Is the UK's proposed Irish Sea bridge a bridge too far?

Michael Grey outlines why ferry services offer a more flexible and cost-effective option for transporting people between Northern Ireland and Scotland than UK Government’s proposed bridge across the Irish Sea

Is the UK's proposed Irish Sea bridge a bridge too far?

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Experts have suggested two potential routes for a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland

Why are politicians so enthused by massive capital projects such as a bridge across the Irish Sea, the possibility of which is currently being investigated at the behest of the UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson? What’s not to like about such a scheme, which would usefully employ thousands of construction workers, and require UK companies to manufacture vast quantities of cement and concrete, steel and advanced technology? And in the desperate world of post-Covid-19 economics, such schemes will likely be favourable with a broad range of stakeholder, including voters and contributors to political parties. I can remember interviewing the sorrowing CEO of the Dover Harbour Board in the 1980s when it appeared that the dreaded fixed link across the English Channel was going to go ahead, spelling doom for ferry operators. He suggested that there was a ‘triangle’ that needed to be completed for such projects to go ahead; the availability of technical solutions, the means of paying for it, and political will. Of these three, he said, the last was the most essential for any grand project to take shape and, with the approval of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s government, there shone the green light. Although you might say that Eurotunnel is up and running and the ferries are still prospering, it’s worth reminding yourself that all the investors in the original privately funded project lost their shirts and government money was required to see it through. Surely there are better ways of using up manpower and materials, which would be of greater benefit to more inhabitants of Northern Ireland and Scotland than a fixed link across the Irish Sea? But as the economic pressures increase, one can see the political sun shining ever more brightly on those probing the possibilities. These great ideas tend not to go away – think about the great Danish and Japanese fixed link bridges – so it is important that ferry operators put up a convincing case against these vast monuments to political hubris. In the case of the Irish Sea, some of these arguments would appear to be obvious. The natural obstacles between Northern Ireland and Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland are formidable in the shape of the fierce tides which run through the North Channel, the frequency of extreme weather over that stretch of water, and the depth of the water which has a 270-metre-deep trench running down the middle. There are also some significant man-made obstacles within this deep water in the form of thousands of tons of surplus explosives that were tipped into it following World War II. And the geology is very different from the yielding chalk marl which was found between France and England; hard rock and lots of it. But why on earth do we need a fixed link to funnel all the traffic from the island of Ireland into a sparsely populated part of Southern Scotland? It would require a vast sum of money to be spent on modernising roads which were never designed for such traffic. And, if we have existing ferry links that take traffic between places where people actually wish to travel, what is the point of putting these at risk for the sake of a few political points? If your trailer from Galway is bound to Goole, why would you take in the Mull of Galloway? Is there any real demand for such a construction? We must also bear in mind that traffic projections turn out to be notoriously nonsensical, invariably favouring the project proceeding. In the arguments about ferries and fixed links, it is the flexibility of ferry operations that need to be emphasised. If the demand is there, so will be the ferry link. If it increases, there is the option of bigger ships and more of them. It is a perfect market-based solution, both local and strategic. And, as always, the flexible links of ferries come at a fraction of the price of great structures of steel and concrete, no matter what a marvel of civil engineering they might be. This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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By Michael Grey
23 December 2020

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