Ben Lowry: The Boris bridge to Scotland plan is a nice dream but a distant one and a distraction from other priorities for unionism and infrastructure

Ten years ago I wrote on these pages on the risk that transport links between Northern Ireland and Scotland would go into reverse.

Saturday, 25th July 2020, 1:51 pm
Updated Saturday, 25th July 2020, 2:31 pm
A bridge to Scotland will take many decades, if it ever happens. Much better first to upgrade the A75 east of Stranraer. Above is a part of the road that was upgraded to bypass the village of Dunragit, but the overwhelming bulk of the 100-mile road to England is single carriageway, in which traffic can get stuck behind tractors

It was mid 2008-2012 financial slump, and all sorts of businesses were struggling. Private transport services were being cut.

My concern was that the P&O fast ferry from Larne to Cairnryan, which had just begun for the 2010 summer season, might not survive.

It needed support, I wrote.

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Sure enough, within years the fast ferry was withdrawn (and after that the fast ferry to Troon also).

Axing the Larne-Cairnryan fast boat was a sad milestone in the history of movement on these islands.

It was the fastest passenger sea link that has ever existed between Ireland and Great Britain, making the journey in an hour. Even the Belfast-Stranraer Seacat express of the 1990s took 90 minutes.

Travel does not always get faster as history progresses.

After the Roman empire collapsed, roads in Europe decayed.

When Concorde stopped flying in 2003, the public could no longer make transatlantic crossings on passenger planes in just four hours.

And since P&O ceased running the fast ferry, it has not been possible to cross the Irish Sea or North Channel in one hour on any scheduled, car-carrying vessel.

It might never be possible again.

This is all the more disappointing given that there is now dual carriageway or motorway the whole distance from Belfast to Larne.

The road was upgraded because it forms part of European E01 route, from Larne to Rosslare. In fact, most of the road between those two ports is now motorway or high quality dual. Yet the ports themselves have lost key ferry services.

This is all relevant now because Boris Johnson has approved a feasibility study into his idea of a bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland.

The idea has many critics, who describe it as a fantasy, yet engineers have said it can be built.

But last year there was surprise, even scoffing, when I predicted on a radio discussion show that it would not happen for 50 years at the very earliest.

Some people alive today might see such a structure, but that is mainly because children in 2020 might live into the 22 century.

There are longer bridges in the world than the 22 miles from Donaghadee to Portpatrick but none passes over a 1,000 foot trench.

So it would be the most impressive bridge in the world.

If any country can build it, the UK, which was once an infrastructure pioneer, and which is the world’s sixth richest nation, can.

The problem is that traffic between NI and Scotland is minuscule by international standards.

In summer 1995 I passed through the Channel Tunnel, months after it opened, and remember the passenger excitement as our train went from Kent countryside into the tunnel, then emerged into French daylight.

That massive triumph of engineering was the culmination of 150 years of plans for a physical link between England and France.

It also connected two cities of almost 10 million people each, London-Paris, on one of the world’s busiest corridors. NI-Scotland is nowhere near such numbers.

A bridge would be doing well to get 5,000 vehicles a day paying £70 each per crossing, and even then the £100+ million annual revenue might only cover the immense security and upkeep costs, let alone give return on the multi billion pound outlay cost.

The short-term feasibility of a bridge is akin to unrealistic calls for high speed rail from Belfast to Londonderry, cities of 500,000 and 100,000 respectively.

Not even France, with the best rail infrastructure in the world, has high speed link between two far bigger cities that I have often visited, Bordeaux-Toulouse, which are a mere 120 miles apart with a combined population of 7 million.

It is unfair to dismiss a bridge to Scotland as a fantasy, better to label it as a distant dream.

It cannot be, as Mr Johnson hopes, a boost to the Union because we can’t be sure of the exact constitutional make-up of these islands many decades into the future.

As a letter writer says opposite (in print edition, see also link below), there are less costly infrastructure projects we need to do first such as improve the road from Stranrarer/Cairnryan to M6/English border.

Even that is a hugely expensive project for a road with low traffic levels. But parts of it, such a busier 25-mile section east of Dumfries, could plausibly be dualled.

The value of such an upgrade is evident in an alternative road route to England, the A55 from Holyhead to the Welsh mainland. I have driven Belfast-London many times since the 1990s and have seen how the best route has changed from being via Stranraer to via Holyhead.

This is due to there now being a motorway to Dublin, including a tunnel that goes direct to the port. Then there is dual carriageway or motorway in Wales, so you no longer get stuck behind tractors in Anglesey, as you still do in Galloway.

The return of a one-hour fast ferry from Larne to Cairnryan and the upgrade of much of the A75 would radically improve our links to Scotland and be many, many times cheaper than a bridge.

Mr Johnson must know that the Union faces real political threats.

One of the dangers right now is the rise in Scottish nationalism.

In Northern Ireland, unionists face structural disadvantages.

For example, mandatory coalition at Stormont facilitates republicans who want NI to fail. Politicians who are less hostile to the status quo tend to want to maintain their seats and livelihoods. Naturally they are inclined to appease the radicals.

London should also try to balance a situation in which Dublin officials echo nationalist demands while the UK keeps sending us uninformed secretaries of state, who are influenced by an NIO that is, at best, neutral on unionism.

These are urgent problems for the Union. Vague support for a possible future bridge is irrelevant to those challenges.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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