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Simon Hamilton: Plan for Irish Sea link worth exploring



Simon Hamilton

Simon Hamilton

Simon Hamilton

Back in 2015, an otherwise unheralded commitment in the Democratic Unionist Party's General Election made it to the front pages of a national newspaper.

Our proposal for a feasibility study into a tunnel or enclosed bridge across the North Channel from Larne to the Scottish coastline made it to page one, more because the newspaper wanted to mock it rather than extol its merits.

Fast forward to 2018 and a Scottish daily is lavishing praise on the very same idea, calling a rail and road link between Scotland and Northern Ireland a "Bridge to a Celtic Powerhouse".

This renewed interest in the idea undoubtedly stems from Boris Johnson's much derided proposal that a bridge be built across the English Channel.

Boris has earned something of a reputation for unconventional ideas when it comes to infrastructure and, while he may not always be successful in seeing his suggestions come to life, he is right to think big.

Others do and succeed so why shouldn't we?

Since 2015, plan after plan has been developed to connect countries over distances and terrains as long and challenging as the North Channel. The Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link, for example, is a proposal to join Germany and Denmark across the Baltic Sea via a 18km long immersed tunnel.

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Plans are being considered for a tunnel between Finland and Estonia. The Norwegians are even going to build a 2km long tunnel through a mountain just for cruise ships.

And these sorts of ideas aren't just big dreams destined to wither on the vine and never become a reality. Denmark and Sweden are already connected by a 12km long bridge and tunnel, and the world's longest bridge - the Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge in China - is 165km long, considerably longer than the distance between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Russia and Japan are in negotiations about a 28-mile bridge, and Japan already has the world's deepest undersea tunnel for the rail link between its two main islands.

We were told that the DUP's manifesto pledge was too expensive and, in engineering terms impossible.

That's precisely why we proposed a feasibility study. I'm no engineer but it seems clear to me that even with the challenges that building across the North Channel would present, it is, if other examples around the world are anything to go by, possible to build a permanent link between Ireland and Great Britain.

In terms of the economics, trade figures show just how connected the economies of Northern Ireland and indeed the Republic of Ireland are with Great Britain.

The economic merits of investing in infrastructure are well known - a point recently reiterated by the World Bank.

Examining the additional economic opportunities that would be created by building a high-speed rail and road link between Northern Ireland and the mainland and comparing them to the costs of a bridge or tunnel is surely a common sense starting point.

We are connected in so many ways across the British Isles - economically, socially and culturally.

Imagine being able to board a train in Belfast or Dublin and be in Glasgow or Edinburgh in just a few hours? It would revolutionise our trade and tourism never mind our sense of interconnectedness. It maybe isn't as unrealistic an idea as you'd first think.

Why shouldn't we at least explore the possibility of connecting our two islands together to reap the economic benefits that would undoubtedly flow?

Simon Hamilton is DUP MLA for Strangford

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