The Ulster Canal: abandon it now

I have now completed an examination of the proposals for the reconstruction of a section of the Ulster Canal from Lough Erne to the town of Clones in Co Monaghan. My conclusions are linked from this page, which also contains a brief summary of my views.

Ulster Canal 0: overview presents the main points of the argument in about 3,600 words. It does not contain most of the quotations and omits the references; it also omits some sections of the argument. However, it’s about one fifth of the length of the whole thing.

Ulster Canal 1 to Ulster Canal 10 present the argument under ten headings, amounting to about 18,500 words in all. That may be too much for most people. There are no photos or other illustrations, and most of the argument is about economics or politics.

It will be clear that I do not have full information; I will be glad to have Comments from anyone who can fill the gaps or correct anything I’ve got wrong.

For anyone who can’t wait, here is a copy of the summary of my views.


The Irish government has been pushing, since the 1990s, for the restoration of the Ulster Canal. Several studies have been commissioned; all of them show that the project is uneconomic. At no stage has either the UK or the Northern Ireland administration shown any willingness to commit funding to the project. As a result, the Irish government has scaled back its ambitions, proposing to fund the construction of a canal from Lough Erne to Clones in Co Monaghan: it would cross the border several times, but it would pass through no significant conurbation on the northern side.

However, this scaled-back project makes even less sense than the proposal for full restoration, and there is no reason to believe that the canal will ever get any further than Clones. The Irish government might, I suppose, decide to dig on to Monaghan, as a form of famine relief work, but there is no evidence that the Northern Ireland Executive will ever put money into completing the route to Lough Neagh.

The costs of the proposal have not been reexamined for many years (or, if they have, the results have not been published), and the economic analyses may overstate the likely benefits. Even if they are accurate, though, the main benefits seem to come from casual visitors rather than from boaters. The benefits will go to service providers in the area, rather than to the waterways authority, but even if they went to Waterways Ireland they would not pay the running costs, never mind repaying the capital cost. The project has failed every economic test to which it has been subjected: it simply does not provide the sort of return that would justify the project.

There seems to be some doubt over the source of the proposed funding. The Irish government said that it canal to Clones would be paid for by the Irish Exchequer, but it later said that Waterways Ireland would sell surplus assets to pay some or all of the cost. It is not clear that Waterways Ireland’s surplus assets would, in current economic conditions, bring in enough money; nor is it clear that the Department of Finance is willing to make up any shortfall.

There might be something to be said for acquiring the land and creating a walking and cycling route, but the current proposal for a canal to Clones is utterly unjustifiable and should be dropped.

21 responses to “The Ulster Canal: abandon it now

  1. Pingback: ~~~~~~ ~~~~~~ » Die tollen Pläne zum Ulster Canal

  2. Here is an interesting piece about the current supply of and demand for office space in Dublin, which might affect Waterways Ireland’s prospects of making money from the sale of surplus properties:


  3. The Ulster Canal project makes no sense because it’s a dead end and therefore NOBODY will use it. Unless it is restored to lough neagh and is big enough to accomodate Erne and Shannon sized cabin cruisers it’s a waste of tax payers money. The southern ireland canals are a disaster, why waste more money building another diaster that nobody will use.

  4. Brian,

    Thank you for calling a spade a spade. Any chance you could tell Colin Becker and the IWAI this?

  5. This blog re the ulster canal is misguided and wrong.

    Firstly the canal will be to the same gauge as the SEW, hence cruisers will be able to reach clones, which in itself is a very nice destination.

    Secondly arguments based on pure ecomonics are nonsense, with that justification you could shut down every canal in Ireland and the shannon navigation too. Then all the railways. Then the buses.

    This is about improving and restoring our heritage, it will be a fab to Lough Neagh and onwards to the sea. I have no doubt that the Northern Ireland Assembly will put money behind the project.


  6. I gravely fear that your post is based on emotion rather than on information. Perhaps you have not yet had time to read the full 18,500 words I have written on the subject?

    I have said nothing about the gauge of the Ulster Canal, although someone who commented did so. I have read all the published reports on the subject, I am aware that it was proposed to restore it to the same gauge as the Shannon–Erne Waterway and I said nothing to the contrary.

    Persons who want other people to give them money, eg by getting the taxpayer to fund their hobbies, are inclined to say that the economic case should be ignored. I see no reason why citizens, in the midst of major economic difficulties, should put money into a project that, even according to the reports commissioned by the project’s promoters, will not provide an adequate return. That there are already sunk costs in other waterways does not justify wasting more money. Economics is about the allocation of scarce resources between competing investments; there are many better uses for €35 million than building a canal to Clones, especially when the state is paying over 6% to borrow money.

