Issue 216
Spring 2021


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May 15, 2021

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A bridge to Nowhere – or a tunnel?

Mary Gladstone speculates on mooted plans for a permanent link between Scotland and Northern Ireland and remembers that the man behind them has form when it comes to bridges

DURING the early 20th century, Poland was so irrelevant on the European political map that it was referred to as 'the Polish corridor'.

Sandwiched between Russia and Germany, Poland learned to punch above its weight. Unsurprisingly, it has contributed much to civilisation with such names as Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, Marie Curie, Chopin, Pope John-Paul II and Lech Walesa, leader of Solidarity.

I can't help thinking that, although it would be hard-pressed to measure up to Poland's luminaries, south-west Scotland is suffering from a similar situation to the one that Poland once coped with. Through neglect and under-funding, the beautiful Dumfries & Galloway Region, situated close to the Scottish Borders, north-west England and the Irish Sea, is sliced in half by a ropy trunk road (the A75), an unfit conduit for freight, travelling to and from Northern Ireland.

You might hope that our PM, in spite of his hot air and grandiosity, would come to Galloway's rescue. Not quite. He's sent instead, Sir Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail, to report on how this region's roads (and others in the UK) may be improved so that Britain's four nations can be better connected.

In 2013 while he was London mayor, he spent £43 millions of public cash, including a £418,000 gala dinner, on plans for a £366 million foot-bridge over the Thames. The idea was dropped four years later.

Johnson also wants Hendy to investigate the feasibility of a 'fixed link' across the Irish Sea. To you and me, that means a bridge but Alister Jack, D & G's MP and Secretary of State for Scotland, along with others, advise against it. Apart from a WW2 munitions dump on the seabed near Beaufort's Dyke, the Irish Sea is notorious for bad weather and it's probable that a bridge would be closed for at least 100 days in the year.

The other idea, a headline-grabbing stunt (and remembering his high-wire act in 2012, Johnson's good at that) is a tunnel. Costing £20 billion, it's a fig leaf or a distraction from Brexit and an attempt to keep Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party sweet amid the kerfuffle over the N.I. Protocol.

It's clear that Johnson is very worried.

Without the latter's support he, like Theresa May before him, could be set adrift. But DUP Sammy Wilson is enthusiastic, indicating that a bridge or tunnel would show that the UK Government is prepared to spend money to make sure that people in Northern Ireland were physically connected. But the more pragmatic believes that all that's needed is to improve the ferry services.

Whatever else, this UK Government report, led by Hendy has stirred up anger. Emma Harper, SNP South Scotland MSP, asserts that the review was set up without consulting the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

With or without a bridge or tunnel, roads like the Carlisle-Stranraer A75 and Stranraer-Ayr A77 must be improved and there's £20 million in the kitty for this purpose. It's ironic that although Hendy is head of the railways, there's little in his report on rail links in the region. But the re-laying of the tracks of the Carlisle-Dumfries-Stranraer line, axed by Dr Beeching in the mid-sixties is a possibility.

Early last year, the Scottish Government's Transport Secretary, Michael Matheson, stated that the South West Scotland Transport Study was a significant step towards a new rail link between Dumfries, Stranraer and Cairnryan. There's one minor problem, however. Northern Ireland's railway gauge is an 'all Ireland' one; different from the gauge used in Scotland, England and Wales.

Earlier in the year, Mr Big Shot crossed the sea on a charm offensive, attempting to woo NI Unionists, angry over the post-Brexit arrangements. Like his high-wire stunt and gala dinner while mayor of London, Johnson is bigging up the 2021 centenary celebration of the creation of Northern Ireland, "which paved the way for the formation of the UK, as we know it."

Nothing very memorable will happen this year or probably in any other, this side of the Irish Sea. If the residents are lucky, one day the nasty, dangerous A75 will be upgraded so that HGVs will thunder even faster than before, past Wigtownshire's deserted towns and villages. Whether they pull up at the P & O or Stena Line terminals and board the ferry, hurtle over the 25 mile long bridge or glide under the sea in Boris's burrow, who alone knows?

Like Poland one hundred years ago, the Galloway people can rest assured that they live in one of the most deserted, but swishest corridors of Europe.



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