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What would our infrastructure look like if we had stayed in the UK?

  • 27-03-2023 1:58pm
    Registered Users Posts: 374 ✭✭

    I recently made a thread about what Ireland would be like it we never left the UK or at the very least stayed in it for several more decades. One subject matter that people often being up in this alternate history scenario is how our infrastructure would have developed differently if we stayed in the Union.

    Would Dublin have an underground metro system? IIRC this was proposed before independence in the Abercrombie plan with a tunnel from Harcourt St to Broadstone being one element. Retention of the DUTC trams is also a possibility although many such systems in GB cities were removed anyway.

    I imagine that some of our railway lines would still be closed but as a result of Beeching's Axe rather than Todd Andrews. However, some lines would surely still be open, the Navan one being quite likely IMO. Perhaps some link to the northwest would remain with no partition. What other lines would likely have remained open?

    How would Irish road infrastructure luck under the UK? Would the UK have chosen better routes, for example the M7 to Cork etc? I imagine some roads like the M3 or M9 would not be built in this scenario as the traffic levels did not justify them in our reality and they were really just the product of boomtime confidence.

    As for rural electrification, would this still have been rolled out in the same way and on roughly the same timeline? I imagine Ardnacrusha would not be built, this was the jewel in the crown of Free State infrastructure, would there be a similar scheme elsewhere?

    I'm not suggesting that we should have stayed in the UK for the benefit of better infrastructure just how it would look like if we had remained, aside from politics.

    What are your ideas of how our infrastructure would have developed under Britain?



  • Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators Posts: 19,686 Mod ✭✭✭✭Sam Russell

    We did not do that well prior to independence, so we would not have done much better if it had not happened.

    Ireland was to be the food basket for GB, with little to no industry, except for the NE of the island.

    The Irish state tended to copy the mistakes of the UK Gov, like getting rid of trams, moving away from canals and trains to road transport.

    We would be just as bad.

  • Registered Users Posts: 971 ✭✭✭medoc

    Interesting subject. I love alternative history type discussions. Rural electrification would have happened along similar lines to what actually happened in an independent Ireland. And Ard Na Crusha would have been built at somestage in its current location. Maybe 10 to 15 years later than actually happened. Today our infrastructure would be in a poorer state than it actually is. Look at Scotland or the North and see what it’s like there. Irelands economy wouldn’t be in as strong a position as it is today. Brexit would be another issue if we were still in the UK Union.

  • Registered Users Posts: 2,851 ✭✭✭CrabRevolution

    As Sam Russell also says above, British investment in Ireland was pretty minimal when we were part of the UK, so it makes no sense to propose they'd suddenly build a lot more infrastructure if we'd stayed.

    Take Dublin's trams for example; every single city tramway in the UK was removed by the 60s, but for an unexplained reason they'd have kept Dublin's?

    Or a Dublin underground. 100 years after independence there's numerous UK cities bigger than Dublin with no underground rail, but they'd have built one in Dublin?

  • Registered Users Posts: 19,019 ✭✭✭✭murphaph

    The major difference would have been that the "gap" in the rail network in the north west would not be as bad. It was almost entirely the result of partition that the network in this area vanished. But apart from that I suspect infrastructure in both parts of the island would actually be much worse than it is today. One look at GB and the size of some "towns" that would be considered cities in Ireland and that are not served by a motorway or HQDC. The decision to essentially replicate the N road network with new build motorways and HQDCs is sometimes criticised as a waste of resources, when compared to the UK practice of treating the motorway network as a completely separate system which involves fewer trunk routes overall. The Irish way means there is some redundancy in the system. There are (or will eventually be) multiple viable mostly motorway routes from Cork, Limerick and Galway to Dublin, for example.

    Our hesitance to build rail continues to dumbfound. We are a wealthy country and this is visible in all the other stuff we manage to build. Ireland has developed its infrastructure from a very low base in a relatively short space of time. If we could just sort out rail we would not even think about comparing ourselves to an alternate reality where we had stayed in the union. Notwithstanding this it is interesting to imagine "what if".

  • Moderators, Motoring & Transport Moderators, Technology & Internet Moderators Posts: 22,693 Mod ✭✭✭✭bk

    I've said it before, but I'll say it again. We need to stop looking to the UK and London for inspiration on infrastructure and public transport and instead look to similar sized mainland European countries and cities, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

    The UK for the most part is WAY behind mainland Europe and in general is itself looking to them for inspiration.

    murphaph is probably correct about the North West rail network, but that is literally the only positive I can think of, everything else would be negative IMO.

