A bridge to Scotland is a great idea but a terrible proposal
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Indeed, the prime minister appears to be preparing a feasibility study on it.
Even among bridge enthusiasts the engineering problems are well accepted.
The financial costs, not so much, perhaps taking from a prevalent view in Northern Ireland politics that London is there to pay for things (eg, RHI).
After all, the government will have borrowed an extra £250 billion this year to deal with Covid — what’s £20 billion more?
The opportunity cost of the bridge — what we won’t build because we’re spending time and treasure on a bridge, over a dozen more urgent things — is barely considered.
So whether our interest is NI’s future economic wellbeing, or safeguarding the Union, or both, any proposal for a sea bridge that doesn’t even consider the costs against the benefits is totally unserious.
The context is crucial.
If I am asked about a bridge in the abstract, I might think ‘sure why not?’ But this not an abstract proposal.
Here is the economic context: after over two years of unionist ‘unprecedented influence’ in London, an Irish Sea border is being established which splits Northern Ireland off from the rest of the United Kingdom for customs purposes.
This locks Northern Ireland into the European Union for customs purposes.
Worse, as the UK diverges away from EU law, Great Britain will diverge from Northern Ireland.
We will take orders from the EU on manufacturing and agriculture rules.
There is no plan for what will happen to Northern Ireland consumers wanting to buy goods from Great Britain.
GB businesses may withdraw from the NI market.
The prime minister promised ‘seamless trade’ between NI and GB, but that was shown to be a nonsense when Michael Gove offered £355 million to help businesses deal with the GB-NI trade admin that’s coming.
All this, with the global economy heading into a worsening recession.
Then there is the political context.
Hell was raised by nationalists, the European Commission, and those who never accepted the referendum result, to ensure the new and necessary EU-UK customs border was not allowed at the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland land border.
This led to the suggestion of the Irish Sea border.
The prime minister has suggested we can change this at Stormont but will clearly have been advised that’s unlikely to happen.
While the rest of the UK gets on with Brexit, and with Europe finally resigned to it, the battle will rage on at Stormont, with nationalism and likely the Alliance party fighting to keep us effectively part of the EU.
This is a dangerous situation for unionism.
Apart from the immediate response to Covid, our representatives must devote their energies to mitigating the damage of the incoming sea border — not talk up a bridge to distract from what happened on their watch.
They need to accept their responsibility for the Theresa May negotiations, when they were entirely mercenary, and the subsequent resentment it caused in the Tory party.
This led to the sea border.
Then there is the larger challenge — making the case for the Union in our centenary year and beyond.
This involves repairing relationships with a Tory government that had been sympathetic.
It involves selling the Union not just to our core vote, but to everyone in the Province, and across the UK.
For now, at least, the DUP are the sole voice for unionism at Westminster.
They can continue with the Ulster nationalism act, seeking to rinse London every time there’s cash to be had, and continue to act shocked and betrayed when that comes back to bite them.
Or, they can drop the Millwall FC brand of Unionism (‘no one likes us, we don’t care’) and start putting heads together with unionists all over the UK to make a head-and-heart case for the Union.
Those wishing to break up the UK now have the tools and motivation to do it.
Our opponents are certainly doing their own thinking.
The SNP are running rampant in Scotland and polls favour separation.
Nationalism is with increasing confidence talking up ideas of a ‘New Ireland’.
The Taoiseach confirmed his government’s new Shared Island Unit will plan for possibilities like Britain becoming “turned off” Northern Ireland altogether.
Consider that last fact; and consider whether in the last decade it even occurred to most of our loud and incurious MPs what the rest of Britain thought of us.
A Boris bridge is a shiny gift given in apology for a sea border.
This bridge, which would span that very sea border, is a distraction and we should not indulge it.
In the crisis into which we are heading, any unionist politician still touting a bridge to Scotland disqualifies themselves as a serious or capable advocate for our United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s place in it.
• Carl McClean in an Ulster Unionist Party councillor for Ards and North Down
• John Barstow: ‘A fixed link will boost the ports of Belfast and Larne’
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