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PORTPATRICK, Scotland – Pont Boris, we barely knew you.
Boris Johnson’s grand plan to save the UK’s union of nations with a massive floating bridge or underground tunnel connecting Scotland and Northern Ireland appears to be a no-starter – much to the disappointment of enthusiastic engineers and much to the delight of nationalist politicians who want to separate Britain
The infrastructure-loving British Prime Minister admitted he was not quite high on his bucket list this week on the train back to New York from Washington as he wrapped up a jaunt in the USA.
Pressed by journalists to find out where the much-vaunted post-Brexit link now lies among a series of more prosaic rail projects, Johnson could only say that it “remains an ambition.” And he added: “It’s not the most immediate [project] – it will be delivered substantially after the rest of the program that you have just described.
A far cry from the heady days of 2018, when Johnson first jumped at the idea of a £ 15billion fixed link connecting Northern Ireland to the British mainland. His pessimistic comments come after The Financial Times reported that the idea was killed by the Treasury because it counts the cost of the pandemic.
The idea of a fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland has been around since at least the 1800s, but it has become entangled in 21st century British politics. While many in Scotland doubted the project’s feasibility, Johnson’s support – and the political attention it garnered – almost certainly made any kind of connection much less likely.
Alan Dunlop, an architect widely recognized for shaping the modern fixed link prototype, said he was disappointed that the idea seemed ready for the job.
“If that’s true, it’s disappointing because it could have been a world first. It could have been a truly remarkable structure, ”said Dunlop. “I think this is a missed opportunity, not only in infrastructure but socially, culturally and economically.”
Portpatrick, port issues
Plans for the project tend to settle on an underwater bridge or tunnel starting somewhere near the small village of Portpatrick in Scotland and ending in Larne, Northern Ireland.
During a visit to Portpatrick and the surrounding area at the end of last month, POLITICO found a mixture of hostility, skepticism and lukewarm enthusiasm that a Boris Bridge is coming to town.
“They can just plant a bridge in the village,” said June Hoad, who chairs a community council of the people of Portpatrick, over tea and cookies overlooking Portpatrick Harbor. While a bridge was never likely to level the village itself, in the most plausible plans it would have been close enough to affect the surroundings and infrastructure – not to mention the stunning views.
“Maybe it will happen in the coming times, but in the near future I think a lot of money would have to be spent on the road and rail network before it can even be considered,” said her fellow councilor. community Cathie Buchanan. The two small roads which provide the only entry into Portpatrick and its surroundings are in decline and the village train station has been closed since 1950.
“I think there are concerns about it because it keeps coming back,” Buchanan said. “But I think everyone is reassured to some extent that, since the infrastructure is so poor, how can they do it?”
“It’s kind of a pie in the sky,” Hoad added. “Never of my life.”
A big obstacle on the minds of almost everyone in the region is the Beaufort Dyke, a natural trench in the Irish Sea that became the UK’s largest offshore dumping ground for ammunition after World War II. . Its position, directly on the path between Portpatrick and Larne, added to the local feeling that the project was never realistic.
Other residents had mixed feelings. “I think that would ruin the aesthetic of Portpatrick,” said Lewis Higgins, bartender at the Shutter Island-style Portpatrick Hotel which overlooks the village. “But in the long run I could see how good it would be to connect the four nations of the UK.”
Kiss of death
It was exactly this idea – to consolidate the UK itself – that prompted the Johnson government to commission a proper feasibility study on the link. His administration is fighting a Scottish National Party that wants Scottish independence and is keen to remind Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland of its commitment, angered by the impact of Brexit on their ties with the rest of the UK .
Yet it is Johnson’s enthusiastic support for an idea that has been circulating for centuries that seems to have dampened any enthusiasm in Scotland, where the British Prime Minister remains a divisive figure.
Ros Surtees, a Scottish National Party adviser for the region, described the proposals as a “ridiculous idea”.
“You have seen the tranquility and the beauty of Portpatrick, people come [here] to get away from it all, ”she said. “The feasibility study alone is going to cost millions and we can actually do a lot with that money in our region.”
It was not always so for his birthday. Indeed, when architect Dunlop proposed a bridge in 2018 to a national newspaper, the SNP’s Brexit minister deemed a fixed link a “great idea”. The Scottish government has even confirmed that it will start discussions with Belfast and Dublin on the feasibility of a bridge.
Enter Johnson. Then Theresa May’s Foreign Secretary, he publicly endorsed Dunlop’s proposals in late 2018, and by the time the Union Connectivity Review (commissioned by Johnson when he became Prime Minister) released his tentative findings, SNP politicians were doing the tail to reject it. Transport Secretary Michael Matheson called it a “vanity project” and Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon called it a “fun” tactic.
In Northern Ireland, bridge policy is also divided along constitutional lines. When Johnson strongly endorsed the idea in 2018, he did so at the annual conference of the Democratic Unionist Party, the staunch Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which has long supported a fixed link. The nationalist parties of Northern Ireland, on the other hand, readily disdained the project.
One of Johnson’s trusted lieutenants, his Scottish secretary Alister Jack, endorsed the idea in principle in an interview with POLITICO earlier this month. “For years they looked at a link between the south of England and France, for years it wasn’t doable and then one day it was doable,” said Jack, MP for Portpatrick and his colleagues. surroundings.
Dunlop, who has been involved in some conversations with the government, said he took “a bit of courage” knowing his plan might come back someday, though he blames the political heat for making it all more difficult. .
“The attitude here in Scotland for the nine months leading up to [Johnson endorsing the idea in November 2018] was positive, ”he said. “If Boris Johnson was not the Prime Minister and the Scottish government were more confident or more positive about its role in Britain, I think he might have had a different attitude towards him.”