    All you have to do is look at Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Northern England to see how badly we would fair.

    Our nice intercity motorway network probably wouldn't exist, just look North of the border. Port Tunnel, Jack Lynch tunnel, I doubt it.

    Would Dublin even have Luas? many similar sized cities in the UK don't have any light rail or Metros.

    Under Beeching, I suspect even more of the rail lines would have been closed, then IR did. And I certainly can't see British Rail reopening the WRC (perhaps for the better!) and I certainly don't think we would have wanted to go through the privatisation of British Rail or the very high price of rail tickets!

    I certainly don't think Knock airport would exist! Can you imagine that conversation in London!! I'd question some of the other regional airports too. Shannon probably wouldn't have been the success it was (with Duty Free and Free economic zone), it would probably exist as a military base and not much else.

    And that leads us to the biggest issue, World War 2

    We would have been dragged into WW2. Dublin would have likely gotten blitzed like Belfast was. Almost 60,000 homes were destroyed in Belfast, can you imagine that in Dublin. And it could have been worse, it was found that the Germans actually stopped bombing Belfast after complaints from De Valera, as they were worried about Irish American's response and the potential to drag US into the war (at that time). But had we been a part of the UK, there would have been no such concerns and they would have had a free hand to bomb Dublin, Cork and continue on Belfast.

    Then you would have hundreds of thousands of Irish men conscripted into the British Army.

    A lot of the nice ideas that the British had in the 1920's fell by the wayside or were reversed before and after WW2 throughout Britain, simply because Britain was broke from the war.

    While 1950's Ireland was far from fun, I suspect it would have been much worse had tens of thousands of homes in Dublin were destroyed and potentially hundreds of thousands of dead Irish men from the war. I suspect Dublin would have been at the end of the list for rebuilding.

    And then what if we had "The Troubles" of the 1970's but all over Ireland!

    I really don't see how anything would have been better. You can't really separate infrastructure development from the political and economic realities of the time.

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  • Moderators, Motoring & Transport Moderators, Technology & Internet Moderators Posts: 22,693 Mod ✭✭✭✭bk

    "Would Dublin have an underground metro system? IIRC this was proposed before independence in the Abercrombie plan with a tunnel from Harcourt St to Broadstone being one element."

    One thing to keep in mind about this plan, while it was a great idea [1], it wasn't any sort of official government plan.

    The "plan" was born out of a competition started by the Civics Institute of Ireland and won by Abercrombie and his team. It had no official backing by either the British Government or Dublin City Council. No budget or schedule or anything like that. Frankly it was nothing more then crayon drawing as we would call it today. So even if we stayed in the UK, there was zero guarantee it would actually happen.

    [1] The underground station part, the above ground Cathedral and square is the usual questionable bulldoze the poor peoples homes and build a fancy empty square over them, so liked by many in those days!

    While Ireland was largely broke in the 20's and 30's, the council focused on less grandiose, but arguably more socially important projects. They mostly focused on clearing the tenements and rehousing the folks who lived in them. They built Marino as an example for future housing. Maybe somewhat questionable today, but perhaps more realistic and human then some of the grandiose plans of others.

  • Moderators, Motoring & Transport Moderators, Technology & Internet Moderators Posts: 22,693 Mod ✭✭✭✭bk

    A few more points. The British government seemed to show very little interest in developing the infrastructure of Ireland.

    • Dublin was the largest slum in Europe in the early 1900's, before the war of independence under British rule and they showed very little interest in doing anything about it. It was the Free State that went on a massive house building initiative to help clear the slums and house the people. Now for those of us interested in infrastructure, in retrospect mistakes were made in this process around urban planning, but at least most people living in the slums were rehoused in vastly superior conditions. One of the major architects involved in this effort commented that they were trying to do in one generation, what should have been happening over the past 5 generations!
    • The roads were in a terrible state of repair, almost no roads were tarmaced in Ireland before the war! In 1925 the state started a massive road maintenance project, repairing and tarmacing most of the roads in the country and once done even started widening and improving them. It was a massive project for the time, as big, if not bigger then the Motorway projects of the 2000's.
    • After independence the state really tried to keep the rail network going. Many people here complain about what Irish Rail did to the rail network, but frankly what the British did was much worse. And frankly what they did in Ulster was atrocious. They basically destroyed almost the entire network up there, even successful lines! It was WW2 that really did in the rail network here. We couldn't get cheap coal from the UK and thus could barely keep any trains running during the war years. In fairness to IR, I think they tried very hard to peer the network back to a reasonable core network and with as little money as they had, invested and developed that network well with Diesel trains, better reliability, etc.

