A bridge to Ireland?

A picture of some fields in undulating high ground with a white lighthouse at the back, with the sea at the back behind a cliff.In an interview with the Sunday Times, which is paywalled, Boris Johnson, the former British foreign secretary recently notorious for his derogatory remarks about Muslim women, attacked the prime minister’s plans for Brexit, boasting that unlike her, he campaigned for Brexit and believes it is best for Britain (by the way: we all know he actually wrote pro- and anti-Brexit opinion pieces in the run-up to the 2016 referendum and was undecided until almost the last minute). He called for a bridge to be built between Britain and Ireland and the HS2 rail project to be shelved in favour of a high-speed link across northern England. The latter is a fairly reasonable demand because east-west links in the north are notoriously bad, particularly Trans-Pennine links between Manchester and Yorkshire. The first, however, although possible, is preposterous.

If you look at any map of the British Isles, you will notice that the only place you could reasonably build a bridge between the two islands is between the north Antrim coast of Ireland and the Kintyre peninsula in Scotland. However, to get to any major population centre, you would then need to build several other bridges to link that peninsula to Glasgow. The shortest route would be from near Wemyss Bay on the mainland (west of Glasgow), across the Cowal peninsula and the Isle of Bute to Kintyre, then along a presumably upgraded A83 (or a newly-built dual carriageway) to the Mull of Kintyre (the southern end of that peninsula) then over to near Runabay Head, east of Ballycastle, on the Antrim Coast. This would require four or five new bridges or tunnels to do a round-about route between Glasgow and Belfast.

Alternatively, a major new tunnel could be bored between Portpatrick near Stranraer in south-western Scotland to near Black Head, south of Larne on the east Antrim coast. This tunnel would serve the needs of English travellers to Northern Ireland but not the south (ferries from Fishguard and Holyhead would still be more viable for accessing south and central Ireland from most of England), and would need to be about 40km long, which would be about the same length as the Channel Tunnel between England and France (this is 50.45km or just over 31 miles long) which connects London and Paris, both cities of about 10 million population, to say nothing of all the other major cities in northern Europe such as Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and so on. It would also require a major upgrade to roads linking Galloway to Glasgow and Carlisle, both of which are currently single carriageway.

Picture of hills sloping down towards a small bay, with trees near the sea in the background and rocks poking through the grass in the foreground.These things could be done. But Boris Johnson shows his ignorance of the geography by suggesting bridges. In the winter months, these stretches of water are exposed to Atlantic winds meaning that they would have to be closed very frequently; tunnels, although more expensive, would mean they could remain open in all weathers and not interfere with shipping. However, as experience at Dartford shows, tunnels would have to be closed regularly to escort tankers through (unless they are to be banned from it) which is a major cause of traffic congestion. Another option would be a rail tunnel with a shuttle train to take vehicles, but this would mean frequent queueing especially if the Cambelltown route were chosen, and Ireland uses a different gauge from the British mainland (and western Europe).

He also shows a marked ignorance of the political reasons why a link does not already exist. A set of bridges or tunnels from Glasgow via Campbelltown would lead to unprecedented development in those areas, but it would also destroy the attraction of the area to tourists (both from within Scotland and from further afield) as a place of solitude, tranquility and natural beauty. The landscape is rocky, and would need to be smoothed out with embankments and cuttings to build a fast highway, which would cut a scar through the landscape. Views, both on land and at the coast, enjoyed for generations would be no more if large bridges were built to carry traffic, and this traffic mostly would not stop on the islands or peninsulas they crossed and thus bring no economic benefit. Transport in Scotland is also devolved and all the tolls on road bridges in Scotland were removed soon after the Scottish Parliament started operating; a major new road link that involved tolls would be unlikely to be accepted in Scotland.

A picture of some cliffs with the sea behind, and a rock rising sharply from the sea.The “bridge to Ireland” idea is fairly typical of Boris Johnson’s fondness for vast infrastructure projects; while his opposition to Heathrow airport expansion is well-known, he actually favours a new airport on a new island in the Thames estuary, a concept which has been referred to as “Boris Island” but ridiculed because it takes no account of the geography of the area with planes very vulnerable to bird-strike. This is the sort of project which would be easy for a dictatorship to pull off — or perhaps a government which had no need to secure votes in the areas affected — but very difficult in a democracy where planning processes meant that local objections and concerns about tourism, the environment, the impact on local people and wildlife and so on, as well as the cost-benefit analysis, have to be taken into account.

So a bridge or tunnel across the strait between Scotland and Ireland is a physical possibility, but it would be the easy part — the onward transport links would be an enormous undertaking and politically very difficult. Ironically, it would be more viable in the event of both a united Ireland and an independent Scotland within the EU; as a means of cementing links between post-Brexit England and Northern Ireland, its intention would be seen through very easily and would meet considerable resistance on both sides of the water. Short of a separate act of Parliament to overrule the Scottish Parliament on this issue, or to scrap the Scottish Parliament altogether, it is difficult to see how it could be achieved politically.

Images: Mull of Kintyre lighthouse by Patrick Mackie; Loughan Bay by Willie Duffin; North Witch Rock by Dave Sands, all licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 (BY-SA 2.0) licence.

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