapid transit system for Belfast, 23 new trains and a bypass programme.

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