History - Northern Ireland Motorway Plans

Most people who live in Northern Ireland are aware that in the past there were plans for a much grander system of motorways than that which exists today. The plans evolved and grew from the announcement of the first in 1946 through to the most ambitious period in the late 1960s to their general abandoment in 1975. A timeline of motorway schemes exists elsewhere on this site, so this page exists simply to show what the plans would have been. The dates below are those of major plans that were published or announced: 1946 1956 1964 1969 and then maps for 1975 and 2005.

1946 Plans

The 1946 plan was announced by Major J R Perceval-Maxwell in the Northern Ireland Ministry of Commerce. It was to build three "approach roads" - one from the north to bypass the Antrim Road; one from the south to bypass the Lisburn Road; and one from the east to bypass the Newtownards and Holywood Roads. The South Approach would have passed south of Lurgan and terminated between it and Portadown.

1956 Plans

Announced in June 1956 by Lord Glentoran, Northern Ireland Minister for Commerce, this plan extended the 1946 plan by extending the North Approach as far as Ballymena via Doagh and re-routing the South Approach to the north of Lurgan. There would also be a fourth road, the South-Eastern Approach that would run from the Ormeau Road near Belfast city centre out to Carryduff. These roads were named the M1, M2, M3 and M4 clockwise from the south.

1964 Plans

The 1964 plan introduced an incredible number of motorway proposals. It was announced in the House of Commons by Northern Ireland Minister of Home Affairs William Craig in February 1964. As you can see from the map below it was considerable and included the following elements:

  • A Belfast Urban Motorway encircling the city centre connecting to the M1, M2, M3 and M4.
  • The M1 extended all the way to Dungannon
  • The M2 extended to Coleraine via Antrim and Ballymena
  • The M3 extended to Bangor
  • The M4 unmodified (Ormeau Road to Carryduff)
  • An M5 running from the M2 at Greencastle to Carrickfergus
  • An M6 running from the M5 at Whiteabbey to Larne
  • An M7 running from the M3 at Holywood Arches to Dundonald
  • An M8 connecting the M1 at Lagan Valley Park to the M4 at Stranmillis.
  • An M11 running from the M1 at Finaghy north round Lisburn, crossing south and going all the way to Newry.
  • An M12 Urban Motorway in Portadown/Lurgan (Craigavon new town).
  • An M22 running from the M2 at Antrim to Castledawson.
  • An M23 running from the M2 near Ballymoney to Derry.

It was recognised that this was a long-term plan and that the completion of the M1 and M2 would take first priority. It is also interesting that at no point were motorways considered for much of the west of the province.

1969 Plans

In 1969 the Belfast Transportation Plan was announced. It examined the 1964 proposals and determined which were realistic propositions for construction before 1986. Anything beyond this date was considered too far in the future to be seen as concrete plans. Their final proposals included the following elements:

  • That the M1, M2, M3, M7, M12, M22 and M23 plans should proceed unmodified.
  • That the M4 should go in from Carryduff only as far as Annadale Embankment, as the extension to Ormeau Road would be too destructive to the existing city streets.
  • That the M5 should go only as far as Hazelbank with land reserved for a future extension.
  • That the M6 should be abandoned, although land reserved for possible future construction.
  • That land should be reserved for a possible extension of the M7 to Newtownards.
  • That the M8 should be abandoned as traffic studies had deemed it unnecessary.
  • That the M11 proposal should be abandoned.
  • That the Belfast Urban Motorway should proceed, but the south-eastern portion should be constructed at-grade with the rest elevated and grade-separated.

The 1969 report included detailed route maps of the motorways in the Greater Belfast area. The overall route map is shown below. To see detailed versions of different parts of the network, click the thumbnails below the map.

The route of the proposed Belfast Urban Motorway with the M2 to the north; M3 to the east and the M7 diverging to the south east; and the M1 to the west. Note that, as shown in the map above, the final portion of the M4 close to the city centre is no longer planned as it was deemed too destructive.
The route of the M7 motorway along the route of the old railway line through east Belfast and terminating on the Comber Road in Dundonald. The dotted line means that land should be reserved for a future extension to Newtownards, but this was never planned in any concrete way.
The route of the M1 motorway in south Belfast, which had been completed by this time. Note, however, that it shows new interchanges at Bog Meadows and at Black's Road. The former was never built, as the terminus has remained at its original point on Broadway, but the latter was opened in 1988 with eastbound-facing sliproads only. The M4 is also shown with its proposed terminus at Annadale Embankment and junctions at Belvoir and the Saintfield Road. The dotted line on the left indicates land to be reserved for possible construction of the M11 if plans change in the future. This land is now covered with housing and the line lost.
The route of the M3 motorway as far as Cultra. It would have followed the Sydenham Bypass as far as Knocknagoney and then turned inland through Redburn Country Park and passed south of Holywood through the Ballymenagh area. The portion at Redburn Park would have been very steep indeed; comparable to the M2 hill section at Glengormley.
The route of the M2 motorway, then built only from Glengormley to the shore. This map envisaged an enlarged Sandyknowes Roundabout and the M2 extending to Templepatrick. This did happen, but not to the exact design envisaged here. Note also the proposed M2 junction 3 at the Antrim Road, which was never built. Such a junction would have had such steep slip roads as to be quite dangerous, and would have worsened traffic on the M2 considerably. It also shows the M5, which was opened in 1980. The dotted lines show land to be reserved for possible extensions of the M5 and for the M6 to Larne. Both lines are now abandoned. The completed A8(M) is also shown, preserving the proposed original route of the M2 via Doagh.


1972 Network

In 1972, while work was proceeding at a slower pace on the motorway network, the civil disorder in Northern Ireland that had begun in 1969 reached such a point that ministers from London took over administration. They immediately pulled the plug on the entire motorway building plan, leaving the system as shown below:

  • The M1 completed.
  • The M12, M2 and M22 partly built.
  • The M3, M4, M5, M7 and M23 not begun.

2005 Network

Despite the cancellation of the motorway project, some work did proceed after 1972. In the end, the government permitted the completion of the M5 as envisaged in the 1969 report. The western portion of the Belfast Urban Motorway was finally built in 1981-83 as an at-grade dual-carriageway (the A12 Westlink). The northern portion was built in 1995-98 and labelled the M3. The rest of the scheme was abandoned. Other parts of the motorway network are being built, but as dual-carriageways rather than motorways:

  • The M11 route from Lisburn to Newry was provided in the form of a dual-carriageway upgrade of the A1 by 2010.
  • The M22 route was completed as a new A6 dual-carriageway in 2019.
  • The M2 route from Antrim to Ballymena is now complete as the A26 dual-carriageway.

These schemes are not as prestigious as motorways, but they give almost the same benefits and are much cheaper. Perhaps some day the 1969 proposals will be completed in spirit.