    I have suggested a cheaper way of getting tourists to visit Clones: by providing free taxis for boaters who, having reached Belturbet, would like to visit Clones. The capital cost would be nil and the running costs would be lower than those of a canal. I have also suggested that the land might be acquired and a walking and cycling route constructed; that would provide most of the benefits claimed for the restoration, but at a fraction of the price, and without having to damage locks or bridges.

    As for the Northern Ireland Assembly, I have read every debate on the subject, the minutes of every NSMC meeting and the subsequent statements by Northern Ireland ministers to the Assembly. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Northern Ireland Executive will ever commit a penny to the restoration of the Ulster Canal. And, given the forthcoming cuts in Her Majesty’s Government’s subventions to Northern Ireland, I see no likelihood of a change in that position.

    If you want to visit the sea off the north coast of Ireland, you can put your boat on a truck and get it craned in.


  7. No doubt someone will see these pages ….


  8. Connor: thanks for your comment.

    I don’t entirely agree with you: I think that some boats would go there, but I don’t think that their economic contribution would be sufficient to justify the cost of reconstruction. I understand that the canal would be built to the same width as the Shannon–Erne Waterway, but I am not clear on the proposed water and air draught. The southern canals are, I agree, underused, but it would be possible to get more use made of them. However, I have seen no sign that Waterways Ireland has any plan to stimulate their use as navigations (rather than as venues for fireworks displays and so on).


  9. I would love to see the project completed but if it was to be done it would need to be done right and go to lough neagh. The route of the canal is very beautiful and I think it would be beneficial to local economies. I have not studied the economics of the project but I would guess it would be very expensive and would never pay off. Sadly because of this I dont think it will ever happen. I also dont believe that there would be united willingness to complete the project from landowners, governments and especially the public. In summary, I am all for it, but the economics dont add up and the money could be spent better elsewhere. Take the Navan Fort Centre in Armagh for example, locals wanted it, as did the council, it got funding but was doomed for closure because economically it will never work. The tourism level in Ireland is not high enough to sustain such developments.

  10. What is meant by the comment that the Irish government would could consider the work as some kind of famine relief? I don’t understand.

  11. A construction project that is known ab initio to be useless but that provides employment for the starving peasantry. A variant of the advice from John Maynard Keynes in his The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (Macmillan, London 1936):

    If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.

    Of course in a competition for scarce resources, it would be better to find the project that maximised the return on investment. The Ulster Canal would be unlikely to win. bjg

  12. I don’t really see the point all all this moaning naysaying. The canal network throughout the British Isles is slowly being restored (in recent years we’ve had the Royal Canal, Droitwich Canals, Huddersfield Canal… and there’s a dozen more projects ongoing – Boyne Navigation, Cotswolds Canals, Wey & Arun, Hereford & Gloucester, Chesterfield, Monouthshire…). A few of these have had some state funding, but most are just provite donations and charitable grants. The reason for this is because there are people out there who like canals! And want to be able to cruise along them! They also appeal to anglers, cyclists, walkers…They’re not designed to ‘make money’ and be ‘economically viable’ – they’re there to bring pleasure to people and enhance quality of life. If you don’t like canals then stay at home listening to Chris Rea albums or smoking crack or whatever else amuses you.

  13. Please send us the money now.

    In Ireland, the proposal is that the taxpayer in the republic pay the entire cost of the canal to Clones. No private donations, no charitable grants, no volunteers working on the project. And, if you’ve been keeping up with the economic news, you may have seen that the state does not actually have €45 million to spare. Now, if you can round up €45 million in cash and in voluntary work, that’s fine: as far as I’m concerned you’re welcome to spend it on a canal to Clones if you want to do so. But it seems to me that the taxpayer may find better things to do with the money. bjg

  14. /shrugs/ well that is a reason to set up alternative private/chartiable sector funding, not to abandon the restoration. For example, state funding (i.e. by British Waterways) of the restoration of the Cotswold Canals was dropped a couple of years ago… but they’re still at it! Raising the money themselves. It will take many more years, but it will happen eventually. My closest canal is the Wey & Arun, which has been getting restored by volunteers since 1973! They’ve gotten a few miles to navigable status, but they don’t envisage completion for another 20 or 30 years. But so what – the restoration in itself is a hobby for some people (just like boating).
    One of the problems in Northern Ireland particularly is that the public sector is so ludicrously bloated and nobody does anything off their own gumption (apart from enterprising paramiltaries and those helpful insurance schemes they run for small businessmen).

