Julian Smith, formerly Secretary of State for Northern Ireland before he was unceremoniously ejected recently, was the latest in a long line of naysayers to pour cold seawater on plans to build a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The hypothetical structure has been dismissed from the start as a vanity project, a folly, even “bonkers”, most virulently by enemies determined that Boris Johnson should fail — at being Prime Minister; at Brexit; at bridge-bridging in both the emblematic and literal sense — but also by those with an attachment to fiscal prudence, who know that the Irish Sea isn’t bottomless but fear the money needed to raise a bridge across it just might be. Assuming that the sums add up, though, would it really be such a dreadful idea?
The latest study of opinion in Northern Ireland, conducted on behalf of four universities, including Queen’s in Belfast and the LSE, offers a timely counterpoint to the growing body of opinion that Irish unity is now inevitable in the wake of Brexit. The survey found that fewer than a third of people in Northern Ireland would vote for reunification with the South if a border poll was held tomorrow. What better time for pro-Union voices to speak up for a bridge which would join the United Kingdom in physical as well as constitutional form?
Bridges are not only practical, but symbolic. They connect places, and have always been seen in both poetic and political language as representations of healing and partnership.
When the daily packet steamer between Portpatrick and Donaghadee was under threat in 1845, the Earl of Northampton reminded the House of Lords that they were their object ought to be “to tighten the bonds which united the two countries — not the bonds of force, but of attachment and loyalty — and in order to attach Ireland to the connection with this country, he thought they ought to show a willingness to sacrifice a reasonable amount of the public money.” Most of Ireland gained its independence a century ago, but Boris Johnson is, to all appearances, of like mind when it comes to showing commitment, in steel and concrete, to the six remaining counties.
Most British people don’t really think of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the UK, but a bridge might make it feel more accessible, less alien. National psychology is an unpredictable thing. The Channel Tunnel ultimately failed to increase Britain’s fondness for the EU, but it certainly made parts of it feel more European.
If it’s a stretch to hope that a mere bridge could help the Brits love Ulster, which has never exactly made an effort to be loveable, it’s not hard to imagine ways in which it might work some alchemy on the mindset of Northern Ireland itself. Nationalists will feel no more British, but it would reassure Unionists that they’re not being left behind in whatever new United Kingdom ends up being built after Brexit. Ulster Protestants have long had a sentimental attachment to a tribal dreamtime memory of Scotland. Now it would be made tangible, and, if it brought economic benefits to a region too often bypassed by booms, all the better.
Whether those benefits would be equally shared is unlikely. Larne, where those crossing the bridge would most likely first set tyres on Irish soil, being Boris Johnson’s preferred route, and the one he (optimistically) costed at £15 billion, is a very different prospect to the picturesque harbour of Donaghadee, where Victorian travellers disembarked.
Nearly a million people pass through the town’s existing ferry port every year, but it remains a deprived and grim locale, with unattractive architecture, and high rates of unemployment, drug abuse, alcoholism, and ill health in general.
Despite the peace process, parts of the town are still haunted by the presence of the Ulster Defence Association’s South East Antrim Brigade, and there have been a number of feud-related murders in recent years. Chances are that, most of those crossing over on any bridge would continue to zip through the town on their way to Belfast to the south, Derry to the west, or more enticing destinations such as the Giant’s Causeway to the north. It could be that Larne gets landed with most of the inconveniences of the bridge, and few of the upsides.
The economic advantages for the rest of Northern Ireland would, however, be huge. The UK mainland is already used by exporters across Ireland as a land bridge to Europe. Joining up Scotland to the island next door has the potential to turn Northern Ireland into a land bridge to the land bridge, increasing traffic north and south. For a region reliant for its survival on a block grant from Westminster, and still with a higher than average number of public sector workers, a large scale infrastructure project on this scale could be transformative.
Getting to that stage would, of course, necessitate overcoming Northern Ireland’s ingrained cynicism.
The average Ulsterman is not inclined to positivity. Grand infrastructure projects are all for very well for Hong Kong or Bahrain, but any bridge over the Irish Sea would be expected by most locals to either fall down, or run out of money half way, leaving the two halves poking out from their respective landmasses, almost but never quite touching, which would be symbolic in its own way. Recent storms hardly make the thought of driving across the Irish Sea in a Force 9 gale, with nothing for protection but a few girders, appealing.
That’s no reason not to do it. The prophets of doom were equally gloomy about the Channel Tunnel, at least in the short term. The difference is that the tunnel brought closer two great capital cities, London and Paris, whereas a bridge over the Irish Sea would connect a brace of farther flung regions of the UK with mixed feelings about their place in national life.
Unionists should tread carefully. Increasing links might over time stitch Northern Ireland more fully into the consciousness of people in the Irish Republic, who have an equally semi-detached attitude towards the troublesome region as most Britons. The bridge may well make people in the South think of the North as a more normal member of the family, rather than a dysfunctional distant relative.
The bridge could in that sense herald a different sort of unity. Not one of all the British Isles, as envisaged by Boris and the Earl of Northampton, but one bringing closer the restless fringes in a new power base. Edinburgh and Dublin have already started to tentatively explore joint interests post Brexit. Add Belfast to the chain, and a bridge could become another way to avoid England entirely as pro-EU Gaels edge towards Scottish independence and Irish unity. There are some who suspect Boris Johnson would secretly be satisfied if Northern Ireland did finally wave goodbye to the United Kingdom, allowing him to concentrate on grander international visions, but that’s probably taking conspiracy theories too far.
In a long career with the pen, the Prime Minister has been prepared to think the unthinkable and challenge cherished tradition on numerous matters, but he has always seemed to value the Union, even when the love was not reciprocated.
It may be best all the same for the bridge to remain a tantalising thought experiment rather than reality. In Celtic lore, islands are places apart, separate, special, magical. That’s partly why Irish nationalism is such a potent force, because it seems unnatural that an island should be divided. Geology now confirms that Ireland was never joined to Britain, as Britain was to Europe, and one needn’t be a raging nationalist to be slightly disappointed at the thought of stapling it to its neighbour now just for the convenience of some trucks. What God has put asunder, let no man, not even Boris Johnson, join together.