Sort it yourself, Heather

No, that’s not me saying it: that’s the message from Enda Kenny to Heather Humphreys about Saunderson’s Sheugh. Recall that Ms Humphreys’s Northern Ireland counterpart has been pressing her to do something about the Ulster Canal:

Moving to implementation would have a positive impact on wider North/South relations. It would provide delivery on a commitment given by the North South Ministerial Council in 2007 in the context of the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive following a five year hiatus. It had not been possible to make visible progress up to now in the absence of planning permission. However, now that the necessary preparatory work has been completed and the required planning permissions are in place, failure to proceed to implementation could be viewed as tantamount to retracting the commitment given in 2007 and reported on regularly at North South Ministerial Council meetings since then.

Strange words to find in a business case, but that’s where they are: in the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s Restoring the Ulster Canal from Lough Erne to Clones: Updated Business Case February 2015. They read to me as if they might have been written by Carál Ní Chuilín’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the draft they sent to DAHG; it might have been tactful to remove them, as they smack of the message I envisaged here:

[…] I suspect that Sinn Féin put a gun to someone’s head: “We’re fed up waiting for our sheugh. Start digging or the baby gets it.”

Presumably, then, Ms Humphreys went to her government colleagues and asked for money to buy a few shovels. It is clear that the government took a decision on the matter:

The Government also remains committed to the Narrow Water bridge project and to developing the Ulster Canal. The Government made a decision in regard to an element of that project today.

That was Enda Kenny in the Dáil on 24 February 2015. Later in the same discussion, he said:

This morning, on a recommendation from the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Government approved a recommendation from Waterways Ireland to allocate €2 million from its resources to address a 2.5 km section of the Ulster Canal. It is a stand-alone project which will demonstrate further evidence of great co-operation. I understand a further 11 km are due for assessment after that.

Now, I am quite ready to believe Mr Kenny’s assertion that Waterways Ireland volunteered to have its already tattered budget cut by another €2 million to pay for dredging the River Finn; I also believe Mr Kenny’s assertions about economic recovery and about the existence of unicorns. I’m less certain that having the southern state pay the entire cost can be called “evidence of great co-operation”. But I am happy to note that no decision has been taken to dig a further 11 km of sheugh to Clones.

It seems, though, that — despite its commitment to sheughery — Mr Kenny’s government does not intend (at least until that economic recovery is further advanced and the unicorn mating season is over) to pay an extra penny or cent to cover the costs. That is very wise, but I suspect that it left Ms Humphreys swinging in the wind: forced to do something to satisfy DCAL and Sinn Féin but unable to extract any extra money from the government. Waterways Ireland then — without, I am sure, any prompting — nobly volunteered to reduce the spending levels agreed in its business plan just two months before, and to sell some unidentified property, to come up with €2 million to save its southern minister.

I have asked DAHG for a list of those government departments to which the business case was sent; I’ll then ask them what they said about it. As it stands, it seems that DAHG’s work of imaginative literature failed to convince the Irish government.

 

Shannon–Erne Waterway traffic

I have reported regularly on Shannon traffic figures [most recently here] but I have paid relatively little attention to the Shannon–Erne Waterway [SEW]. I am therefore grateful to Waterways Ireland for supplying me with the last five years’ monthly traffic figures for Locks 1 and 16 on the SEW. I had some queries about the figures for certain months and I have put them to Waterways Ireland, but I presume that the annual figures are OK.

Shannon–Erne Waterway traffic 2010–2014

Shannon–Erne Waterway traffic 2010–2014

Clearly, not all boats go all the way through: if they did, the figures for Locks 1 and 16 might be the same. The hire bases for Locaboat, Riversdale and Corraquill were all on the Erne side of the summit level; does Lock 1’s excess of traffic over Lock 16 suggest that hirers, perhaps wishing to minimise the number of locks they passed through, headed for the Erne rather than the Shannon? The figures, which I presume are gathered automatically, do not distinguish between private and hired boats.

The other point that strikes me is that the level of traffic is actually quite low. I put in the figures for Pollboy and Athlone locks to allow comparison. SEW traffic is greater than that on the Lough Allen Canal, but it is not much greater than that on the River Suck to Ballinasloe. In that case, WI is [according to its Business Plan 2015] considering automating Pollboy Lock to reduce costs.

