British prime minister Boris Johnson's decision to drive forward with the idea of a bridge or tunnel between Northern Ireland and Britain has provoked mixed reactions in the North, ranging from enthusiasm to cynicism.
While Mr Johnson’s aspiration initially was for a mutli-billion pound bridge between the islands, it appears his government may now be tilting in favour of a tunnel.
"I imagine that you would need to do a tunnel because of weather factors," the British transport secretary Grant Shapps said on Wednesday.
While SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described the proposal as a "budget busting fantasy tunnel" that could cost more than £33 billion, Mr Johnson appears intent on keeping the concept high on his agenda.
It was announced that two engineering professors are to lead a study into the feasibility of such a link, outlining possible costs, timescales and the work involved. The work is being carried out as part of a major transport connectivity review relating to Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales conducted by British Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy.
The academics examining the feasibility of a tunnel or bridge are former HS2 and British Crossrail chairman Douglas Oakervee and former vice-president of Jacobs Engineering Gordon Masterton.
No definitive costing for developing either a bridge or tunnel has been provided and estimates have ranged from £8 billion to £33 billion or more, with a tunnel believed to be the lower cost option.
The 45km stretch between Larne and Portpatrick in Scotland has been mooted as a possible location for such a link. Another suggestion involved two tunnels, one from England to the Isle of Man, and a second from the Isle of Man to Co Down.
Deep sea trench
The Isle of Man option, if taken up, would avoid the Beaufort Dyke, a deep sea trench in the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland containing a million tonnes of dumped World War II munitions.
Mr Shapps on Wednesday told the BBC a tunnel appeared to be the most practical option because the harsh weather conditions in the Irish Sea could regularly force the closure of a bridge.
"What we are talking about here is bridging or tunnelling a distance from here to France where notably we have built a tunnel. I don't think it should be controversial . . . to make sure all parts of the United Kingdom are connected together as easily as possible," he said.
The Northern Ireland-Scotland link was mooted by the DUP in 2015 and later received a positive response from Mr Johnson.
DUP South Antrim MP Paul Girvan welcomed the latest development, saying such a link could "address one of the busiest and most expensive shipping corridors anywhere in Europe".
Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the discussion was an attempt to deflect attention from the Irish Sea trade problems caused by Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol.
“The pipe dream bridge between the North and Scotland is a smokescreen for the Brexit fallout amongst the unionists who engineered it on both sides of the Irish Sea,” she said.
Mr Eastwood, who raised the issue in the House of Commons, said the project could cost more than £33 billion.
“This, at a time when our road and rail network has been decimated by decades of underinvestment, is patently unacceptable. That resource could be used to better connect our communities and our islands without a fixed link.”
Alliance infrastructure spokesman Andrew Muir MLA said the feasibility study was a distraction floated by Mr Johnson's government that was "more about politics than reality".
“He is aware announcing a feasibility study into the bridge will get people talking, spark lots of debate, but is ultimately a road to nowhere,” he said.