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Bridging the gap for a Celtic powerhouse?

Leading urban architect professor Alan Dunlop speaks to Ryan Tute about the possibilities of a bridge which connects Scotland and Northern Ireland as political desire grows.

After Boris Johnson proposed in January that England could be connected to France by a 22-mile bridge, a media storm ensued asking whether the uncosted suggestion of building a concrete structure across the world’s busiest shipping lane could be true. 

Inevitably within a day of Johnson floating the idea out to the masses, the idea was quickly greeted with if not ridicule, a large dose of scepticism. But if nothing, it did get the UK thinking and other possible channel crossings were postulated.

Media north of the border soon picked up on the media and press attention the suggestion received, leading to one of Scotland’s leading urban architects, professor Alan Dunlop, being contacted to give his thoughts about a bridge crossing connecting Scotland and Northern Ireland, something which was first theorised by the Democratic Union Party in its 2015 manifesto. While it never got off the drawing board, the idea has not faced the same pessimism.

Dunlop, who is a professor at Liverpool and Robert Gordon universities, is one of the few to research the idea in any great detail. He claims that a road and rail crossing from Larne to Portpatrick is architecturally possible and something which would boost tourism and trade for both sides of the crossing, while providing an extra needed physical link for Brexit and any future Scottish independence. 

“A connection between both countries would be really advantageous as who knows what will happen in the next 10 years with Britain moving away from the European Union?” Dunlop said. “Any physical closer ties between two countries which makes it easier for goods to be transported is a positive for both sides of a bridge. We don’t know what will happen with Scottish independence either so if it indeed ever happens then the physical connection to Ireland would be a massive boost and building a bridge reinforces the idea we are a forward-thinking country,” said Dunlop.

"A connection between both countries would be really advantageous as who knows what will happen in the next 10 years with Britain moving away from the European Union?"
Professor Alan Dunlop.

Another proposed route for the bridge is between the Mull of Kintyre and Torr Head on the Antrim Coast which are just over 12 miles apart. However, the professor believes it would not be as beneficial with it maybe failing to attract a sufficient number of vehicles because of the four-hour drive to Mull of Kintyre from the central belt.

One major problem that would need to be navigated should any construction take place is Beaufort’s Dyke, a deep-sea trench around 300m deep. The trench which is 10km off the Scottish coast was used as a dumping ground for explosives after the end of the Second World War. 

But Dunlop has proposed suggestions using the concept of floating bridges used in different areas of the world to overcome the depth and necessary non-contact with the sea bed. 

“Norwegians are pioneering something called floating bridges,” Dunlop explained. “Connecting sea orbs which are 500m deep, so I have suggested a floating bridge, more or like that are being proposed by Norway which could be done and connected to the sea bed in the same way an oil rig is connected through a series of tension cables,” he said.

The Oresund Bridge, which Dunlop suggests a potential Scotland-Northern Ireland bridge could be based on.

The architect has also proposed that a similar bridge, like the one that connects Denmark with Sweden across the Oresund Strait. The bridge runs for 8km and the tunnel for 4km. The combined railway and motorway bridge is “cable-stayed” with the two 204m high pylons supporting the 490m long bridge span across the Flinte channel. Most of the bridge structures - the bridge piers and bridge spans - were built on land and subsequently towed out to the bridge alignment by a large floating crane. Dunlop believes the necessary knowledge and talent is here to carry out such a project.

He said: “Don’t get me wrong it would be a significant engineering and architectural challenge but I think that the UK and Ireland have excellent engineers that can overcome that but how you make that connection would be part of an extensive study and I have merely suggested one example of how it could be done after researching the Norway example.  If you take for instance the bridge that connects Denmark to Sweden, it has the floating element and underground elements which could be applied here.”

Since the idea was mooted, questions over funding have been quick to arise. The professor has said that he’s been quick to remind people he is an architect and not a politician or an economist but he believes that based on the size and construction of other bridges, a £20bn ballpark figure could be projected. 

Dunlop said: “The conversations I’ve had with politicians and various people in Ireland is that lots of children are travelling back and forth to Scotland four or five times a year and every journey costs them around £300. That means there is an economic equation to be made and a need to look at how you might privately finance the idea to make it economically viable. What really needs to happen is an economic feasibility study so we can get that definitive information.”

The idea of an underwater tunnel has also been floated in response to Dunlop’s thoughts and while he is not against the idea of a tunnel to connect Ireland and Scotland, the architect believes it will not incite the same inspiration as a bridge being constructed.

“If you take recent structures that have been built like Norman Foster’s in France then these become iconic, a marker and a positive indicator for a country’s future moving forward for the next 100 years or so. Nothing does that like an impressive structure that sits above the water rather than below it. It’s much more interesting and something that people can get encouraged by. I don’t know many people to be infused by the Channel tunnel so while I don’t have a problem with the idea of a tunnel, I don’t see it being inspirational or imaginative for the public.”

The Liverpool University professor believes apart from the obvious physical connection incentive, a bridge being constructed could lead to a “Celtic powerhouse” and massively improve both trade and tourism. 

The leading architect added: "I honestly think it would be a wonderful idea and anything which improves physical connections should be explored. The two nations share a lot of history together, we have similar ideals, we really are very alike. I watched the TV reports following the debate being opened and so many people said they would travel across nearly every weekend if the connection was made. The business potential is exceptional, the chance of really making an investment in what would be the true north is something that should be looked at.”

Professor Alan Dunlop

Making one final comparison to the English Channel bridge possibility, Dunlop says the conservative estimation of £20bn for the Celtic bridge would be just a fraction of the £120bn for the alternative continental comparison to France.

“We don't have the weather problems and it would not be built across anything quite significant or as large a shipping lane,” Dunlop added. “Apart from possibly the ferry companies, the Celtic bridge would have huge benefits for not just trade, but tourism too. No doubt it would be creating much more opportunities for trade too with the direct link. I have actually been incredibly surprised by the amount of interest not just in Ireland and Scotland but from all around the world too. Like anything there was some with a negative response but overall I would say about 80% of the respondents were positive. Our ministers have also supported the idea since it gained attention so there is growing support and that’s where we stand. The overwhelming reaction in favour shows there is will and a desire to create a bridge that would be a dramatic marker in aspiration for the country going into the 21st century."