Building Bridges?

Published: 18 March 2020
Author: Anna Meine

Boris Johnson recently discussed building a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland as a way to cement the Union, however, Anna Meine evaluates how territorial spaces are negotiated and argues that it will require more than a bridge to alleviate the challenges posed by Brexit.  

While they might result in nothing tangible, the renewed discussions on a potential bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland provide insights into how territorial spaces and borders are negotiated within the islands of Britain and Ireland. They render visible a complex constellation of social, political and territorial spaces and boundaries, and impact the balance of these spaces, currently under stress. Petrifying the status quo by building a bridge, however, does not solve the political challenges involved.

Conceptualising territorial spaces

A territory is often – implicitly – imagined as a box or container, its borders as enclosing a homogeneous space, different from the outside world. This space provides a supposedly neutral background to institutions and practices within. It is instrumental to the idea that one polity constitutes a sphere within which the law is applied consistently, and democracy practiced legitimately. In line with this, a prototypical territory is imagined as continuous.

This conception of territory is very much alive in the recent debates. Building a bridge “to connect the two biggest isles of the British Isles” (Boris Johnson) appeals particularly to Unionists. It can be understood to provide the missing physical link and it is thus imagined as “a bridge to a true United Kingdom“ and to advance “the cause of cementing the Union” and to constitute the background not only for law and democracy but also for shared economic welfare throughout the UK: “Will the Prime Minister make good on his commitment for a golden age for all of the United Kingdom by making good on his promises for bus building and infrastructure in Northern Ireland so that we can all enjoy that golden age, and will he build a Boris bridge, not just the Boris bus?” (Ian Paisley Jr.) Entertaining the idea of a bridge is a promise of a physically continuous territory and, thus, of a stable and prospering Union.

However, the UK example itself indicates that the notion of a supposedly neutral and homogeneous territory is always an illusion, even if a useful one. Fundamentally, territorial spaces are social spaces; they are socially constructed by human actions, they represent relevant social and political relations between persons, their relations to political institutions and the geographical domain itself, and they, in turn, regulate, enable and limit human actions.

Accordingly, proponents of the bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland argue that it would “improv[e] connectivity across the United Kingdom” (Rishi Sunak). The idea is that the social, political and economic links between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are strengthened by building a bridge, thereby strengthening the legitimacy of the UK and the form the joint territories assume.

Yet, social-space conceptions can not only be employed to justify existing territories, but also render them criticisable. It is true that every democratic polity needs periodically to take its territorial boundaries as given (for the time being) in order to effectively deal with internal struggles for power, arrive at and execute democratic decisions and guarantee the rule of law. But if, fundamentally, territorial spaces and borders operationalise independent patterns of relevant social and political relations, it can and should be re-assessed, if necessary, whether they do still adequately map relevant interrelations and interdependencies.

Negotiating constellations of social, political and territorial spaces

Following this line of thought, the idea of building a bridge raises questions, firstly, within the existing setup, with regard to the relations between the centre(s) and peripheries within the UK. Inhabitants of Portpatrick complain about the lack of infrastructure in the South-West of Scotland and Collum Eastwood argues: “The Government want to build a bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland. Well, they would be much better suited building a decent road from Belfast to Derry.” These interventions are a first indication that strengthening the political union and territorial constellation of the UK might require something more and different than building a physical link across a 20-mile expanse of water.

Secondly, the latter comment also indicates that the discussions of the bridge are set within the complex British and Irish debates on drawing and negotiating borders in general. The political setup after the Belfast Agreement recognises several distinct social and political spaces and establishes a specific constellation of (a) a social and political space encompassing the entire UK, (b) a space of social and political relations within Northern Ireland as well as (c) interdependencies and social spaces crossing the Irish border.

The territorial constellation of these Islands consequently and justifiably deviates from the supposed norm of exclusive Westphalian territoriality. It (a) assumes the general political unity of the territories of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland respectively. Simultaneously, it accounts for social spaces that deviate from this dominant framework by (b) considering Northern Ireland as an additional political and territorial space in its own right and by (c) keeping the territorial border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open and mostly invisible. The question is not which is the one and exclusive territory. The main question is how the different spaces are adequately to be negotiated and mapped, weighed and balanced.

The current debates on a potential bridge contribute to these discussions and influence this setup – not so much by fundamentally questioning its elements, but rather by rendering some of the intentionally, yet quietly ambivalent elements of the current setup more visible. This is exemplified by the fact that the bridge itself neither solves nor changes the underlying problem of Brexit and the Irish border: A bridge might provide some alternative means of realising post-Brexit controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But as long as the Irish border is to be kept open, a bridge cannot serve to avoid controls altogether. However, the quotes above indicate that the physical link is nevertheless meant, to some degree at least, to strengthen the connection within the UK, lessen the UK’s internal differences and diminish the recognition of the social spaces crossing the Irish border – and thereby to affect the overall balance of political spaces.

Neither does the other side of the North Channel remain unaffected. The pro-bridge Scottish architect Alan Dunlop promotes the idea of a “Celtic Connection” as an investment into “the true North”. A bridge might strengthen the status of South-West Scotland and its relations to England and the rest of Scotland. If it were to become the space that physically connects England and Northern Ireland, Scotland might even become more closely tied to the Union. Yet again, the bridge by itself does not change anything – the physical structure could even serve as an international link like the Øresund Bridge. Again, much more money and, above all, political will would be needed to strengthen the regional and intra-regional social spaces which make up the Union.

 “Watch this space”?

When negotiating the political future and the territorial constellation of the UK, nuances count: Using a bridge to petrify the current territorial setup and the links between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and thereby to end the debate, won’t work. The British-Irish territorial constellation exemplifies that relying on some pre-existing notions of territory and particularly on notions of Westphalian territoriality is to easy – for critics as well as supporters of the Union alike. If one wants to strengthen the Union, more complex answers are necessary, answers which demonstrate that the joint UK territory is still a relevant, useful and just expression of the complex social and political relations existing in these islands – and which, at the same time, recognise voices, relationships and interdependencies deviating from it.

Baroness Vere of Norbiton amended Johnson’s go-to phrase “Watch this space.” (e.g. Johnson, 19/12/19) saying “… but perhaps do not hold your breath” (07/01/20). This might be the best strategy for dealing with the specific project of building the bridge. The current discussion however indicates that the debate on the different territorial imaginaries across Britain and Ireland is very much alive.

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