Greenway Lessons

We spent our summer holiday in Mayo, just north of Newport. The Great Western Greenway runs a short distance from the holiday home. We were separated from it by the busy N59. The Great Western Greenway deserves to be copied by county councils across Ireland, but it should not be a simple case of copy and paste. It can be improved.

Abandoned railways abandon cyclists


The path itself cannot be faulted. Using the railway infrastructure allows for a quick and cheap way to create a traffic free cycling route between places. Beeching, Benson and others blessed us with a wide network of potential Greenways. Like the former Sligo, Leitrim and North Counties Railway near Manorhamilton:

However. A big however. A railway is designed not to interact with local roads. It threads its way through the landscape separate from the grid of roads and streets. The landscape of Ireland is littered with arches and tunnels, taking railways over and under rivers, roads and hills. This creates separation between the Greenway and the land it passes through.

Burrishoole road bridge, now part of the Greenway

The consequence is that people will cycle the Greenway end to end, but not interact much with the area in between.

Mayo County Council has tried to overcome this by introducing short loops on local (restricted access) roads to encourage people to visit sights and places of interest within a short distance from the Greenway. These loops are signposted and well worth their while. The obvious jumping off point for these loops are former level crossings, or where farmers created access tracks to the fields using the old railway bed.

View from Rockfleet Castle, accessible from the Greenway using a signposted loop

Some of these loops cross the N59, or require people to walk or cycle a short distance along the 100km/h main road. A road with no pavement or cycle paths. The only safe way for us to cross was to put our 10 year old on the back and her bike on the front of my bike. Not everyone has the bike to do that.

It is not sufficient to create a Greenway and not do anything about the main roads in the vicinity. These need to be designed so an 8 year old or and 80 year old can make it across safely.


On Twitter I have had an exchange with a Maghery resident about a proposal to put a walking and cycling bridge across the Bann near its mouth with Lough Neagh.

They fear that the building of a bridge will increase vandalism, spoil scenery and bring hordes of tourists to peek into their houses. So far so “Not in my back yard”.

Greenway planners need to get resident buy in by clearly setting out Greenway benefit to them. They need resident involvement in design process, and allow a meaningful consultation. Many development schemes get mired in reviews and court cases, resulting in delays, simply because the consultation process was not used to give local residents a proper voice.

Sometimes residents have a point about not wanting a Greenway on their land. At Derradda on the Newport to Mulranny section the Greenway takes an unexpected detour. It first veers off the embankment, then follows local access roads, returning to the original line via a newly built path.

The red line in the map above goes through a homeowner’s garden.

The homeowner’s objections can be understood. Not every one wants a public path yards from their property.

What it also shows is that for Greenway building authorities need not gain 100% landowner buy in. Adjacent roads can be used, if cyclists can be safely given space there. It also means a Greenway can be built, before all landowners are on board with the idea. Seeing it in practice, showing the economic potential realised, might persuade people to allow access at a later date.

In many cases local roads near the old railway line only serve to give access to properties and fields.

Realistically, roads will need to be used because the railway land was in many cases sold off. This is especially the case in towns.

Rural greenways, urban no-ways

Historical map, (c) OSI

The Midland and Great Western Railway ceased operations relatively recently. The last train trundled along the line in 1970. Just north of Newport town the railway was completely dismantled, and the N59 was partly realigned and is now where the railway was. At Burrishoole the present N59 bridges the sea inlet to the tidal Furnace Lough where the railway used to be. The old road now serves as the Greenway.

I’m not entirely persuaded that the strip of paint will keep my family safe from an errant driver on this 80km/h road.

On the edge of Newport the railway line crossed the Mulranny road.

Arch being demolished, early ’70s

Only the remnant of the arch stands today opposite Kelly’s car dealer’s. The railway line itself was built on. A small house stands where the platform of Newport station ended. The station’s goods store is a place of worship.

It is easy to miss the entrance to the Greenway, which is situated at the corner of a gravel layby. Homemade signs direct cyclists to the path. Despite this local initiative bicycle users can be seen riding the main road beyond. Mayo County Council could do more to make the path entrance more obvious.

