History of Northern Ireland Motorways

The motorway system of Northern Ireland as it currently exists is the result of a large number of plans that were in constant revision as the schemes progressed. You can see these old plans on this site by clicking here. This page describes how the schemes progressed in the form of a timeline.

Much of the material here is sourced from the book “The Northern Ireland Motorway Achievement” published jointly by the Roads Service and The Motorway Archive Trust in 2002, ISBN 0-9543056-6-3. Much of the text of this book, although with few of the illustrations, is available online at www.ukmotorwayarchive.org. Other material was sourced from the 1969 "Belfast Transportation Plan" available to view in Belfast Central Library.

1930s  1940s  1950s  1960s  1970s  1980s  1990s  2000s


NI government recognises the need for faster arterial routes in the growing city of Belfast and announces plan to construct a new bypass around Sydenham in east Belfast. In Britain, proposals by the Institution of Highway Engineers for a network of fast roads modelled on the German “Autobahnen” are rejected by the government.


Work begins on the Sydenham Bypass but stops at the outbreak of war in 1939.


NI government sets up a commission to make recommendations to improve the transport infrastructure. The commission was to be province wide, but was to give priority to the Belfast area.


The commission publishes the “Planning Proposals for the Belfast Area” in which it recommends the construction of three fast arterial routes in Belfast roughly following the Antrim Road, Bangor Road and Lisburn Road routes. It also proposed that a ring road be constructed around the city centre with roundabouts at each of the arterial routes.


An interim report adds the proposal for a “motorway” to be constructed between Belfast and Portadown “at the earliest possible date”. Some minor work resumes on the Sydenham Bypass. The NI government accepts the commission’s reports and announces that work will begin on three arterial routes, although the precise routes had not been considered:

• A North Approach starting at Glengormley and terminating close to Belfast city centre.

• A South Approach starting at Portadown, bypassing Lisburn, Dunmurry and terminating around Donegall Road in Belfast.

• The Sydenham bypass would be completed to form the eastern road.

In addition, other major roads across Northern Ireland would be designated “trunk roads” and substantially improved at the expense of local government.


The NI government passes the Roads Act (NI) which, amongst other things, makes the construction of restricted “motorway” roads legal. Such roads are to be called “special roads”, which remains the legal name for motorways even today. The government reports that due to the lack of funds and materials in the post-war period, construction on the three arterial routes would not be starting imminently. Work halts again on the Sydenham Bypass, now under construction for ten years.


The NI government announces that funding will be made available for the construction of the new arterial roads within the next five years. Work to decide the routes had been ongoing since 1946. The engineers began work to decide routes for a possible extension of the South Approach beyond Lisburn and the North Approach north towards Doagh.

The line selected for the South Approach started at Donegall Road, crossed the Bog Meadows, then swung west around Dunmurry, south around Lisburn, south around Lurgan and terminating half way between Lurgan and Portadown. A proposal for a spur running to Belvoir in south Belfast was considered but never adopted – had it been built, this would have greatly improved Belfast’s chronic traffic today.


Armagh council begins work to modernise the T3 trunk road between the Birches and Dungannon which crossed a bog and was of appalling quality and subject to a 25mph speed limit.


NI government announces a much larger scheme of road construction.

• The North Approach would be extended past Doagh to Ballymena. It would begin at Greencastle, roughly following the Whitewell Road, and pass under the Antrim Road at Bellevue.

• The South Approach would be extended past Moira with a less ambitious dual carriageway as far as Dungannon. The current route plan was altered to move the road to the north side of Lurgan.

• The East Approach would be extended as far as Cultra with a new dual carriageway from Ballyrobert to Bangor.

• A new South-Eastern Approach from Belfast to Carryduff.


Formal design work begins on the South Approach. Work also begins on the North Approach: the bridges at Hightown, Collinbridge and Longlands Road are built, the first two in pits as the road had yet to be cut. The approaches are designated numbers running clockwise from the Lisburn Road: The South Approach was to be the M1, the North Approach the M2, the Eastern Approach the M3 and the South-Eastern Approach from Carryduff was to be the M4. Work starts on the bridges in Dunmurry that will carry the M1 over local roads.


Given that Armagh Council were currently upgrading the T3 between the Birches and Dungannon, the NI government announce plans to upgrade this plan to a motorway. The engineers began to redraw their plans for this challenging section across the bog. The government finalises the route for the North Approach from Greencastle via Glengormley and Doagh to Ballymena. There was also a suggestion for a spur from Doagh to Antrim town.


