Sinn Féin’s sheughs

I have remarked before that Sinn Féin seems to be devoted to the leading-edge communications technology of the eighteenth century, the canal. I have no idea why it takes such an interest in the subject, but further evidence of its devotion has emerged in the last week.

The Fermanagh Herald reported, on 5 May 2013, that Michelle Gildernew MP [whose Sinn Féin page seems to have disappeared] listed the Clones Sheugh amongst the jobs on which European taxpayers should spend money. She did so at a meeting with Colette Fitzgerald, head of the European Commission’s Belfast office; Ms Fitzgerald made polite noises but did not promise any money.

But Sinn Féin does not confine itself to Clones. Carál Ní Chuilín MLA, whose Sinn Féin web page is live but well out of date, is (as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure) the NI minister responsible for Waterways Ireland. We learn from the Londonderry Sentinel that she wanted Waterways Ireland to be landed with responsibility for the Strabane Sheugh.

Happily, the North South Ministerial Council shot that down, but the minister wants to see whether the unfortunate Strategic Investment Board can find any loot for the canal. It might be better if they were asked to find a use for it first: even if it were restored, it would be unlikely ever to see more than a few small boats in a year. It might provide a walking route, for which (pace the Clones dudes) neither locks nor water would be needed, but the Londonderry Sentinel leaves me unclear whether the towpath is usable. It says:

A year ago the Sentinel reported the ‘tow path’ section of the Strabane Canal was to open for the first time in 50 years in June 2012.

It doesn’t say that the towpath did reopen, which seems odd; a Belfast Telegraph article of June 2012 says that it was reopened temporarily but WalkNI says that it is being restored. So is it open or not? I’d like to know, because I favour walking routes along unrestored canals, as does the learned IndustrialHeritageIreland, which also notes encouraging interest from Monaghan County Council.

5 responses to “Sinn Féin’s sheughs

  1. Mr tarka king

    Back in 2010 the Strategic Investment Board had a look at the Ulster canal project and was asked for an opinion on feasibility. Within three weeks an outline plan had been compiled, focusing on the Benburb gorge, a 55 minute drive from centre of Belfast. Four pools of finance (dormant funds) had also been identified as suitable and of sufficient capacity.
    The gorge contains a flight of six locks as well as a potentially serious canoe slalom course where the Blackwater drops around 60 ft in about a mile down a series of cascades so there is lots to see. However, the SIB team needed ministerial instruction before the organisation could seriously engage. Suddenly, without warning, the entire group involved were taken off the project, posted to London under other employment and not replaced.
    I think I am correct in saying there was initial opposition to the idea of re-opening the Shannon-Erne link based on the belief there were no boats to go on it. Normally one doesn’t see seagulls in Co Monaghan, but start ploughing a field and they appear in minutes. I would suggest the same for a re-opened open ribbon of water with proper destination at either end-boats will appear out of the woods,

  2. I think you are avoiding the point, or at least eliding several different points.

    If HMG wants to restore the Ulster Canal, at the expense of HM taxpayers, that’s fine by me: it won’t cost me any money. Similarly, if Mrs Merkel (whom god preserve) wants to help out, at German taxpayers’ expense, that’s fine too. (The Shannon-Erne Waterway’s money seems to have come largely from external sources.) But the last crowd of nitwits that ran the Free State undertook to rebuild the Clones Sheugh at the expense of the Irish taxpayer, so it is legitimate to ask whether sinking money in the Clones Sheugh would (a) earn an economic return and (b) provide the best possible return, better than that available on possible alternative applications of the money. It is not enough that finance be available: the “investment” must provide a return.

    As it happens, only the fact that the Irish government cannot divert money to the project at the moment is saving the Irish taxpayer from wasting money. If or when funding becomes available, it seems likely that the Irish government will press ahead, for reasons known only to itself (and perhaps to Sinn Féin). But that will not make the Clones Sheugh a good investment for the Irish taxpayer; furthermore, it will not provide a basis for viable businesses between Lough Erne and Clones, and I would advise any potential investor to buy something else instead (I understand that there is a bridge in New York for sale …). As Fitzpatrick Associates put it in their 2007 Restoring the Ulster Canal: Outline Business Case and Updated Economic Appraisal – Final Report, “In terms of formal quantified economic appraisal, all restoration options involve significant net costs over benefits.”