  15. The good people of Clones show no inclination to seek such alternative funding, relying on the cargo to arrive. There are, I suggest, very few people in Ireland interested in restoring canals but quite a lot interested in having the taxpayer do the job, which is just as you say it is in Northern Ireland. The folk on the Boyne (where there are special circumstances, viz the ownership of much of the navigation by An Taisce) are about the only ones doing the sort of thing done on restorations in England, although there are some groups doing small-scale tidying up. I don’t thus describe their work dismissively, but it’s a long way from what British restoration bodies do. I’m all in favour of volunteer-led projects, although I am myself quite happy examining the artefacts on non-restored waterways. bjg

  16. Yes, from what I read, restoration of the Boyne Navigation seems to be progressing slowly but usefully and if they keep it up, it will be navigable again (eventually…) Towpath restoration of the Newry Canal has at least created a well-used cycle route. Restoration on the Lagan however seems to be taking place in a rather ill-thought out manner – expensive restoration of random locks, without any restoration of actual navigation. English & Welsh precedent shows that this achieves little but wasting funds: within 10 years the lock gates will be rotting and leaking and needing restored all over again!
    When restoring derelict waterways, it makes hugely more sense to start at the end connected to the existing network, then each incrementally restored section can be brought into actual use as it is completed, rather than just languish in isolation…… which is precisely what’s being proposed in making a first step to Clones. Personally I’d suggest they stop wasting money on the Lagan and focus mile by mile on getting the Erne reconnected to Lough Neagh.

  17. I think the politics preclude that: if there’s a nationalist waterway (the Ulster, pushed by the Free State and to be managed by one of those suspicious north-south bodies), then there has to be a unionist waterway too, the Lagan.

    I agree with your general point that it’s best to start at one end, but I don’t think the Ulster Canal will ever get beyond Clones. And even if it did, it is doubtful whether it would turn out to be a good investment. If, on the other hand, restoration were being managed by a local waterway group, with voluntary labour and a mix of sources of funding, the economics might be entirely different.

    One of the points that I don’t think gets enough consideration is the non-fungibility of Irish boats. In England and Wales you can rely on a large population of narrowboats, but you can’t do that in Ireland, where the large cruiser dominates the Shannon and, I think, cruisers large and small (including fast day-boats and sports boats) dominate the Erne. I’m not convinced that some of them can or will go slowly enough for a canal, while I’m equally unconvinced that narrowboats are suitable for Lough Neagh. And the notion, put forward by some ministers, that boats could go from the inland waterways out to sea is completely bonkers.


  18. Yes, if the continuing farce of Ulster Scotch (e.g. using taxpayers’ money to “translate” Stormont business into ludicrous phonetic spellings of an Antrim accent), tit-for-tat awards of ‘City’ status (“If you’re having Lisburn then we want Newry!!”), or even hospital provision in Belfast are anything to go by, I fear you are very much correct about unionists wanting a protestant restoration on the Lagan to match anything done at Clones. (Indeed, was part of the restoration of Lock 3 on the Lagan, or at least the lock-keeper’s cottage, not personally funded by Iris Robinson for her teenager lover?! The mind boggles…)
    I also agree about the boat fungibility. I’m no expert on such matters, but it seems the only comparable situation in England is at The Wash, where occasionally a small flotilla of enthusiasts will hire a pilot, and have themselves escorted from the Middle Level navigations across the Wash to Lincoln. It’s not something the casual holiday hirer could ever do… Could a first-time hirer make it across Lough Neagh in one piece? Weil’s Disease aside, and assuming you don’t take a tumble into a lock, canals are relatively safe places – fall into one and the water is usually only up to your knees… I assuming Lough Neagh’s a bit deeper than that?

  19. Actually Lough Neagh is quite shallow (as lakes go), but certainly deeper than a canal. It is big enough to have a horizon and it’s a wide open space with relatively little shelter, where short steep waves can get up quickly. It has no navigation authority (although many shoals are marked and there is a pilot book) and a previous NI Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure rejected a proposal to create one. bjg

  20. I guess the bottom line is: could you sink/capsize out there if the weather went bad or your hit some shoals? And could you drown if you fell in?
    If that’s the case (and I suspect it is), then the notion of happy holiday hirer newbies wending their way inland between Belfast and Limerick (or even Belfast – Coleraine – Newry) is a bit problematic! Hirers would need training and a lot of insurance – which would increase costs substantially.

  21. You certainly could. Hirers in cruisers do generally survive on the Shannon and Erne, but I’m not sure that the boats are the best choice for extended canal cruising; the Shannon–Erne has relatively little actual canal. I’ve done the Grand and Barrow in a cruiser myself, but I got a weed hatch and twin wide-bore water filters fitted. Your point on training is a good one: learning to cope with one type of waterway is one thing, but coping with several requires more time and effort. bjg

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