Bridge between NI and Scotland a great idea, insists PM... but it would cost £15bn
Boris Johnson has said a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland would be "very good" - estimating the project would cost around £15bn.
The Prime Minister revealed his thoughts on the ambitious proposal as he spoke to schoolchildren playing with a model container ship onboard lighthouse tender, NLV Pharos, on the Thames.
Mr Johnson told the children that he had recently been discussing the possibility of constructing a bridge over the Irish Sea.
He said: "(I was talking yesterday) about building a bridge from Stranraer in Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland - that would be very good. It would only cost about £15bn."
Other estimates have put the cost at more than £20bn.
It follows reports that the Prime Minister has asked government officials for advice on the costs and risks of such a project.
Supporters of the bridge concept argue that it would help unite the UK by providing a new link between Ireland and Great Britain, as well as being a powerful symbol of UK engineering excellence and can-do spirit in the post-Brexit era.
If built, it would be around 28 miles long, crossing the Irish Sea from either Larne or Donaghadee, making landfall in Scotland near the small town of Portpatrick, in Galloway.
But the project faces many substantial obstacles - economic, political and technical.
The bridge has already become a political football - before it has even been built - with opinions for and against the proposal dividing along the usual unionist/nationalist lines.
While the DUP, whose 10 MPs support the Prime Minister's minority government, supports plans for a bridge - which it hopes will bring economic benefits both to Northern Ireland and Scotland - other political parties see the idea as a waste of money.
Sinn Fein has described the bridge proposal as 'fantasy politics," while SDLP leader Colum Eastwood yesterday called the bridge a "distraction tactic".
Economist Dr Esmond Birnie of Ulster University said the economic boost the bridge might add would come nowhere near to the cost of its construction and maintenance.
Dr Birnie suggested that the billions of pounds the bridge would cost - plus perhaps another billion for roads on either side - could be better spent on other infrastructure and social projects.
"Even on the most generous assumptions it is unlikely that the total measurable economic benefits of such a bridge would come anywhere close to its very considerable cost," he said. The technical challenges facing the massive project remain formidable.
While longer bridges exist, none crosses such a distance over seas as deep and turbulent as the busy North Channel.
There is also the matter of more than one million tons of unexploded world war two munitions which were dumped in the Beaufort Dyke - a deep underwater depression which lies a few miles off the Galloway coast - exactly where any bridge would have to cross.
The road and rail infrastructure to Portpatrick would also need a major upgrade if a bridge to Northern Ireland were to be built. The rail link to the port was closed in 1950, while the direct rail route from Stranraer to Dumfries - and onward to Carlisle - was axed in 1964.
The busy A75 road from Carlisle to Stranraer - which passes through some of Scotland's most picturesque countryside - would also have to be upgraded.
Mr Johnson first mooted the idea while he was serving as foreign secretary, telling the Sunday Times: "What we need to do is build a bridge between our islands.
"Why don't we? Why don't we?
"There is so much more we can do, and what grieves me about the current approach to Brexit is that we are just in danger of not believing in ourselves, not believing in Britain."
Mr Johnson also pushed the idea at the DUP's annual conference in July.
He told delegates: "With infrastructure projects, finance is not the issue, the issue is political will, the issue is getting the business community to see that this could be something that works for them, the issue is getting popular demand and popular consent for a great infrastructure project - and that is why you need Stormont."
Six key questions answered
Where would the bridge go?
There are a couple of potential routes when you look at a map. A bridge could possibly run from the historic port of Larne in Co Antrim to Portpatrick in Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland.
Another option is from rugged Torr Head, further north on the Antrim coast, to the Mull of Kintyre, while Boris Johnson himself has suggested a route between Larne and Stranraer, which is about a 15-minute drive across land from Portpatrick.
How much would it cost?
The cost would, of course, depend on how long the bridge is. The distance from Larne to Portpatrick is around 45km, while the distance from Torr Head to the Mull of Kintyre is around 20km. Mr Johnson said it would “only cost about £15 billion” — but others have reportedly suggested that £20 billion would be a conservative estimate for any future bridge linking the two countries. So, as for how much it would cost, the only certainty at this stage seems to be that a project of this scale would run into many billions of pounds.
What problems could the ambitious proposal face?
There is no problem with distance, money or Beaufort’s Dyke explosives disposal area, according to the Prime Minister. In November 2018, he said: “It is a far shorter distance than that covered by some bridges these days — look at Shanghai to Ningbo. The problem is not the undersea Beaufort’s Dyke or lack of funds. The problem is an absence of political will.”
But concerns may be raised about the route due to the wartime dumping of vast amounts of munitions, particularly in Beaufort’s Dyke, a deep seabed trench between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Beaufort’s Dyke was also revealed to be the location for the dumping of radioactive waste during the 1950s and early 1960s.
How serious is the Prime Minister about the bridge idea?
Mr Johnson has reportedly asked Government officials for advice on the costs and risks of such a project. He first mooted the idea while serving as foreign secretary, telling The Sunday Times last year: “What we need to do is build a bridge between our islands. Why don’t we? Why don’t we?”
The DUP — which props up the Prime Minister’s minority government — supports proposals for a bridge which it hopes could bring economic benefits to Northern Ireland and Scotland, but it has also been touted as a potential solution to the controversial backstop.
Does Boris Johnson like bridges?
It would appear he does. The possible bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland is not the first bridge Mr Johnson has suggested or been associated with. In January 2018, he raised the prospect of a bridge spanning the English Channel following a top-level summit attended by the then prime minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron. His idea split opinion but experts said it was technically possible.
As London mayor, he supported the Garden Bridge project which was proposed by actress Joanna Lumley and abandoned amid bitter recriminations over the “waste” of taxpayers’ cash. The plans were effectively killed off by Mr Johnson’s Labour successor, Sadiq Khan, when he refused to provide guarantees for the costly pedestrian crossing over the River Thames on value-for-money grounds. A City Hall source claimed the bridge was a “Boris vanity project”.
Has the PM championed any other projects that have either failed to get off the ground or faced criticism?
Yes. Mr Johnson’s call for a “Boris Island” airport in the Thames Estuary was rejected by an inquiry looking into the expansion of air capacity in the South East, while the Emirates cable car linking north and south London near the former Millennium Dome did get built, but has faced criticism over limited passenger numbers.