NEWS EXTRA – Celtic Bridge proposal draws interest as Brexit sails into choppy waters

David Stewart writes in America, a Jesuit magazine

There has been much good and important talk in the pages of this publication in recent years about building bridges, but now comes a moment when we move from metaphor to concrete. Or, in this case, to reinforced concrete and buttresses and steel cables.

In Great Britain momentum is gathering around a proposal to build an actual bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland, creating a fixed link between two of the current United Kingdom’s four constituent nations.

This would be an imaginative suggestion at any time, not least given the historically troubled relationship between the two states. But it gains added piquancy at this moment when the vexed question of how to account for Northern Ireland in the omnishambles that Brexit has become could sink the negotiation beneath the Irish Sea’s waves.

People are saying the bridge is a serious idea, and it has at least captured the interest of leading politicians on both sides of the water. A leading architect, Alan Dunlop, has become an enthusiastic advocate for the proposal, now dubbed the “Celtic Bridge.” The architect and academic, who has taught at Kansas State University, is pressing the four governments involved—the United Kingdom’s Westminster in London, the devolved administrations of both Northern Ireland and Scotland, and the Irish government in Dublin—to begin a serious study of the proposal’s feasibility, investigating both the civil engineering requirements and the economic case for the bridge.

People are saying the bridge is a serious idea, and it has at least captured the interest of leading politicians on both sides of the water.

Technically, say the bridge’s proponents, there are no insuperable hindrances. It often comes as a surprise to people that the shortest distance between the two Celtic countries is only 12 miles. Unhappily, a bridge spanning that particular gap is not feasible, as its eastern side in Scotland’s Kintyre is remote without the necessary major roads or rail line to the population centers and arterial routes. The sea channel also presents one particularly awkward obstacle: the Beaufort’s Dyke, a deep underwater trough. London’s Ministry of Defense has admitted that they have been dumping over a million tons of munitions there since early in the 20th century. Contemporary weaponry could raise a problem too, as the Clyde Estuary just to the north is the only route to the open sea for the contentious British maritime nuclear force, based at Faslane in Argyll.

Accusations and rumors have flown around for years that potentially rich subsea mineral deposits were left unextracted in this area, owing to the presence of the nuclear subs. A comparable resistance to development in this area might surface from the military.

Celtic Bridge proponents point to other connections successfully constructed in difficult situations, among them the Øresund Bridge, built 18 years ago to link Malmö in Sweden and Copenhagen in Denmark. They point out that two separate countries, sharing a Nordic heritage, worked closely to construct the link that is now used by 25 million travelers each year, generating so far a $13.1 billion return on investment.

Elsewhere in Scandinavia, oil-rich Norway, with a population similar to Scotland’s but one that has been able to retain more of its oil revenues, is investing $47 billion on the Norwegian Coastal Highway, a 1,100-kilometer route that will cross 20 fjords, some more than 2,000 feet deep.

Some construction techniques developed by the offshore oil industry are available to designers. Mr. Dunlop told a recent architectural conference: “We have the engineering and architectural talent and the capability to build this project; it would be a transformative economic generator and a world first.” Estimates of costs for a combined road and rail link between Portpatrick in Galloway and Larne in Antrim range currently from $20 million to $26 million. Already, a much longer sea bridge—34 miles—is about to open in China, but at an enormous cost that includes, reportedly, a number of deaths among construction workers.

First published in ‘America’, September 2018