Most cyclists use the pavement between the end of the Greenway and the town centre. There is no cycle infrastructure at all in Newport itself. The Greenway continues towards Westport beyond the town; again cyclists use the pavement to bridge the gap between the Greenway and the town.

It seems that Mayo County Council values car parking more than providing a safe, continuous cycle path through Newport town centre.

With the acres of tarmac available on either side of the Newport River bridge more can be done.

The old railway bridge is not easily accessible for cycling, with stepped access. An odd arrangement, because it is the obvious alternative crossing point to the road bridge a little further downstream.

The railway line used to go through two tunnels south of Newport. I guess it was too costly to restore these and run the Greenway through them.

A common mistake

The Comber Greenway similarly ends at the edge of Comber town where the A22 has taken the place of the old Belfast & County Down Railway line. Cyclists have to use the Old Belfast Road and narrow, congested Castle Street and Mill Street to reach Comber town square.

A better solution in Comber is to route all motorised vehicles coming from Dundonald and the Glen Road (via Glen Link) down the A22 to the Killinchy Street roundabout. Make Railway Street one way Dundonald bound from Lime Grove to reduce rat-running. Block off the Old Belfast Road junction with the A22 and make the route from there to Comber town square a cycle priority street, banning access to motor vehicles at the A22 viaduct.

Removing through traffic from Castle Street and Mill Street will enhance the shopping experience; currently shoppers have very little room, with pavements barely wide enough for a pram. Castle Street could see motor vehicles removed entirely, with access maintained through Bridge Street Link.

Comber’s cycle streets could look like this:

It is for the people and traders of Newport and Comber to decide whether to bring the Greenway and its many users into the town centre safely, or continue to live with streets completely dominated by motor vehicles.

Michelle McIlveen as Transport minister had great ambition for the Comber Greenway to be a Cycle Superhighway, but how can it be a fully developed transport link if cyclists are abandoned at the edge of town?


The Great Western Greenway is a good template for Greenways across Ireland. The benefits are clear, adding millions to the local economy. From Waterford to Sligo, Leitrim and North Counties old railways are being transformed.

More thought should be given to drawing the Greenway into town centres. Simply painting a line on a road and sticking a bicycle motif down will not do. Such as this example from Westport.

Poor cycle lane design, along the R335 in Westport

In Northern Ireland proposals and plans for hundreds of kilometres of Greenways are in development. The lack of an Executive should not hold up local planning and design proposals.

However, some day soon a Minister will have to allocate budget to these plans and allow these paths to be built.



On a wet and murky morning, just outside a village in Northern Ireland a mum and her 6 children, walking to school, were struck by a car. Adam Gilmour, age 8, died of his injuries.

It is too early to speculate how the driver failed to see and avoid the group of people in front of them.

Another statistic. Another life, number 69. Recriminations flying. Why is there no school bus? A local MLA, prompted by the mother 3 weeks ago, sought a meeting with the Northern Education and Library Board. A bit late now.

What kind of society do we live in where we require anyone, let alone a young family, to walk along a country road with a 60 mph speed limit to get to the nearest school?

Our roads need to be redesigned urgently. The interests of pedestrians must come first. We are all pedestrians. And if we do not rethink our roads we could all be the next Adam Gilmour.

May he rest in peace and his life not be wasted.

Within 24 hours of Adam’s death another person lay dead on our tarmac. On the A1, near Hillsborough, cyclist John Flynn was killed in a collision with a lorry…

How Fracking made me a Green

In 1997 my personal politics took a decisive turn towards the Green Party. In October of that year I spent a few weeks on my uncle Peter and late aunt Cathy’s farm in rural Alberta, Canada.

Their farm was outside a small settlement, at a railway crossing. Endless goods trains with pipes for a new pipeline were headed out towards the oil sands in the north east.

