On Building Bridges

I haven’t written to The Herald for a while.  Earlier this year I resolved only to write in if I considered I had something constructive to say.  It is so much easier to demolish, than to create.  It is easier to rubbish somebody else’s proposal, than to come up with a better proposal yourself.  Last time I wrote in, my letter concerned the organisation of the NHS, and my proposal was that the Society of Acute Medicine, and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine amalgamate.  I always peruse the letters column on the day following publication, for any riposte, and indeed on this occasion there was one.  Somebody suggested that the duly amalgamated institution be dubbed The Society and College Royal for Emergency and Acute Medicine (SCREAM).

Well I had to laugh.  I didn’t take it personally.  I don’t think my idea was really being mocked.  But nor was it being taken seriously.  It’s often the way with any innovation.  It takes some time before people take notice, so you have to persevere.  Before the “Scream” letter, I’d written in in support of the idea that a bridge be built between Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I was interested to read in The Sunday Herald that Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, had reiterated this proposal while attending an Orange Walk in Cowdenbeath.  She says she would like to be able to drive to Scotland.  (It’s as well she said drive, rather than take the train, because I am given to understand that while the rail gauge here is four feet eight and a half inches, in Ireland it is five feet.)   I was also interested in the reaction to the bridge proposal from some Scottish politicians, who suggested that Arlene Foster should forget it and concentrate on getting Stormont back up and running.  There were mutterings about Brexit shambles, and the DUP’s record on equality issues.  There was also apprehension and dismay expressed by some of the good people of Cowdenbeath with respect to the Orange Walk, fearful of the underlying tensions of the great sectarian divide, necessitating the drafting of 100 additional police officers to ensure public order.

I think it’s a matter of regret that politicians chose to sidestep the bridge proposal solely in order to delineate and reiterate the established political fault lines, which are already well known.  Do not merely demolish.  Create something.  After all, Mrs Foster was trying, literally, to build bridges.  I wish our politicians had put all the old prejudices to one side and considered whether the bridge is a good idea.  Could we do it?

Two routes have been suggested, one running east to west from Port Patrick straight across the Irish Sea, the other running north-east to south-west from the Mull of Kintyre to Antrim.  At 11 miles, the latter is the shorter route.  Moreover the former would have to cross a deep trench in the Irish Sea, into which munitions have been dumped.

When this all came up in The Herald letters’ column, a professor of engineering wrote in to say that, while building a bridge to Northern Ireland was technically possible, it would be, from an engineering point of view, extremely challenging, and very expensive.  (More expensive than HS2, or a third runway at Heathrow?)  The professor pointed out that not only would we have to pay for the bridge, we would also have to pay for the upgrade of a road system connecting with the main centres of Scotland’s central belt.

It’s worth pausing to consider Scotland’s road system.  I have before me the AA Great Britain and Ireland Bestselling Road Atlas, 2018.  I open it at pp 2-3, “map pages and route planner”.  A great network of motorways and trunk roads criss-crosses England.  On the east, the A1M extends to Newcastle and then stops.  On the west, the M6 extends to Carlisle and then stops.  The only dual carriageway into Scotland is the A74.  I am looking at Scotland on the route planner, and it is empty.

It is difficult to move around Scotland.  The engineering professor’s remarks about the necessity to upgrade the routes to the central belt is well made.  Suppose we built the bridge from Antrim to the Mull of Kintyre.  Glasgow to Campbeltown is a mere 61 miles as the crow flies.  By road, because of the rugged contours of Scotland’s west coast, the trip is 138 miles.  To negotiate the sea lochs, you have to go all the way up to Inveraray via the Rest and Be Thankful which often closes due to landslips.  (Then the diversion is 76 miles.)  From Inveraray, you still have to negotiate the length of Kintyre.  I know these airts and pairts quite well because I love Argyll.  Beguiling Argyll.  On midsummer’s day, having negotiated the Rest and Be Thankful, I drove down the east side of Loch Fyne through St Catherines and Strachur and the Cowal Peninsula, to Tighnabruaich.  The Cowal Peninsula is known as “Argyll’s Secret Coast”.  It is well named, because it is completely deserted.  Imagine that.  It is ravishingly beautiful, and, on midsummer’s day, completely deserted.

Sometimes I go down the west coast of Loch Fyne and then head up the A816 towards Oban.  I stop at Dunadd Fort, and ascend the small hillock at whose top a slab of rock bears the imprint of a foot.  It is an atmospheric and holy place, ancient Dalriada, where the Scottish kings were crowned.  And it is completely deserted.

Let’s build the bridge, and open up the Celtic world.

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