The “Boris bridge” between Scotland and Northern Ireland could end up being a tunnel, the Scottish Secretary has revealed.
Alister Jack surprised Holyrood’s Europe committee today when he said the talk of a “bridge” is “a euphemism for a link, which is a tunnel”. He later indicated that Mr Johnson backs the idea of digging a tunnel beneath the Irish Sea despite originally proposing a 22-mile bridge between Portpatrick and Larne.
Mr Jack claimed a tunnel would overcome many of the problems associated with building a bridge and would strengthen the Union.
According to Mr Jack, Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster is “very enthusiastic” about the radical idea and he suggested the tunnel could be completed by 2030.
Mr Johnson has yet to formally go for the tunnel option, but should he do so the next stage would be the production of a feasibility study.
Mr Jack was unable to give a figure on how much the project would cost, saying informal estimates had “varied dramatically”. A proper forecast for the project’s budget would be made by a full feasibility study. Experts had suggested a tunnel would be cheaper than a bridge, Mr Jack said.
Among the options could be building a structure that is a combination of bridges and a tunnel.
The bridge for me is a euphemism for a link, which is a tunnel.”
Alister Jack, Scottish Secretary
The Scottish Secretary’s preference for a tunnel came to light when he appeared in front of the Europe committee.
“It’s not a bridge that I’m keen on, it’s a tunnel,” Mr Jack said. “It’s no different to the tunnels connecting the Faroes, it’s not different to the tunnels underneath the fjords…the bridge for me is a euphemism for a link, which is a tunnel.”
In committee, Mr Jack was asked if people could be “asphyxiated” in such a tunnel.
The Scottish Secretary replied that it would be the same length as the Channel Tunnel.
“We’re not asphyxiating them as best I know at the moment in the Channel tunnel,” he added.
At a briefing afterwards, Mr Jack explained that the stormy weather over the Irish Sea could result in a bridge being closed 100 days a year.
There was also the problem of bridging Beaufort’s Dyke, the 30-mile long sub-sea trench which runs between Scotland and Northern Ireland at a depth of 300 metres.
Another major challenge for bridge building is the huge amounts of World War One and Two munitions that were dumped in the Irish Sea – as much as 1.15 million tons.
“A tunnel going through the rockhead deals with all those problems and is the sensible way forward,” Mr Jack said.
Mr Jack said the tunnel option had been discussed with Mr Johnson in “a number of conversations” and: “I would say we are on exactly the same page.”
“The next step would be a full feasibility (study) but that’s for the prime minister to announce. If he decides to press the button it will be with a full blown feasibility study.”
The proposal had been raised informally with the Northern Irish authorities and Ms Foster, Mr Jack said.
“My understanding from my discussions is that Arlene is very enthusiastic about it,” the Scottish Secretary said.
He added: “I think it is a great strengthener of the union to link the four nations together.”
Mr Jack said A77 and A75, the connecting roads in the south-west of Scotland, would need to get “long overdue” upgrades for project to be a success.
In the past, the Scottish Government has been sceptical about the UK Government’s plans to build a transport link between Scotland and Northern Ireland arguing that £20 billion on a bridge would be better spent elsewhere.
On the question of a tunnel, Nicola Sturgeon’s spokesman said it would be a “gigantic undertaking” that would require a “colossal” amount of money.
Green MSP Ross Greer dismissed the idea as “pure fantasy”.