    So the fact that the SIB could nick money from somewhere is irrelevant to the travails of the Irish taxpayer. It would also be irrelevant to the travails of British or German taxpayers, if they were paying for it, but (although I am of course sympathetic) they’re not my main concern.

    Your point about usage is insufficiently precise. The question is not whether boats would use the thing (and you seem to be assuming that the entire canal will be rebuilt, something I expect to see the day after hell freezes over and the peace walls come down in Belfast) but whether the new facility can attract enough additional boats to justify the investment. If it doesn’t, it simply displaces spending (and other benefits) from other parts of the island. I believe that there is already enough leisure waterway in both jurisdictions and that spending public money to extend it is unjustified, especially as both private and hire boat activity is not what it was. A new waterway would displace some activity, and attract a small number of enthusiasts from GB and the continent, but I fear that the delights of the mid-Ulster countryside are insufficient to attract large numbers of new users and, in particular, of free-spending tourists. After all, were it otherwise, tourists would already be flocking to Smithborough and Caledon — and you wouldn’t need a new canal.


  3. Mr tarka king

    Is it not logical that the two waterway systems would benefit by being linked via a re-opened Ulster canal in it’s entirety. – ‘The whole being greater then the sum of the parts’?
    The Erne-Clones 10 mile stretch is a dog-leg on it’s own and makes no obvious sense.
    The facts surrounding the tertiary impact of re-opening the entire waterway through to lough Neagh is what the European Investment Bank studied when the project was subjected to Interreg 3 application scrutiny back in 2005. The project expenditure application was nursed through the various hoops by the North-South Ministerial Council in Armagh.
    However, back home the famous Green Rule Book (bureaucratic bible) confines capital repayment to be calculated solely from proceeds of boat hire and mooring fees. Acceleration of regional exchequer return in short and long term has to be ignored.
    Mid-Ulster’s economy is owed a visible shot in the arm of some sort and something of the scale of the completed canal is required. The idea of restoring the waterway was first proposed by the Blackwater Regional Partnership back in 1997 and, so far, nobody has come up with a better proposal round which all sectors of the population can become involved.

  4. You don’t seem to consider the non-fungibility of Irish waterways boats. Sailing boats, especially the larger ones, are unhappy in canals. So are the small fast boats that are so popular on the Erne: they would destroy the banks of a canal. So too would modern fast cruisers, some of which find it almost impossible to steer at canal speeds (3 mph). English narrowboats are very good on canals but not on lakes unless the weather is good, and Lough Neagh is not a particularly promising cruising ground for hire-boats.

    Furthermore, people’s spare time is limited. It takes a week to get from the lower Shannon to Lough Erne; a fortnight’s holiday could consist of a trip there and back. Even from the upper Shannon, a visit to Lower Lough Erne harbours could take a fortnight. It would be better to get a trailboat. And I note that you don’t suggest that there are any attractions along the Ulster Canal itself.

    But, again, even if every Shannon and Erne boat visited Lough Neagh every year, that would merely displace economic activity from one area to another: there would be no net benefit, so there is no point in building the canal.

    You have several times referred to rejections of proposals for building the thing, or funding the building. It seems to me to be just possible that the reason the project has been rejected by everybody other than the nitwits of the last Fianna Fáil government is that it is actually a rotten project: the numbers don’t add up, it is very bad value, it won’t deliver the benefits that its advocates assert. I would be more sympathetic to stimulating the mid-Ulster economy (which isn’t “owed” anything) if there were signs of other stimulus efforts, or even of a willingness to consider alternatives. Instead, the case comes across as a determination to build the Ulster Canal come hell or high water, and an effort to find plausible-sounding justifications for an assault on the public purse. As for involving “all sectors of the population”, I see no evidence of that.

    A programme of assisted emigration might be more useful.


  5. Pingback: Canal restoration: Strabane and Broharris | Irish waterways history

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