Whatever happened to... a gigantic underwater tunnel linking Ireland and the UK?

The idea to connect the two islands by rail has been around for over 100 years.

By Paul O'Donoghue Reporter, Fora

OVER THE PAST several months, Fora has taken a look at some of the more notable big-ticket projects that were planned during the Celtic Tiger period – or in the aftermath of its demise.

Most recently, we detailed the story behind the long-delayed Dart Underground, a project that would link up the rail transport networks in Dublin city centre.

For this installment, we’ve decided to change tack. Rather than look at boom-time projects, we’re going to examine an idea that has been kicking around in some form or another for well over a century.

It’s one of the most ambitious Irish projects ever proposed, and also one of the most unlikely to ever see the light of day: a tunnel that would physically link Ireland and the UK.

What is it?

The sea link would be an underwater tunnel that would run across the sea and connect Ireland and the UK.

There have been various routes proposed for the project, potentially linking Northern Ireland to Scotland or the Republic of Ireland to Wales.

The main argument tends to be that a link between the two islands would boost tourism and business on both side and would also provide an important cultural link.

Of the two proposed Northern routes, from Belfast Lough to Portpatrick would run to around 34km, while Antrim to Mull of Kintyre would be about 19km.

Both routes from the Republic, from Rosslare to Fishguard and from Dublin to Holyhead, would run to around 100km.

By way of comparison, the Channel Tunnel connecting the UK and France is 50km long, with 38km of that line underwater.

ireland uk tunnel map credit wikimedia The possible routes linking Ireland and the UK
Source: Wikimedia

Any of the proposed routes would likely be the largest capital project ever built in Ireland, costing in the tens of billions and taking years to complete.

When was it first suggested?

The idea of linking the UK and Ireland has been floating around since the 1800s, although it was more seriously examined towards the end of the century when engineering had advanced.

What happened?

As the 20th century rolled around the idea was floated on several occasions, with varying degrees of realism.

It was mooted around the start of the first World War, but dismissed for being impractical to construct during a time of conflict.

The project was again put forward after the second World War, but was only really seriously considered again in the 80s, when the decision to proceed with the Channel Tunnel was made.

When asked if the government would conduct a feasibility study examining the possibility of building a tunnel between Ireland and Great Britain, then-Irish transport minister John Wilson said that the project was unfeasible.

channel tunnel st pancras train station london credit loco steve flickr The Eurostar train runs from St Pancras station in London
Source: Loco Steve/Flickr

“An assessment carried out by my Department found that the costs involved could exceed IR£15 billion, over twice the cost of the Britain-France tunnel, while the potential usage is estimated at less than 20% of that predicted for the Britain-France tunnel,” he said.

So a no then.

What’s the latest?

The plan has been raised several times since the turn of the century.

In 2005, Chambers Ireland called for a part bridge, part tunnel that would link Wexford to Wales. The idea of a bridge has been put forward several times since, particularly in the North where it would likely be much cheaper than an underwater tunnel.

The Armagh-based Centre for Cross Border Studies proposed in 2007 that a 21-mile (33.8km) bridge could link Galloway in Scotland to Belfast.

However, any link between Ireland and the UK would need heavy traffic to justify the cost of building and maintaining the link between the two.

For this reason a connection between Dublin and Holyhead is seen as more desirable as it is relatively close to two of the UK’s biggest population centres, Manchester and Liverpool.

Again though, cost is the big issue. Ireland would gain much more from any tunnel, as it would link the country on to Europe, while the UK would only gain a link to Ireland.

antrim sea The coast of Antrim
Source: Wikimedia

For this reason Ireland would likely have to stump up at least half of the cost of building the monster project.

While a bridge or tunnel between Ireland and the UK is extremely unlikely to materialise in the foreseeable future, it’s still being talked about.

In their 2015 election manifesto, the DUP said it supported conducting a feasibility study into “a tunnel or enclosed bridge across the North Channel from Larne to the Scottish coastline”.

However, this didn’t make it into the 2017 manifesto, when the DUP actually had serious influence as the party propping up the Tory government, although there was a pledge to improve Northern Ireland’s transport links.

For now and the foreseeable future, if you’re trying to get to the UK from the Emerald Isle, hopping on a plane or ferry will be a better bet than waiting for an underwater tunnel to be built.

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