The Sydenham Bypass finally opens to traffic, 21 years after work began. McAlpine wins the contract to construct the M1 from Donegall Road to Dunmurry and the portion from Dunmurry to Saintfield Road in Lisburn, and work begins. Work also begins on the section from Saintfield Road to Sprucefield.


Work begins on the numerous and challenging bridges required for the section of the M1 from the Birches to Dungannon. The bog itself was blasted and infilled for the road – a time consuming job since the peat was up to 12 metres deep.


Work begins on the M1 from Sprucefield to Moira.


The “Matthew Plan” is published, which is an attempt to decentralise Belfast as the urban centre. It proposed a “green belt” around Belfast, a new city between Portadown and Lurgan and the expansion of various regional towns. This triggered debate on the role of the motorway system. The M1 opens to traffic from Donegall Road to Saintfield Road, Lisburn. Work begins on the M1 section from Moira to the Lurgan.


Work begins on the M2 between Greencastle and Glengormley. The government revises the route of the M2 beyond Glengormley as it was found that the land north of Doagh was too steep and expensive to construct on. The new route would go from Glengormley to Antrim and then north to Ballymena. The short section of M1 from Saintfield Road to Sprucefield, Lisburn opens to traffic. The government, after much local argument, decides to create a motorway link to the proposed new city of Craigavon (between Lurgan and Portadown) from the M1 at Ballynacor. Work begins on the M1 from Lurgan to the Birches, which includes a major bridge over the River Bann.


The NI government announces a further expansion of the motorway plans. It would see:

  • The M2 extended beyond Ballymena as far as Coleraine.
  • The M3 extended to Bangor
  • A new motorway, the M5, from the M2 at Greencastle to Carrickfergus
  • A new motorway, the M6, from the M5 at Whiteabbey to Larne
  • A new motorway, the M7, from the M3 at Holywood Arches to Dundonald
  • A new motorway, the M8, connecting the M1 at Lagan Valley Park to the M4 at Stranmillis
  • A new motorway, the M11, from the M1 in west Belfast, north round Lisburn and then south to Newry.
  • A new motorway, the M22, from the M2 at Antrim to Castledawson.
  • A new motorway, the M23, from the M2 near Ballymoney to Londonderry.

The number M21 was reserved for a possible route to Aldergrove. The UK government is unhappy at the scale of these proposals (amongst the most ambitious in the whole UK when compared to population) and after negotiations, the NI government agrees to slow the pace of construction.

At the same time, the government agrees to the construction of an urban motorway around Belfast city centre. It would follow the route of what is now the Westlink, east across the Lagan roughly where the M3 now is, south along the river to Ormeau Park, west through Bradbury Place (!) and connect with the start of the route near the Royal Victoria Hospital. The motorway was to be partly elevated and partly depressed to minimise noise and demolition. See here for details.

The very challenging section of M1 from the Birches to Verner’s Bridge near Dungannon, across the bog, finally opens to traffic. There are now two sections of the M1 with a large gap of 32km in between.


The M1 section between Sprucefield and Moira opens to traffic. It is agreed that the M2 link from Greencastle to the city centre should be constructed by infilling the north foreshore of Belfast Lough.


The M1 section between Moira and Lurgan opens to traffic. The M2 section from Greencastle to Sandyknowes (Glengormley) is opened, as is a short spur beyond the Sandyknowes roundabout to connect to the Larne road. This is designated the A8(M). Due to the agreement with the British government it is decided to construct the sections of the M2 at Antrim and Ballymena first, where congestion was worst, and then “fill in the blanks” later. Work begins on the Ballymena bypass section and on the M2 foreshore section.


The M1 section between Moira and Ballynacor opens to traffic, along with the short M12 spur to Craigavon. A bridge was built to give access to the M12 from the M1 to the west, but the road was not built over it. The M1 section from Verner’s Bridge to Dungannon opens to traffic. The government announces that traffic volumes between Belfast and Londonderry are not sufficient to justify a motorway the whole way.


The M1 section between Ballynacor and the Birches opens to traffic, thus completing the M1 motorway. Around now work begins on the M2 from Templepatrick to Antrim and on the M22 towards Castledawson.


The M2 section around Ballymena opens to traffic. The civil disturbances that became known as the “Troubles” begin in Northern Ireland.


The “Portadown Urban Motorway” (today downgraded to the A3 Northway) opens to traffic and is connected with the M12.


The M2 from Templepatrick to Antrim (Dunsilly) opens to traffic. The carriageways are flared for about a mile to allow for the future construction of the M2/M22 split. The first section of the M22 from Dunsilly to Ballygrooby is opened to traffic. Demolition in west Belfast begins to make way for the Belfast Urban Motorway but is repeatedly delayed by civil disturbances.


