The problems with a bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland

A bridge connecting Northern Ireland and Scotland is not a good idea.

It has been intermittently proposed by the DUP, firstly in their 2015 general election manifesto when they proposed a feasibility study into a bridge or tunnel from Larne to the Scottish coast. More recently in 2018, DUP and UUP councillors in Ards and North Down voted to write to the Scottish Government to request that Donaghadee is considered for a possible location for this bridge, despite Donaghadee not being connected to a motorway, dual carriageway or railway line.

Future Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also a supporter of the bridge, a further indication that this project is a bad idea (remember his Garden Bridge in London, which cost over £50 million but was never built).

I appreciate that I sound very negative here, but these are my reasons why I don’t think this bridge is feasible and why we should be considering other infrastructure projects:

Firstly, the cost. It is estimated that a bridge from Northern Ireland would cost between £15 billion and £20 billion. The Northern Ireland Executive could not afford it, and the UK Government is unlikely to commit that much funding to an area of the UK so distant from London. Funding from the EU could have been an option if it wasn’t for the unfortunate fact that Boris Johnson and the DUP are dedicated to bringing the UK out of the EU. Of course, some infrastructure projects cost a lot more then £20 billion, such as HS2 (which I support), although unlike this bridge HS2 is necessary in the long-term because of Britain’s railways being close to full capacity.

Another problem is the location. The closest point between Ireland and Great Britain is between Torr Head in North Antrim and the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. A bridge there is a non-starter because both places are very isolated, Torr Head is over 50 miles from Belfast, and the Mull of Kintyre is over 155 miles to Glasgow. The obvious route is between Larne and Portpatrick, about 30 miles, however neither place has the necessary road and rail connections to support the huge increase in traffic that would accompany a bridge. Larne is connected to Belfast by the A8 dual carriageway and a railway line via Carrickfergus and Whitehead. Both are suitable for getting people from Belfast to the ferry, but they could not cope with a bridge and the subsequent traffic. Portpatrick in Scotland is even more isolated, the two main roads leaving the area, the A75 to the border with England and the A77 to Glasgow, are mostly single carriageway, as is the railway line which only begins in Stranraer and takes about 2.5 hours to get to Glasgow. Also, Ireland and Great Britain use different railway lines, meaning that Irish trains cannot run in Great Britain and vice versa.

This leads to another significant problem. In order for this bridge to be feasible, three new motorways would have to be built, in Northern Ireland the A8 would need to be upgraded, as well as the A75 and A77 in Scotland. Also, new railway lines would have to be built, a more direct line would need to be built connecting Larne to Belfast, and two lines would be needed to connect Portpatrick to Glasgow and England. These lines would need to have a unique configuration and only specific trains could run on them, the normal trains serving Great Britain and Ireland would therefore be obsolete on these lines. This would add several billion on to the £15-20 billion to build the bridge in the first place. It could also be an environmental disaster and potentially damaging for coastal communities.

There are also logistical problems with the bridge itself. There are bridges in the world longer then this one, such as the Hong Kong to Zhuhai bridge in China which spans 34 miles. However, there are very specific problems in the Irish Sea. Parts of the Irish Sea are more then 300 metres deep, therefore at least thirty support towers of over 400 metres high would need to be built to support it. For some context, the Empire State Building in New York is 381 metres, so each tower would need to be taller then the Empire State Building. Also, due to adverse weather conditions the bridge would almost certainly be closed regularly, as is the case with the much smaller Foyle Bridge in Derry.

Another problem is the Beaufort’s Dyke, which is a trench in the Irish Sea that the UK Government has used as a munitions dump since the Second World War. It is estimated that more then one million tonnes of weapons are there, and there are sporadic explosions. Building a bridge over such an unstable area could have devastating consequences in the future.

My final objection to the bridge is the fact that in promoting it, Johnson and the DUP are ignoring the existing infrastructural deficit in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has only about sixty miles of motorway, mostly built in the 1960s. Although we have seen some advances in terms of dual carriageways, such as the A8 to Larne and hopefully soon the A5 and A6 to Derry, the roads in Northern Ireland are still inadequate, particularly in the West. Similarly, there are only fifty-four railway stations on four lines, connecting Belfast to Dublin, Derry, Larne and Bangor. There are no railway connections to the entire counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh, as well as South Down, Mid Ulster and Armagh City. The situation is similar in the areas of Scotland that I mentioned earlier. This is not often highlighted by the DUP and is certainly never mentioned by Boris Johnson, which is unfortunate as improving road and rail links within Northern Ireland would benefit people here a lot more then this bridge would.

It is possible to improve transport links between Northern Ireland and Scotland without building a bridge. Improving the road connections from Cairnryan and Stranraer to the rest of Scotland should be a priority, by upgrading the A75 and A77 roads connecting them to the rest of Great Britain, and improving the railway line from Stranraer. In Northern Ireland the priority should be improving the roads and railway lines here, such as completing the A5 and A6 roads to Derry, making it easier for people in the North West to travel to Belfast and Larne to reach the ferry, and improving the railway lines connecting Belfast to Dublin and Derry to reduce travel times between the three cities. These can be done for a lot less then £15-20 billion, but they would make a much more significant difference to people living in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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