Farming was no longer the big earner and on his land Peter was proud to show me his latest tenant: a small fenced off area with a gas pumping station. The soil underneath the farm was full of gas, he proudly announced. I’ll show you, he said. He took me to the water borehole in the basement. The gas collects at the head of the pump and you can light it. He lit it.

My aunt complained about having to get water from the nearest town as their water from their own well was no longer drinkable. It had gone too salty. It was great for your skin, though.

A trip took us to Drumheller and all around were the signs of shale oil exploitation. That dark band over there, my uncle said with a joyful spark in his eyes, pointing at a level in the bad lands landscape, is oil.

In my head the simple puzzle fell together. Exploitation of shallow deposits of shale oil and gas, no drinking water, bad lands and the end of farming.

Transparent Government – Political Donations in NI

NI is the only place in the UK that allows donors to political parties to remain anonymous. Imagine the uproar if the party of the minister involved in planning decisions got large donations from developers or controversial fracking businesses. And decisions went their way!

There have been a couple of recent campaigns pushing for transparency.

Here is the reply from Theresa Villiers, cyclist and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Thank you for your e-mail to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in relation to donors to political parties. 

The Secretary of State has considered carefully whether it would be appropriate to allow the current arrangements with regard to the anonymity of donors to lapse. We believe that there is a strong case for increasing the transparency of donations and loans to political parties in Northern Ireland. 

However, the Secretary of State has decided to extend the prescribed period, for a limited period of time, for two reasons:

Firstly the identities of those who made donations or loans during the prescribed period would be revealed if the provisions were to lapse without introducing primary legislation to provide retrospective anonymity. The guidance given to donors and lenders at the time they contributed did not make clear that this was a possibility.

Secondly, the general threat level in Northern Ireland remains at SEVERE. As recent events have shown all too clearly, there remain those who are willing to use violence against individuals, with whose views they disagree. PSNI statistics show that there has also been no general reduction in incidents of violence or intimidation since this matter was last considered in 2010.

Nevertheless we believe that there is room to increase the transparency of the donations and loans regime without compromising the security of individuals or businesses. This requires the introduction of primary legislation to allow the donations and loans regime in Northern Ireland to be amended. At present, the Secretary of State is only able to decide between maintaining or removing the current regime.

To that end we have now secured drafting authority to introduce this primary legislation when Parliamentary time allows. Given that the existing legislation will fall on 28 February 2013, the provisions ensuring donor identities in NI remain protected need to be extended for a further period to allow time for primary legislation to be introduced. The Secretary of State proposes to extend the current regime only to allow time for this, not for the full two years.

We hope you will appreciate the steps that are being taken to ensure greater openness and transparency while respecting the Parliamentary process and timetable.  

Yours Sincerely,


Green Gas Gaffe

I was watching a report on BBC Newsline about natural gas storage under Larne Lough. Alex Attwood, the Environment Minister hailed the scheme and referred to natural gas as “green”.


So I wrote the following:

Dear Mr Attwood,

On BBC Newsline when commenting on the proposed natural gas storage site under Larne Lough you said natural gas is a green fuel.

I can assure you it is not “green”. Gas, like oil, is a finite resource; a fossil fuel.

Methane, for that is what natural gas is, is a powerful greenhouse gas, 50 times more potent than carbondioxide. When burnt in a central heating system, methane is converted to carbondioxide and water, plus a lot of heat.Carbondioxide and water vapour are greenhouse agents.

Will you please explain how natural gas can possibly be “green”?

Before you make grandiose announcements in future will you please check your facts?

Thank you.


And I got a reply:

Dear Borghert Jan Borghmans

Thank you for your e-mail of 18 October in relation to Green Fuel.

A response will issue in due course.
Kind Regards, LS | DOE Private Office

I am looking forward to it!

