DUP’s idea of a bridge to Scotland might unlock stalemate in the Brexit negotiations

Jane Morrice speaking during last year in Brussels, where she said Northern Ireland should be given 'honorary' EU membership while remaining part of the UK. Ms Morrice is a former head of the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland and former Women's Coalition MLA
Jane Morrice speaking during last year in Brussels, where she said Northern Ireland should be given 'honorary' EU membership while remaining part of the UK. Ms Morrice is a former head of the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland and former Women's Coalition MLA

In a surprise announcement during her visit to Scotland in June, the DUP Leader, Arlene Foster, called for support for their campaign to build a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The proposal got mixed reviews at the time but since appears to have floundered on the rugged rocks of Brexit.

It nevertheless begs an important question.

Why did the DUP chose to ‘float’ such an extraordinarily ambitious idea at this crucial moment in the Brexit negotiations?

Just when decision makers in the British Isles glare at each other across the Irish Sea desperately in search of the ‘imaginative and creative solution’ to the Irish border requested by the EU, the DUP come up with what might be seen as a stroke of genius.

Indeed, genius is not a label which sits comfortably with a party whose critics associate more with ‘prehistoric’ than ‘avant garde’.

Yet, a proposal which would build bridges rather than borders might help to rid these islands of the dire consequences of Brexit and break the Brussels logjam.

The EU is the greatest bridge-building project in modern history so to suggest the eurosceptic DUP is thinking ‘European’ may be far-fetched but the proposal still merits consideration.

The biggest issue for the DUP is the potential for a ‘border’ down the Irish Sea which they claim would be created by the ‘backstop’ proposal to keep Northern Ireland in the EU single market and customs union.

The ingenious element is that a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland would literally override any border in the Irish Sea and create a concrete connection tying the two islands into a permanent partnership forever.

The political and symbolic importance of such a link can’t be underestimated and the economic, social and cultural advantages could be significant.

A bridge would not only allow the relatively free flow of trade between Ireland, Scotland and England, it would also cement the ‘freedom of movement’ of people between these islands which was operational well before EU membership.

It could also create greater balance between Green, Orange, Ulster-Scots and other cultures sharing the Celtic fringe on the outskirts of the EU.

The main barrier to such a massive undertaking is the possible £15 billion price tag on what could be one of the longest bridges ever built in Europe. But some argue the benefits for these isolated rural regions, stretching from Donegal to Dounreay, could outweigh the cost.

Quite apart from the potential investment to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Ireland, the construction would create employment, technological innovation and creative quality design not seen on these islands since the building of the Titanic.

It would also tap into those long-established, but dwindling, marine engineering skills for which this part of Europe is renowned. It could also include a pipeline providing ever-lasting access to Scottish energy resources and reducing dependence on the Irish grid.

Finally, a bridge over the ‘troubled waters’ of Brexit, might serve to lift the spirits of those in Northern Ireland and Scotland who voted to remain in the EU.

In terms of funding, the range of possibilities are vast. Apart from the obvious support from London and Dublin, EU sources could include the cross-border INTERREG programme, the European Investment Bank, the TransEuropean Network and HORIZON 2020.

The EU PEACE programme could be another valuable source because the bridge would still respect the Good Friday Agreement by promoting peace and prosperity in the region.

Private funds would also be a must and China a clear contender. With Chinese interest in access to new markets and the Confucius Centre in Coleraine, investment for the world’s most prolific bridge-builders could prove irresistible.

The bridge could also be tolled to ward off any challenge of unfair competition from the ferry companies and the revenue, from freight traffic in particular, might allow it eventually to pay for itself.

The DUP must know that Brexit, and their backing of it, has brought the debate on united Ireland closer to home than ever before. The EU’s offer of a unique ‘backstop’ deal for Northern Ireland has the support of most of their political opponents whose dire warnings of the damage, even dangers, of Brexit are loud and clear.

If Brussels was to take their proposal seriously, even by initially agreeing a feasibility study, in return for DUP acceptance of the backstop, the bridge-building option could be the solution negotiators urgently need.

This would mean the EU secures a backstop, Britain delivers Brexit, Northern Ireland gets the best of both worlds, Scotland gets an EU land link and the British/Irish isles become re-connected in a way not seen since the Giants Causeway was destroyed by the legendary Finn McCool.

Time is short. An offer to put Article 50 on ice, if suggested by the EU 27 in a gesture of understanding, could take the pressure off.

Northern Ireland will soon break the record for the longest serving democracy without a government. We are a community desperately in need of bridge-builders.

If the Northern Ireland Executive could be re-established with all parties backing a vision which could raise our sights, solve our problems and one day line our children’s pockets, Brexit or no Brexit, in a United Kingdom, a ‘new’ Ireland or a 21st century ‘Dalriada’, this bridge might be the giant step needed to create a causeway to a brighter future for all.

• Jane Morrice is a former head of the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland and former Women’s Coalition MLA. She has called for NI to get ‘honorary’ European Union membership while remaining part of the UK