Pollboy lock passages 2005–2014

Pollboy lock passages 2005–2014

The SEW locks are already automated, but the costs and benefits may have to be re-examined, especially now that Locaboat has moved from Ballinamore to Quigleys Marina at Killinure on Lough Ree: I presume that that will result in less traffic on the SEW.

Pollboy and the CLones Sheugh

In 2006 Pollboy traffic was used as the basis for estimating likely traffic to Clones on the Ulster Canal’s “SW section”:

The total number of boat parties/groups for the SW section is assumed to be 600. This is based on a comparison with another “offshoot” like the Suck Navigation which had around 1,250 boat parties/groups in 2005 (obtained by dividing the passages through Pollboy Lock by 2) in a much busier section of the whole system. So, for the SW section, a level of around 50% (ie. 600) is regarded as a reasonable assumption.

Waterways Ireland Socio economic Summary Report for the NE and SW Sections of the Ulster Canal Final Report February 2006

Now that Pollboy’s traffic is half what it was in 2005, no doubt the estimate for the number of boats that would visit Clones, if a canal ever reached it, has likewise been halved, which would give an average of about ten boats a week over a seven-month season: four boats every Saturday and one a day for the rest of the week. Folk intending to build restaurants to cater for the cruiser traffic might be wise to reassess their investment plans:

In overall terms, the benefits of waterway restoration derive from the fact that these can facilitate a variety of leisure and recreational activity, that the users will benefit from this activity, and that there will also be wider spin-off benefits in the areas, e.g. facilities such as restaurants etc built to service canal traffic.

Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Restoring the Ulster Canal from Lough Erne to Clones Updated Business Case February 2015

There’s not enough business there for a burger van, never mind a restaurant.

The magic of the Shannon–Erne Waterway

But if Pollboy, the River Suck and Ballinasloe are no longer cited as support for the construction of a Clones Sheugh, the Shannon–Erne Waterway is still used as an example, in that and in other contexts. Take, for example, this:

Shannon–Erne Waterway magic

Shannon–Erne Waterway magic

I’ve nicked that from a slide show called Economic, Recreational and Social Benefits of Rural Waterways in Ireland, which was to be delivered [PDF] by Garret McGrath of Waterways Ireland at the World Canals Conference [PDF] in Milan in 2014.

Now, if the Shannon–Erne Waterway had caused all that construction activity, we’d have to drag Waterways Ireland before the Irish banking enquiry. Skipping lightly over the question of the ghost estates, and the departure of Locaboat from Ballinamore, we come to the real problem with this sort of stuff: the post hoc fallacy. We are invited to believe that

  • a waterway was built
  • prosperity followed
  • so the waterway must have caused the prosperity.

Well, maybe it did and maybe it didn’t, but the argument presented in the slide show isn’t sufficient to prove it. You would have to check to see whether there were any other possible explanations: any other changes that might have resulted in all that construction.

Along the Shannon–Erne Waterway, I can think of two other possible factors: Sean Quinn’s business empire and the Upper Shannon Rural Renewal Scheme, a tax dodge that applied in Leitrim, Longford, Roscommon, Cavan and Sligo, five of the six counties that had the highest rates of vacant housing (excluding holiday houses). So there are two problems here:

  • much of that construction activity may have been driven by tax breaks rather than by the existence of a nearby waterway
  • the construction itself may not have had beneficial effects.

You can read more about that here, noting in particular, on the map, the areas around the upper Shannon and the SEW with vacancy rates of over 25%; you might wonder whether Waterways Ireland is wise to claim credit for housing over-development.

But my main concern here is a different one: that, if you want to claim credit for economic benefits that followed waterways development, you have to measure the benefits and subtract those attributable to other factors, such as Sean Quinn and the Rural Renewal Scheme. Then it would be useful if you compared the remaining benefits with the cost of constructing your waterway: it might then be possible to say that waterways development is a good investment.

It may be that such a study has been done on the SEW, but if it has I don’t know where it is; I would like to see it if it exists. Until then, I regard this sort of thing, from DAHG’s Business Case, as drivel:

The broad existence and nature of the potential socio-economic benefits of canals and restored waterways are therefore well established and not really at issue.

Sorry, minister: that’s rubbish. As far as I know no proper evaluation has ever been carried out on the costs and benefits of any restored or new-built Irish waterway. So you’re not getting away with that one.

 

Why DCAL shoved the Sheugh?