    Personally I feel that the main reason why Ireland and Dublin are so far behind other similar sized European countries and cities, is because of a horrifying lack of investment in the infrastructure of Ireland during British rule, which put us decades in not a century behind those other countries. We have such a large infrastructure deficit, that it is hard to catch up with where we should be.

    After all, unlike most other European countries, for the most part, the industrial revolution bypassed Ireland as the British saw no reason to invest in that here outside of Belfast, as they saw Ireland as nothing but their breadbasket.

    It is only once we got independence, did you see real efforts to develop and improve things. Of course for the first few decades we were broke, but at least efforts like the above (and electrification) were being made. Then we joined the EU and things started to really improve with the influx of cash.

    BTW As an aside, under British rule, I'd see no way would they allow something like the Shannon free trade zone to be created or allow our low corporate tax rate and other business friendly moves.

  • Registered Users Posts: 374 ✭✭dublincc2

    As for motorways, as they would be independent roads instead of following the direction of N roads, what routes do you think would be chosen if it was being built by the UK? Would the Dublin -Limerick motorway still follow the general route of the M7 or would it be something like a Dublin-Cork motorway with a Limerick spur?

    Obviously with no partition there would be a full direct Dublin-Belfast motorway.

    Another question is what would happen with some of the meme infrastructure projects that this state has constructed? Dublin Port being an exampld. I imagine under the UK they would have moved the port out of the city to somewhere like Bremore or maybe even developed Kingstown into a major port. Large seaports were moved out of GB cities like London and Glasgow so it would make sense to do so in Dublin. Cityside ports are generally a thing of the past in GB and on the continent. This would obviously mean the Port Tunnel would never be built.

    I agree with above that Knock Airport is a complete and utter meme and would never have been built. Shannon may have been built although perhaps not in the same location with the Shannon new town not being built. In any case it would probably be a Limerick Regional Airport with some strategic facilities being the last stop this side of the Atlantic. Maybe Galway or Waterford airports would be developed if we stayed in the UK? Would Dublin have got another airport like Belfast?

    Another interesting question is would they have put Dublin Airport at Collinstown or Baldonnel?

  • Registered Users Posts: 4,181 ✭✭✭goingnowhere

    Dublin Airport was originally a Royal Flying Corps field so I'd wager it would have happened either way

  • Moderators, Motoring & Transport Moderators, Technology & Internet Moderators Posts: 22,693 Mod ✭✭✭✭bk

    I don't see any reason why British rule would have lead to two airports in Dublin!

    Frankly Dublin airport is a VASTLY better positioned airport then the two in Belfast. On the one hand Belfast City Airport is a small airport trapped in the Docklands. It has a very short runaway, meaning it can't take even mid sized aircraft and has no room for expansion or runway lengthening. It also suffers from proximity to homes and constrained operations. Belfast International is better, but then it is 30km from Belfast, so quiet a distance out.

    By comparison Dublin Airport is almost perfectly positioned. Just 11km from the city, so pretty accessible and quick into the city (specially when we get Metrolink), while being large enough to serve all aircraft sizes and plenty of room for expansion and growth. Also well connected with the M50 and M1. It really doesn't get much better positioned for a cities main airport.

    Move Dublin Port. Well they haven't moved the port in Belfast, so why would they do that in Dublin?

    "Obviously with no partition there would be a full direct Dublin-Belfast motorway."

    I mean there is nothing stopping them doing the Northern side of that Motorway today. The fact they haven't clearly shows that the British have little interest in investing in the infrastructure of Ireland.

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  • Registered Users Posts: 19,019 ✭✭✭✭murphaph

    Dublin airport would be far more regional in character than it is today. The airport would IMO be smaller than Manchester which is the "long haul airport" for the north of England with it's vastly larger population than even the island of Ireland! We'd have about the same level of regional connectivity to GB but far fewer international routes. You would need to fly via Heathrow to go anywhere further afield (as was still common when I was a child).

    We would have no US pre-clearance facilities either.

    There is a remote chance we would have tried to regauge the railways to enable standard BR designs to run without modification in Ireland, assuming BR eventually took over (it's reasonably likely it would have because Stormont would not have existed to create the UTA). We would never have had our Yankee diesels (well, eventually the class 59 would have made an appearance).

