By ANDREW RETTMAN
A British idea that was previously lambasted by engineers – to build a bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland – might be “viable”, Irish leader Leo Varadkar has said.
“All messing aside, I do think at the very least a high-level engineering assessment should be done as to whether it is a viable proposal,” Varadkar said in Dublin on Thursday (26 December).
“I know people dismiss these things out of hand, but they used to dismiss the Channel Tunnel as well … and I know what I see when I see a bridge between Denmark and Sweden, when you fly over New Orleans [in the US] and you see 110 miles of bridge, it’s extraordinary,” he added.
The Northern Ireland bridge idea was initially put forward by British prime minister Boris Johnson in September, who said it would cost “only” £15bn (€18bn).
It came amid emotional Brexit talks on how to keep open the Irish land border without creating a new customs barrier in the Irish Sea, which might make Northern Ireland feel cut off from the rest of the UK.
And it was derided by experts, who noted that the depth of the water made the project nothing like the Channel Tunnel or Denmark-Sweden links and who said the economic benefits of connecting Scottish and Northern Irish cities were nothing like those of connecting Paris to London.
The Northern Ireland bridge would require 30 support masts each one taller than the Eiffel Tower and it was “about as feasible as building a bridge to the moon,” one retired offshore engineer, James Duncan, told British newspaper The Times when the ‘Boris bridge’ notion came out.
“No sane contractor or responsible government” would undertake the construction, he added.
But the final Brexit deal does envisage an Irish Sea customs border and Johnson has continued to praise the bridge project.
“It is a very interesting idea … watch that space between those islands,” he told MPs in the House of Commons in the run-up Christmas.
He has continued to talk about it with Varadkar, who added, recalling one conversation between the two men: “At which point he [Johnson] suggested: ‘No, no, the EU is going to pay for it’. So that’s definitely not going to happen, because neither Northern Ireland or Scotland are going to be in the EU. But it was kind of half-serious, half-joking in a way”.
The Scottish engineer, Alan Dunlop, who originally conceived the bridge in 2018, also continued to back it on Thursday.
“I’m delighted that the taoiseach [Irish leader] has … come out in support of the idea,” Dunlop told Scottish newspaper The National.
“A bridge to link Scotland and the UK to Ireland is a project fit for the 21st century. There is also interest in the project internationally. I’ve spoken about it with colleagues in the US and on visits to Australia and China this year. We have the engineering and architectural talent here in Scotland to create such a structure,” Dunlop said.
And with the UK poised to leave the EU on 31 January after Johnson won recent elections, the British prime minister might need an eye-catching enterprise to make people feel good in future.
The “symbolic” first post-Brexit year could see weak growth and falling employment in the UK, the Resolution Foundation, a London-based think-tank, warned also on Thursday.
There were “clouds on the horizon” for 2020 “with worrying signs including falling vacancies and rising youth unemployment,” it said.
“So much unnecessary damage has been done to you [British people], and all of us. And I fear more will follow,” European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans also said in an open letter to British newspaper The Guardian the same day.
With the headline-grabbing bridge project back in the air, Timmermans spoke of Brexit itself as a kind of populist trick, adding: “Our differences [were] manipulated to instil fear, to propagate superiority, to set one family member against the other.”
But the UK “will always be welcome to come back” and rejoin the EU if it wanted, he said.