It is possible that the NI Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has been putting pressure on the republic’s Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, to get it to start shovelling Saunderson’s Sheugh, because DCAL was aware of its own impending demise. According to Peter Robinson, speaking to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 2 March 2015:

The Stormont House Agreement of 23 December 2014 included a commitment that the number of Departments should be reduced from 12 to nine in time for the 2016 Assembly election, with the new allocation of departmental functions to be agreed by the parties. […]

The Department for Communities will combine the existing functions of DSD with most DCAL functions, with the exceptions being inland fisheries and waterways. […]

The Department for Infrastructure will exercise the existing responsibilities of DRD, but will also take on a range of functions from other existing Departments: vehicle regulation, road safety and Driver and Vehicle Agency functions from DOE; the Rivers Agency from DARD; inland waterways from DCAL; and, from OFMDFM, the strategic investment unit and several regeneration sites, including the Crumlin Road Gaol.

I’m sure that, for some waterways folk, it would be a relief to be back in with engineers. And, if the Department for Infrastructure goes to a Unionist in 2016, all sorts of things might change. But by then there might be enough Sheughery to get Carál and Heather reelected, and it might not matter if there were no more money after the River Finn had been dredged to Castle Saunderson.

Shannon history

Folk interested in the history of the Shannon Navigation, and in particular in the work of the Shannon Commissioners in the 1840s, may like to get hold of an article “Steam, the Shannon and the Great British breakfast”, published in the Journal of the Railway & Canal Historical Society Vol 38 Part 4 No 222 March 2015.

Impractical Boat Owner

We list only walk-ashore berths with mast-up access from the coast.

Thus Practical Boat Owner 585 April 2015 in its 2015 Marina price guide.

I do not know how a yacht can reach Kinnego or Sandy Bay Marina on Lough Neagh, from the coast, with its mast up.

They’re taking the piss

Of the cost of land to be acquired for a canal to Clones:

We understand that the costs of land acquisition are based on the purchase of 46 hectares of land (equivalent to approx. 114 acres), the majority of which is poor quality agricultural land for a total estimated cost of €6m. This is equivalent to an average price for acquisition of just over €52,500 per acre, although the total acquisition costs would also include legal costs associated with the process.

Nevertheless, an average price of €52,500 would appear to be very high compared with the average price at which agricultural land is currently sold in the area. If an average price of €25,000 per acre (including legal costs) was applied, then total land acquisition costs would be reduced to €2.85m. This is still a generous assumption. The average RoI price of agricultural land in 2014 was less than €10,000. [Irish Farmers’ Journal Agricultural Land Price Report 2013 January 2014]

That’s from Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Restoring the Ulster Canal from Lough Erne to Clones: Updated Business Case February 2015. Hats off to Fitzpatrick Associates for checking and for leaving the information in the final report. I have written to Waterways Ireland to ask for more information:

I would be grateful if you could let me have a list of

  • the names and addresses of the owners of the land you propose to buy to build a canal to Clones

  • map references or maps showing the location of that land

  • the size and nature of each plot of land you propose to acquire

  • the amount you propose to pay for each plot

  • the justification for each such amount.

Actually, I have the list of landowners in Co Monaghan, because it’s in the planning application. I can’t find the equivalent on the NI Planning Service’s website because I can’t work out how to search by applicant.

The stony grey soil of Monaghan must be worth more than one might think. Either that or this proposal is a steaming dunghill.

DAHG and the unicorns

In purely quantifiable monetary terms, it is clear from these estimates that the project has a very significant capital cost of circa €46m and that the quantified annual net economic benefits are at most €323.5k per annum. The latter thus covers the annual revenue costs of €308.8k per annum only. Applying any cost benefit analysis, whether payback period or net present cost, will result in a large negative for the project.

The justification of the project therefore relies largely on the unquantifiable benefits associated with the project and the disadvantaged area in which these will occur.

Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Restoring the Ulster Canal from Lough Erne to Clones: Updated Business Case February 2015

The project will give this border region, which has suffered greatly from economic deprivation, a much needed boost in terms of job creation and tourism. There is significant potential for growth in the waterways based tourism market and I have no doubt that the reopening of this section of the canal will help to attract significant numbers of visitors to the area.