Breastfeeding in Northern Ireland

Today UNICEF released a report about breastfeeding in the UK. The Belfast Telegraph reports: “Breastfeeding boom ‘could save NHS £40m a year'” I quickly recognised the figures used in the report are UK figures. Local percentages in uptake and continuing breastfeeding past the first week are much lower.
Firstly, the picture with the breastfeeding article isn’t very realistic. It is impossibly glamourous. You don’t have to take your clothes off to feed your baby. Special clothing allows a woman to breastfeed in most public settings without causing others to choke on their coffees and cakes.
What is astonishing is that breastfeeding in public causes offence at all. Despite Malone House, a Belfast City Council run venue, advertising itself as a place where breastfeeding is welcomed, my wife was made to feel unwelcome by other patrons. She was very aware of their stares and whispered comments.
As with cycling, Northern Ireland urgently requires legislation to help change entrenched attitudes. We need legislation to protect women who have to breastfeed in a public place. Unlike elsewhere in the United Kingdom, Northern Irish women can be asked to stop feeding baby in public. In England they can only be asked to stop if they endanger themselves and their baby being where they are.
Under employment equality legislation a woman cannot be refused a space to breastfeed, or express breastmilk. The legislation outside the work place is vague.
To illustrate the attitude towards breastfeeding:
My wife reports time after time that women in 50+ age group who are most disapproving of breastfeeding in a public space.
Speaking to staff at RJMH, one nurse recounted how she had spent a long time with a mum to try and establish breastfeeding, only to be undermined by the grandmother saying, “Ah sure, the child is hungry; give it a bottle”.
Another young mum was visibly uncomfortable with other mums in the ward expressing breastmilk and breastfeeding their babies.
Nursing staff at RJMH are broadly supportive of breastfeeding and can offer valuable advice. However due to cost considerations women and newborns are discharged quickly. This means women are not confident to try, or continue breastfeeding in the face of cultural and commercial pressure to switch to formula.
With such a strong culture of not breastfeeding it comes as no surprise Northern Ireland is bottom of the class for breastfeeding. Here is a recent survey. The UK is already at the bottom end, but it is the English who raise the average.



Because breastfeeding is seen as a women’s issue our male politicians have to date failed to deliver legislation to support breastfeeding. When I have contacted MLAs and MPs about breastfeeding only Naomi Long, Alliance MP for East Belfast responded positively, pointing me in the direction of the Breastfeeding Strategy.
Disappointingly, legislation is a “long-term” aim.
Far from being a women’s issue, breastfeeding is beneficial to all babies, so breastfeeding should be treated as a public health issue. Edwin Poots, Minister for Health in Northern Ireland needs to take a lead on introducing measures to increase breastfeeding awareness and uptake.
Given Mr Poots’ inability to govern without his personal views and prejudices clouding his decision-making I doubt he will take a lead on encouraging breastfeeding. I suspect he has deep-seated anxieties about boobs. Just as in the Marie Stopes controversy he might even call the police to deal with breastfeeding mums.

Marie Stopes Clinic opens in Belfast – my view

In last night’s US Vice-Presidential debate Joe Biden said this:

“My religion defines who I am. I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life, and it has informed my social doctrine, which is about taking care of those who cant take care of themselves. With regard to abortion, I accept my churches position on abortion. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on others, unlike my friend here. I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor.”

I cannot put it better myself. It incidentally shows the lack of moral leadership from the local Northern Irish politicians on this issue.

Postcode Care, part 2

So we kept our heads low. When finally the RJMH seemed determined to send us up the Newtownards Road to the Ulster, we rang ahead to find out about their Special Care Baby Unit.

The Ulster Hospital nurse laughed at us. They were full to capacity. Had been for weeks, would continue to be for the next few weeks. We weren’t going anywhere.

We did go somewhere: we went home.

We always understood that the aftercare would be with the Ulster, so RJMH sent them a letter to inform them we were out. In due course we would get an appointment with the baby clinic at the Ulster.

Three weeks later we still receive our aftercare from RJMH.

It is not as if the Belfast Trust is out of pocket for our daughter’s care. All costs are borne by the South Eastern Trust. Regardless of whether that care was at the Ulster, the Royal or in, say, Amsterdam.

It all adds to the initial feeling that moving a patient because of their postcode is a bit of a nonsense.