While love can build a bridge, it’s far from clear that Boris Johnson can. He planned one across the Thames, but that was scrapped. Then he mooted one across the English Channel, to be shot down quickly. Now he is shelling out public money to investigate the possibility of a bridge across the North Channel between Larne (half an hour from Belfast) and Portpatrick (50 lightyears from anywhere). Is it going to be third time a charm for Boris Johnson?
The omens are not good. The first reputed attempt to build a link from Northern Ireland to Scotland ended in its destruction after Finn McCool found that he had bitten off more than he could chew. If giants should come to grief on such a project, what chance for mere mortals?
It’s not as though there is a compelling economic need. It won’t by itself shorten the time to get even from Belfast to Glasgow and any infrastructure projects to address that would drastically increase the cost. Most people would carry on catching the plane to Glasgow or London or wherever. For those who must drive, there are perfectly good ferry services.
At a mooted cost of £20 billion for the bridge, there would probably be more economic benefit giving each inhabitant of Northern Ireland and Galloway a lump sum of £10,000. You’d have change left over too.
Perhaps the intention is not economic but to build a physical connection between Britain and Ireland that the Northern Irish can feel. Boris Johnson wouldn’t be the first. Though he would not appreciate the comparison, Russia recently built a bridge across the Strait of Kerch to connect Crimea to Russia and the physical link to the conquered territory is certainly part of Russia’s motivation. With Scotland continuing to flirt with independence, however, even this rationale looks to have shaky foundations.
I’m not an engineer so I’m not going to do more than list the apparently formidable difficulties of building such a bridge. The lousy weather, the currents, the width of the channel, the need to have a bridge of sufficient height to allow shipping to pass under it, all these are normal considerations. Abnormal considerations include the unusual depth of the channel and the fact that it has been used as a dumping ground for very large quantities of explosives and nuclear waste. To a non-expert, it sounds a daunting undertaking.
All of which leads me to the conclusion that this project simply isn’t going to happen. So why is the government talking about it? The problem resembles that confronting Sherlock Holmes in the Speckled Band. If a bell-cord does not ring a bell, it is just a rope. Similarly, if a feasibility study into a bridge is not going to result in a bridge, it is just an announcement. Its purpose is simple: the government wants us to talk about it.
It serves two purposes. First, the public can only talk about so many stories at any given time. If they’re talking about bridges or trains, or even the Coronavirus, they’re not talking about Brexit. The government wants to move the conversation on from the last few years. You can understand why. Construction projects are perfect for this, because everyone has views on the idea and the ideas behind them are easy to grasp.
In some ways the ridiculousness of the proposal actually assists in this aim, as all the many drawbacks are talking points. Would the IRA seek to blow up the bridge by depth-charging the munitions dump? Would the disturbance caused by the bridge’s foundations lead to Dublin Bay prawns becoming radioactive? All grist to the mill for those wanting to get the country talking about new things.
The second purpose is less noble. The government’s entire election prospectus was built around getting Brexit done. Its current claim is that it has done so (implausibly, given that the dismal grind of negotiating the ongoing relationship with the EU is going to consume this year, but let’s leave that to one side). That leaves a vacuum at the heart of government, a vacuum that could last for five years. That needs to be filled with an impression of energy. The government is deep in debt, so eye-catching initiatives are going to have to be cheap in the main. That means announcements rather than action.
Announcements of infrastructure work well on this front too. No one expects them to be fulfilled in the short term. In the meantime, they can imagine how the bridge would glitter, span the miles majestically and stretch like a silver thread out into the invisible mist. It doesn’t have to be built to be politically effective as other populist heads of government long ago worked out. Donald Trump’s wall has served him well. Silvio Berlusconi twice announced building a bridge between Sicily and the tip of Italy. In this context, being all fart and no follow-through is entirely harmless, even beneficial.
Expect more of this stuff. The government needs to give an impression of energy. That impression doesn’t need to be borne out by action. Judging by Boris Johnson’s track record, it won’t be.