Heather Humphreys quoted in Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht press release Minister Humphreys secures Government approval to restore Ulster Canal from Upper Lough Erne to Castle Saunderson 24 February 2015

If “quantified annual net economic benefits are at most €323.5k per annum” for a sheugh running all the way to Clones, it is hard to see how a shorter sheugh to Castle Saunderson is going to result in “a much needed boost in terms of job creation and tourism”.

But that’s where the unicorns come in: it will all happen by magic.

What DAHG knows about waterways history

Commercial traffic on all waterways in Ireland ended during the first half of the 20th century.

For certain values of “half”.

Waterways Ireland and Erne Bye-laws

Waterways Ireland gets slightly tougher. Basil McCrea will be disappointed.

Shagging the Shannon to shovel the sheugh

On 24 February 2015, the Irish Times published an article headed

First stage of Ulster Canal restoration due to begin in April
Some €2m will be spent on a section of the Shannon-Erne waterway

It ended with these sentences:

The €2 million will be drawn from the funds of Waterways Ireland, a north-south implementation body. It will carry out the dredging of a 2km section of the Erne river and the construction of a new navigation arch at Derrykerrib Bridge to accommodate boat traffic, with a target completion date of April 2016.

It may be that the Irish Times doesn’t know very much about waterways. If it did, it might have been aware that, on 18 December 2014, the North South Ministerial Council approved Waterways Ireland’s Business Plan 2015, which included this Action:

3.6 Progress the restoration of the Ulster Canal on an incremental basis. €1,000

So on 18 December 2014 the North South Ministerial Council — which for all practical waterways purposes consists of Heather Humphreys, the southern minister for waterways and other stuff, and Carál Ní Chuilín, her northern counterpart — approved the allocation of €1,000 to the Ulster Canal in Waterways Ireland’s 2015 plan. Yet, just over two months later, they expect Waterways Ireland to spend about €2 million on the blasted thing, about €1.5 million of it in 2015.

The southern government’s party of treasure-seekers seems to have disappeared entirely: at any rate it doesn’t seem to have found any money. And the two ministers’ departments have presided over successive years of cuts in Waterways Ireland’s current and capital budgets, cuts whose effect has been worsened by the woefully inadequate provision for an ever-increasing pensions bill. Waterways Ireland’s Corporate Plan 2014–2016 shows a cumulative increase of €984,000 in pension costs over the period of the plan, which wipes out a lot of savings in other areas.

I suppose that curiosity is a weakness in journalism. Were it not so, two questions might have struck the Irish Times:

  • how is Waterways Ireland to come up with €2 million out of an ever-decreasing budget?
  • why has Waterways Ireland’s Business Plan been so violently disrupted only two months after it was approved? The €2 million is half WI’s total capital budget spending in for the republic in 2015; it will be recalled that the republic, in a fit of more than usually nitwitted arrogance, undertook to pay for a canal to Clones, which is what the powers-that-be are pretending Saunderson’s Sheugh is.

I can answer the first question, at least for 2015, during which WI expects to spend €1,416,000:

  • €166,000 will come from Heather Humphreys’s department
  • €900,000 will (WI hopes) come from the sale of property assets
  • €150,000 will come from the postponement of an IT programme
  • €220,000 will come from the postponement of non-navigation works on the Shannon
  • €90,000 will come from postponing development of the Barrow Blueway.

I don’t know what property assets WI can sell to bring in the requsite amount. It seems that damage to everyday navigation has been avoided, but the Shannon and the Barrow are to suffer to pay for dredging a river that merely provides a small extension of the Erne navigation.

As for the second question, I suspect that Sinn Féin put a gun to someone’s head: “We’re fed up waiting for our sheugh. Start digging or the baby gets it.” The baby might have been Heather Humphreys’s Dáil seat or it might have been something more important. And the gun was, I suspect, a message accompanying the “business case” prepared by the northern department and sent to the southern. [I have asked both departments for copies and other information.]

Arthur Aughey, then lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster, wrote in Magill magazine in February 2001:

Puritanical republicans grieve at the thought that the hunger strikers [of 1981] died to achieve the Waterways Ireland Implementation Board.

I suspect that the less puritanical republicans, those who operate in the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland, are now demanding that the southern government deliver, through the “Waterways Ireland Implementation Board”, what nitwitted previous governments promised. It’s a pity that Sinn Féin and those previous governments couldn’t have come up with a more sensible list of waterways and other infrastructural projects.