Boris Johnson wants a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. But he’s not the first to suggest it

The bridge would stretch between Scotland’s Portpatrick and Bangor or Larne on the Irish side. Image: Google Maps.

It wouldn’t be a Boris Johnson political intervention if it didn’t involve a massive and ultimately highly unlikely bridge. As London mayor he sunk £46m of taxpayer money into the failed Garden Bridge. More recently, one of the few things he did in his two-year stint as foreign secretary was proposing a “Channel Bridge” to link England and France.

So, true to brand, his most recent spat with the Prime Minister over Brexit saw Boris Johnson suggest an “Irish Bridge”. But, classic Boris as it is, this idea of an Ireland-Great Britain link far predates his most recent attempts to grab the limelight.

In the late 19th century a British company applied for funding to survey the Scotland-Ulster link in the hopes of building a tunnel. The idea was then raised in parliament during World War One, as a means to ensure a link between the two islands in spite of the menace of German U-boats. The then prime minister, Henry Asquith, shot the idea down in a single sentence; describing it as “hardly practicable in the present circumstances”. I don’t get to say this often, but I’m with Asquith on this one. Huge spending on an infrastructure project of dubious value at a time of national crisis would hardly have gone down well. Boris, are you listening?

Yet even in peacetime this grand idea has always been scuppered by Beaufort's Dyke, a marine trench 50km long, 5km wide and around 250m deep. It had been a difficult challenge for engineers to overcome even before the MoD dumped over a million tonnes of unwanted munitions in it after World War Two. This military flytipping meant a 1995 attempt at building a pipeline caused unexploded bombs to start washing up on the Scottish coast – leading British Gas to wisely re-route. So any further underwater construction (which a bridge would require) would have to tread softly so they don’t, erm, blow it.

Despite the so-called “ticking timebomb in the sea”, the plan has been floated numerous times throughout the 20th century by politicians and engineers on both sides of the sea. As a unionist party, the DUP is particularly keen because it would strengthen ties with the mainland UK. It was in the party’s 2015 manifesto and highlighted when it looked like they might be kingmakers in a hung parliament.


Earlier this year Alan Dunlop, a professor of architecture at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, breathed scientific credibility to the project, citing how the technological advancements currently used in the Norwegian Coastal Highway could be applied to bridging the North Channel. His proposed bridge between Scotland’s Portpatrick and Bangor or Larne on the Irish side could cost up to £20bn, which, while a fraction of the £120bn estimated for the Channel Bridge, is still not exactly pocket change.

And this takes us to the present day. With his blend of infrastructure populism and political wrangling for DUP support, Boris Johnson has put his name behind the project. At the same time he bangs the Brexit drum, which means the UK’s economic stability is far from secure. Maybe this was his plan all along; the old Lib Dem approach of promising the world because you will never be in a position to deliver anyway.

If that’s the case, then this is just another blip in the long history of proposals for an Irish Bridge.

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.