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.