Scottish secretary Alister Jack has said he is “keen” on building a tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland – rather than Boris Johnson’s stated desire for a bridge.
Speaking to a Holyrood committee, the UK Government minister said tunnelling would be cheaper than a bridge, the cost of which is estimated at around £20bn.
Jack was giving evidence on Brexit and the trade talks with the EU, which began in Brussels this week, but was sidetracked onto the subject of a Scotland-NI bridge – branded a Johnson “vanity project” by the Scottish Government.
“It’s not a bridge I’m keen on, it’s a tunnel,” the Scottish secretary said on Thursday.
Jack continued: “The bridge for me is a euphemism for a link, which is a tunnel, just to be clear about that.
“Actually, tunnelling techniques now are quite advanced.
“And certainly, to go from south-west Scotland to Northern Ireland, it would be less expensive – knowing what we know of the geography of the North Channel – it would be less expensive to tunnel it.”
But he stressed that any tunnel would require an upgrade of the A75, which links Stranraer to Gretna, and the A77, which runs from Glasgow to Portpatrick on the south-west coast.
The tunnel would link Portpatrick to Larne in Northern Ireland, and Jack insisted it could be achieved by 2030 and would be the same distance as the Channel Tunnel.
He added it would avoid some of the issues around the bridge idea, such as dumped munitions at Beaufort’s Dyke in the North Channel.
The Scottish secretary also said that although Northern Irish first minister Arlene Foster is a supportive of a link between the two countries, both Holyrood and Stormont would be extensively consulted before any such project began and that any plans were only at a “discussion stage”.
“We’re not going to come riding in roughshod and slam a tunnel in,” Jack told MSPs in the culture, tourism, Europe and external affairs committee.
But he cited poor regional productivity figures in south-west Scotland as one of the reasons he supported the idea of a tunnel.
The minister said: “I see a huge advantage in the tunnel for south-west Scotland’s economy – we have the lowest GVA per head of population in the UK so it can only help us.
“I see advantages for the Northern Ireland economy, clearly, and I see advantages in that you’ll be able to get from Carlisle to Belfast or Glasgow to Belfast considerably quicker than you can now.”
Jack was also challenged by Green MSP Ross Greer on plans for a border in the Irish Sea once the Brexit transition period ends at the start of 2021.
The Scottish secretary claimed the UK Government’s desire for a Canada-style free trade agreement with the European Union could mean there are few to zero tariffs between the UK and EU from January next year.
He suggested what additional checks might be needed in the Irish Sea – as part of the withdrawal agreement which keeps Northern Ireland in customs alignment with the EU while the UK leaves – could be done electronically.
But Jack added he would “expect” that the UK Government would pay for any additional border infrastructure needed at ports between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
It comes after Stormont’s agriculture minister Edwin Poots told members of the Northern Irish assembly that his Scottish counterparts had told him they would not be “willing to accept” new checks at Scottish ports.
Poots said the comments were made at a Belfast meeting of agriculture ministers which included Scottish ministers Fergus Ewing and Roseanna Cunningham.
He said: “Neither the NI minister nor the Scottish minister have expressed that they are willing to accept any checks at any ports.
“Scotland was as firm as I was in terms of this, that we weren’t putting infrastructure at our ports to facilitate this.”
In response, a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “It is no secret that the Scottish Government maintains that Scotland’s best interests are served by remaining in the EU, with tariff and barrier free access to a market of 450 million people.
“The Scottish Government has been seeking clarity on how the UK Government intends to fulfil its legal obligations under the protocol, and the implications for Scottish Government responsibilities.”
Commenting after Jack’s tunnel suggestion to the committee and subsequent media briefing, Greer said: “These proposals might be headline-grabbing but let’s face it, they are pure fantasy, just like the Tory approach to Brexit which Mr Jack so spectacularly failed to explain to the committee.”
The Green MSP added: “Mr Jack’s insistence to me that there would be no more checks on goods between Northern Ireland and Scotland contradicts leaked papers from the UK Treasury, comments made to Northern Ireland’s First Minister by HMRC and the terms of the EU withdrawal agreement itself.
“Clinging to this clearly false claim is making preparations for these inevitable checks impossible, which will only make the economic damage worse than it was already going to be.”