    Motorways would have been much scarcer. Trunk route heading mid way between Limerick and Cork, splitting at the ends. I suspect the urban motorway vandalism that DCC wanted to commit would have actually been committed! Dublin would have possibly ended up like Glasgow with the inter-urban motorways actually running through the city rather than around it.

  • Registered Users Posts: 374 ✭✭dublincc2

    Would elements of the motorway network such as the M9 be built or would they just have built HQDC bypasses and online upgrade the original trunk routes?

  • Registered Users Posts: 3,286 ✭✭✭thomil

    With regards to the airport debate, one thing we should not forget is that WW2 would have seen a lot of airfields built in Ireland. Probably not as many as you see in southern England, where you could scarcely walk between two towns without stumbling over two RAF stations, a USAAF base and a Naval Air Station, but given Ireland's location, there probably would have been quite a few staging bases for aircraft crossing the Atlantic. In addition, there would have been bases for the Fleet Air Arm and RAF Coastal Command, as well as a few fighter bases and the odd training establishment.

    Given that basis to work from, I could very much see a few regional airports that we know nowadays come around simply as an outgrowth of these RAF bases. Belfast International grew out of one of those airfields, as did Derry Airport, while nearly every single international airport in the UK grow out of these former RAF or FAA bases. I think only Manchester, Liverpool and London Gatwick actually started their lives as civilian airports. The level of traffic would likely be far lower though. And quite frankly, so would the quality of the facilities.

    Good luck trying to figure me out. I haven't managed that myself yet!

  • Registered Users Posts: 5,564 ✭✭✭veryangryman


    Manchester and Birmingham don't have Metros despite being double the size of Dublin

    There are far fewer km of Motorways per head of population.

    Infrastructure in Wales and Scotland outside of the major cities and ports is poor

    So no, I'm not saying lets rejoin the tanhood just to get a marriage of convenience. Britain is a clusterfukc these days. All policies they have need to be avoided.

  • Moderators, Education Moderators, Sports Moderators Posts: 10,560 Mod ✭✭✭✭artanevilla

    Well considering part of the country is still in the UK, and looking up there, not very good, roads are brutal up there compared to the Republic. You know you're in the 6 when the quality of the cars go up and the quality of the roads go down.

  • Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators Posts: 19,686 Mod ✭✭✭✭Sam Russell

    Rural electrification was a fantastic project in Ireland, and brought electricity to the vast majority by the 1960s. The UK was several decades behind us in that.

    We are currently rolling out broadband (well, supposed to be), which is not bad. Not sure how the UK or EU member states compare. We must wait till it is complete here before we will know.

  • Moderators, Motoring & Transport Moderators, Technology & Internet Moderators Posts: 22,693 Mod ✭✭✭✭bk

    "We are currently rolling out broadband (well, supposed to be), which is not bad. Not sure how the UK or EU member states compare. We must wait till it is complete here before we will know."

    I can speak on this one. We are doing far better then the UK, 60% of Irish homes are now passed by Fibre, versus 26% in the UK.

    Compared to mainland Europe, it is a mixed bag, we are probably about average. Germany is low like the UK, France is slightly ahead of us, but then of course there are countries like Spain and the Nordics who are over 80% and some have had FTTH for decades.

    There is pretty intense competition here now between Eir, Siro and VM all rolling out fibre networks and the NBI in rural areas (though lagging).

    In terms of mobile, we are also doing very well, pretty good 4G coverage, quickly rolling out 5G and perhaps most importantly strong competition and low prices.

    In terms of TV broadcasting, I think we wouldn't have as strong services as RTE and TG4. Sure, the UK has regional channels like UTV and S4C, but I think they are much weaker and don't have the independence that RTE/TG4 enjoy. Of course we have the same pay TV services, mostly Sky and VM and anyone can stick up a dish to get Freesat. I suppose the only negative I can think of in this area is that Freeview is a better service then Saorview in terms of number and variety of channels.

  • Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators Posts: 19,686 Mod ✭✭✭✭Sam Russell

    There is no question that Ard na Crusha would not have happened. Not only that but the UK Gov did there damnedest to stop it, offering us no help whatsoever. We had to go to Siemens to get it under way.