Around now, work begins on the Sandyknowes to Templepatrick section of the M2.


The second section of the M22, from Ballygrooby to Artresnahan is opened to traffic. The M2 foreshore section from Whitla Street to Greencastle opens after five years of construction work.

The government announces that the western portion of the Belfast Urban Motorway is to be completed, but the rest of the scheme is to be reconsidered. Work continues to be held up by civil disturbances.


The Sandyknowes to Templepatrick section of the M2 opens to traffic. At this point, the M11, M2, M22, M23, M3 and M4 schemes are all halted due to lack of funds leaving the Antrim to Ballymena section of the M2 missing, a state that is still the case in 2005. The M5 scheme is to progress only so far as to provide a link to Whiteabbey, about 2km from Greencastle. Further proposed schemes (click here) were also abandoned.


The Belfast Urban Motorway is subjected to a new enquiry due to the degree of opposition to the scheme.


The Belfast Urban Motorway scheme between Donegall Street and the M2 is downgraded to a dual-carriageway with some at-grade roundabout junctions. It is to become known as the Westlink. The rest of the scheme is abandoned.


Full scale work finally begins on the Westlink dual-carriageway.


The M5 section from Greencastle to Rush Park (near Whiteabbey) is opened to traffic, with no further extensions planned. A dual-carriageway bypass of Dungannon is opened to traffic, which connects directly with the end of the M1.


The section of the Westlink from Donegall Road to Grosvenor Road is opened to traffic.


The section of the Westlink from Grosvenor Road to the M2 is opened to traffic. The decision to have at-grade roundabouts quickly leads to heavy congestion at these points.


The government announces that a new motorway link from the M2/Westlink junction to the Sydenham Bypass is to be constructed. It is to be known as the M3, resurrecting the number assigned for the Bangor motorway in the 1960s.


A new limited-access junction (j3) is constructed on the M1 to provide access to and from Belfast at Black’s Road for the rapidly expanding suburbs of Dunmurry and Poleglass.


After 24 years, the western sliproads connecting the M1 and M12 are built and opened to traffic. Work begins on the M3 cross harbour motorway in Belfast.


A new limited-access junction (j7) is opened on the M2 to provide offslips to Antrim Area Hospital at Crosskennan.


The M3 bridge section opens to traffic (from the M2/Westlink junction to Middlepath Street).


The M3 extension from Middlepath Street to the Sydenham Bypass is opened to traffic.


The government announces a major scheme to widen the M1 to three lanes from Black’s Road to the Westlink, and to widen the Westlink to three lanes from there to Divis Street. The two at-grade roundabouts (Broadway and Grosvenor Road) are to be grade separated.


Work begins to widen the M1 motorway to three lanes between Black’s Road and Stockman’s Lane. A new junction (8) is opened on the M1 at Sprucefield Retail Park, and junction 7 has its west-facing slips sealed off because of their proximity to junction 8.


M1 widening scheme (to three lanes) between Stockman’s Lane and Blacks Road is completed and opened to traffic. The government announces a scheme to widen the M2 to three lanes citybound from junction 4 (Sandyknowes) to junction 2 (Greencastle), and to add onslips to junction 7 at Antrim Area Hospital (Crosskennan).


The Roads Service concedes that the motorway plans of 1964 have now been abandoned. There is no longer any prospect of these plans being used to make future decisions.


Work begins on the scheme to widen M1 to 3 lanes from Stockman's Lane (j2) to Broadway (j1) and the Westlink from Broadway to Divis Street and to grade-separate the Broadway and Grosvenor Road junctions. Roads Service announce their intention to grade-separate the York Street junction (where the M2, M3 and Westlink meet) within twelve years. They also announce a plan to create freeflow links from the A1 to the M1 (east) at Sprucefield (M1 j7) within a similar timeframe.


Work begins to widen the M2 to three lanes in each direction from Sandyknowes (j4) to Greencastle (j2). On the M2 motorway, onslips are added at Crosskennan (j7) making this junction full access.


The work to widen the M1 to three lanes from Broadway (j1) to Stockmans' Lane (j2) is completed. The Broadway roundabout on the M1, and Grosvenor Road roundabout on the Westlink are grade separated and the Westlink is widened to three lanes from Broadway to Divis Street. In August, the recently completed Broadway underpass (M1 j1) is completely filled with water after unusually heavy rain causes a nearby river to burst its banks.

Work begins to grade separate the Larne Road roundabout on the M2 Ballymena Bypass (j10), which was never completed after the M2 project was axed in the 1970s.