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PORTPATRICK, Scotland — Boris bridge, we hardly knew ye.
Boris Johnson’s grand plan to save the United Kingdom’s union of nations with a massive floating bridge or underground tunnel connecting Scotland and Northern Ireland appears to be a non-starter — to the disappointment of enthusiastic engineers and the delight of nationalist politicians who want to split up the U.K.
The infrastructure-loving British prime minister admitted it’s not quite at the top of his to-do list this week on the train back to New York from Washington as he wrapped up a U.S. jaunt.
Pressed by reporters on where the much-vaunted post-Brexit link now sits among a raft of more prosaic rail projects, Johnson could only say 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.”
It’s a far cry from the heady days of 2018, when Johnson first jumped on the idea of a £15 billion fixed link connecting Northern Ireland to the British mainland. His downbeat comments come after the Financial Times reported that the idea has been killed by the Treasury as 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’s become embroiled in some very 21st century British politics. While many in Scotland doubted the feasibility of the project, Johnson’s backing — and the political attention it brought — almost certainly made any kind of link much less likely.
Alan Dunlop, an architect widely credited with shaping the modern prototype of the fixed link, said he was disappointed that the idea looks set for the chop.
“If it is true it is disappointing because it could have been a world first. It could have been a truly remarkable structure,” Dunlop said. “I think it’s an opportunity missed, not only in infrastructure but socially, culturally and economically.”
Blueprints for the project tend to settle on either a bridge or an underwater tunnel beginning somewhere near the small village of Portpatrick in Scotland and ending in Larne, Northern Ireland.
On a visit to Portpatrick and the surrounding area late last month, POLITICO found a mixture of hostility, skepticism and lukewarm enthusiasm for the prospect of a Boris bridge coming to town.
“They cannae just plonk a bridge in the village,” June Hoad, who chairs a community council of locals in Portpatrick, argued over tea and biscuits overlooking the Portpatrick harbor. Though a bridge was never likely to bulldoze the village itself, in the most plausible blueprints it would have been in close enough proximity to affect the surrounding area and infrastructure — not to mention the stunning views.
“Maybe it will happen in times to come, but in the near future I think there would have to be some hell of a money spent on the roads and rail network before it could even be considered,” said her fellow community councilor Cathie Buchanan. The two small roads that offer the only entry into Portpatrick and the nearby area are in a declining state, and the village’s railway station has been closed since 1950.
“I think there are concerns about it because it keeps popping back up again,” Buchanan said. “But I think everybody takes comfort to a certain extent from the fact that as the infrastructure is so poor, how can they possibly do it?”
“It’s a pie in the sky kinda thing,” Hoad added. “Never in my lifetime.”
One big hurdle on the mind of almost everyone in the area is Beaufort’s Dyke, a natural trench in the Irish Sea which became the U.K.’s largest offshore dump site for munitions after the Second World War. Its position, directly in the path between Portpatrick and Larne, added to local feeling that the project was never a realistic one.
Other locals had mixed feelings. “I think it would ruin the aesthetic of Portpatrick,” said Lewis Higgins, a bartender at the Shutter Island-style Portpatrick Hotel overlooking the village. “But in the long term I could see how it would be a good thing to connect the four nations of the U.K.”
Kiss of death
It’s exactly that idea — shoring up the U.K. itself — that prompted Johnson’s government to commission a proper feasibility study into the link. His administration is battling a Scottish National Party set on independence for Scotland, and is keen to remind unionist politicians in Northern Ireland, angered by Brexit’s impact on their links with the rest of the U.K., of its commitment.
Yet it’s Johnson’s enthusiastic backing of an idea that’s been floating around for centuries that seems to have cooled any enthusiasm in Scotland, where the British prime minister remains a divisive figure.
Ros Surtees, a Scottish National Party councilor for the area, described the proposals as a “ridiculous idea.”
“You’ve seen the tranquillity and how beautiful Portpatrick is, 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 wasn’t always this way for her party. Indeed, when the 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 even confirmed it would start talks with Belfast and Dublin about the feasibility of a bridge.
Enter Johnson. Then foreign secretary under Theresa May, he publicly endorsed Dunlop’s proposals in late 2018, and by the time the Union Connectivity Review (ordered by Johnson once he became prime minister) published its interim findings, SNP politicians were lining up to dismiss it. Transport Secretary Michael Matheson branded it a “vanity project” and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon dubbed it a “diversionary” tactic.
In Northern Ireland, the politics of the bridge are also split along constitutional lines. When Johnson loudly endorsed the idea in 2018 he did so at the Democratic Unionist Party’s annual conference, Northern Ireland’s staunch unionist party, which has long backed a fixed link. Northern Ireland’s nationalist parties, on the other hand, have readily poured scorn on the project.
One of Johnson’s trusted lieutenants, his Scotland Secretary Alister Jack, endorsed the idea in principle during 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 feasible and then one day it was feasible,” Jack, the MP for Portpatrick and the surrounding area, said.
Dunlop, who has been involved in some conversations with the government, said he took “some heart” from knowing his plan may return one day, though he blames the political heat for making it all harder.
“The attitude here in Scotland for the nine months prior to [Johnson endorsing the idea in November 2018] was positive,” he said. “If Boris Johnson was not the prime minister and if the Scottish government were more confident or more positive about their role in Britain, I think they’d maybe have had a different attitude towards it.”