  • Registered Users Posts: 374 ✭✭dublincc2

    Actually something very similar would probably have been built if we remained in the UK. From Wikipedia:

    The first plan to harness the Shannon's power between Lough Derg and Limerick was published in 1844 by Sir Robert Kane.[1] Inspired by Nikola Tesla's 1896 project at Niagara Falls, "Frazer's Scheme" proposed a head-race canal ending at Doonass, and was sanctioned by the 1901 "Shannon Water and Electric Power Act". This envisaged a seasonal scheme with a back-up steam turbine to generate electricity in the summer, but the overall cost was considered too great and the Act was shelved. In 1902 SF Dick proposed a sharper fall at Doonass. The British Board of Trade appointed a committee in 1918 which approved proposals by Theodore Stevens and published a report in 1922. This envisaged altering upper lake levels to create extra storage of 10,000 million cubic feet, at a cost of £2.6m.

  • Registered Users Posts: 19,019 ✭✭✭✭murphaph

    I cannot believe that Ardnacrusha wouldn't ever have been built (eventually) under British rule. Low hanging fruit like that is always going to be picked sooner or later. Remember as well that they were just getting going with their killing home rule with kindness idea.

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  • Registered Users Posts: 1,105 ✭✭✭nordydan

    As someone who grew up in the north, living in Dublin for 16 years, the UK's golden era for transportation ended in the 1970s. Utter stagnation since (outside London). Some great points above

  • Moderators, Motoring & Transport Moderators, Technology & Internet Moderators Posts: 22,693 Mod ✭✭✭✭bk

    That is the point though, 80 years of “plans” but not actually happened. It took independence and an Irish government to actually get it done.

  • Registered Users Posts: 1,284 ✭✭✭D.L.R.

    Well if Ireland had NEVER been in the UK it wouldn't have any railways that for sure.

    The Irish state couldn't build a railway to save its life. Its like exotic alien tech.

  • Registered Users Posts: 26,497 ✭✭✭✭Peregrinus

    Are you under the impression that the railways in either GB or IRL were built by the state?

  • Registered Users Posts: 1,867 ✭✭✭donspeekinglesh

    We could have ended up with a few more race tracks from the abandoned airfields.

  • Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators Posts: 19,686 Mod ✭✭✭✭Sam Russell

    There was no shortage of race tracks in Ireland. Every small town ha one.

  • Registered Users Posts: 1,284 ✭✭✭D.L.R.

  • Registered Users Posts: 26,497 ✭✭✭✭Peregrinus

    I'm not so much triggered as puzzled. I don't know what your point is. Lots of countries that were never part of the UK acquired railways. You assert that if Ireland had never been part of the UK it would not have acquired railways, but the only reason you offer is an unsupported assertion that the state could not have builg railways, which (a) is necessarily speculative, but is not obviously true, and (b) overlooks the point that railways typically weren't built by states anyway; they were commercial enterprises.

  • Moderators, Motoring & Transport Moderators, Technology & Internet Moderators Posts: 22,693 Mod ✭✭✭✭bk

    Perhaps a more interesting question would be, what would our infrastructure be like if we had gained independence in 1800 or earlier?

    Think about it, we would most likely avoided the worst of the potato famine. Keep in mind, the potato blight struck across Europe, but it only had such a terrible impact on Ireland, because of the control of the land by British landlords. Ireland at the time was producing more then enough food of other types to feed everyone in the country. 4,000 ships full of grain left Ireland in 1847 at the height of the famine!

    So if we had avoided the "famine" and the Irish population grew at the same rate as the UK, then our population would be over 30 million people today!

    Think about that, Ireland could have started to industrialise, compete with Britain and enjoyed the fruits of industrialisation, rather then being held back.

    Even if our population was even half that, imagine the positive impact that would have had on our railways. Far more lines would likely have survived to today and would be much busier. Hell with that sort of population, likely mostly centred around heavily industrialised cities of Dublin, Cork and Belfast, you could even possibly justify true high speed rail from Cork to Belfast.

    After all, a lot of the infrastructure deficit we have today is due to the lack of investment in infrastructure under British rule, the industrial revolution bypassing the country, a population that is much smaller then it should be, a very rural and dispersed population.

    Basically Ireland has suffered badly from extremely stunted growth opportunities that other countries had. In the 1800's other European countries were industrialising and urbanising, while we weren't allowed to be anything but an extremely underdeveloped agricultural society.

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  • Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators Posts: 19,686 Mod ✭✭✭✭Sam Russell

    I suspect that Cork harbour, the Foyle, and Bantry Bay would all be nuclear sub bases or major naval bases of one sort or another. Shannon or wherever would be a major air defence base - probably with nuclear strike force based there.

    Ireland would be a major NATO hub, with major USA military bases.