I pointed out recently that some newspapers seemed to have reproduced, unquestioningly, what may have been press releases about the Clones Sheugh. On 25 April the Irish Independent, and other media, had a story, attributed to the Press Association, beginning:
Part of the cross-border Ulster Canal which has not been used for 80 years is to reopen, it has been revealed.
That followed the granting of planning permission, in Northern Ireland, for those portions of the proposed canal to Clones that lie with HM Realm. A couple of weeks earlier, Sinn Féin had been calling for taxpayers’ money to be spent on the project. And Brian Cassells was quoted in the Belfast Telegraph on 27 April 2013 in praise of walking in the country. I wondered whether there was a coordinated campaign to put pressure on the Irish government to come up with the loot for the Clones Sheugh: whether the jungle drums were being orchestrated.
Paying the piper
But none of those stories made it clear that the Irish taxpayers, who had been volunteered to pay for those sheugh, could not afford it. Then, last week, we had several stories making that very point — but without any reference to the stories of the previous week:
- Downturn hits Ulster Canal plans [Press Association]
- Downturn hits Ulster Canal plans [Belfast Telegraph]
- Recession hits plans to fund cross-border canal [Irish Independent]. This story is the same as that of the Indo‘s sister-paper the Belfast Telegraph, but with minor adjustments for a southern readership.
The Indo gives the cost of the Clones Sheugh as €35m and the BelTel as £29.6m; it is not clear whether they are repeating an outdated estimate or whether Waterways Ireland’s engineers have provided a new estimate.
Please put a penny
Both stories repeated the current Irish government’s current rather confusing story about where the money was to come from:
- sale of Waterways Ireland assets (which Irish ministers are not empowered to sell)
- annual budgetary allocations to Waterways Ireland
- income from commercialisation of Waterways Ireland assets, which (as I interpret it) is not the same as revenue from the sale of assets.
But it is the journalism that concerns me again here. Newspapers have printed a story saying that there is no money for the Clones Sheugh but they have ignored their own stories, of only a week earlier, saying that the project was going ahead.
Given that, I find it difficult to believe that the newspapers (and the Press Association) have anyone taking an active interest in the Clones Sheugh: researching, investigating and reporting. I suspect — and I accept, of course, that I may be entirely wrong — that on both occasions the journos were simply presented with press releases, probably pre-digested.
Calling the tune
I think it would be interesting to know who has been issuing these various press releases and why they have been doing do. So I’d like journos to tell us the context and the background: that would be more interesting to read, and more worthy of the journos’ efforts, than the reproduction of the releases’ contents.
I don’t know who sent out the first set of releases, saying that the Ulster Canal was to go ahead, but I suspect that the second set was a damage-control effort by the current Irish minister. I suspect that he wanted to dampen down unrealistic expectations without actually the Clones enthusiasts to get stuffed (whether for the short or for the long term). What happened in between the two sets of releases was that a member of the minister’s own party, Heather Humphreys [FG Cavan-Monaghan], asked a Useful Question in the Dáil. That was no doubt entirely coincidental, and not in any way prompted by the minister or by the FG managers, but it allowed the minister to get his story out.
South of the border
The occasion was a Topical Issue Debate on Cross-Border Projects on 1 May 2013. Ms Humphreys was able to associate herself with the views of the local supporters of the project (who are not paying for it), to say how important it was and to claim that getting planning permission was a significant step forward. Which it might be, but it doesn’t help the project to get past the financing obstacle, although she did say that the government was hoping to nick some Euroloot (from PEACE IV; here’s some stuff about PEACE III) for the project.
The minister responded with a history of the proposed rebuilding; then he said [I’ve added extra paragraph breaks]:
The planning applications for this project are now likely to be determined in May 2013. The compulsory purchase order, CPO, land maps are well progressed. It is estimated that the CPO process will take approximately 12 months and, depending on the funding in place, the CPO process may proceed incrementally.
A decision on the construction of the project and on whether to have a single large contract or a number of smaller contracts will also have to be made.
As the project is above the EU procurement threshold the tender process will be required to comply with the EU procurement process and will take approximately six months to complete. Taking that into consideration the earliest the contract could be awarded would be late 2014 with a contract period of 24 months giving a completion date of spring 2017. If the project is to proceed in a more piecemeal fashion the completion date could be some years later, depending on the number and timing of individual contracts. Funding for the project very much depends on the availability of funding from the Exchequer. Deputy Humphreys referred to the possibility of funding from a European source. The Taoiseach referred to a similar possibility.
I established an inter-agency group comprising county managers from Monaghan and Cavan, the director of leisure, development and arts from Fermanagh, representatives from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Fáilte Ireland, the Strategic Investment Board, Waterways Ireland and senior officials from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Northern Ireland and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The inaugural meeting was held on 20 September 2012 and the next meeting will take place shortly. Its challenge is to find alternative sources of funding. I again thank the Deputy for raising the matter. With the planning permission process completed, the next stage is to acquire the land and we will proceed with that immediately.
I feel sorry for the poor folk from the NI Strategic Investment Board, who barely mention the Ulster Canal in their Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland 2011–2021: building a better future [PDF], and who take care to mention the Unionist Lagan Navigation along with the Republican Ulster Canal. They must be wondering how their involvement is expected to help the southern government to meet its commitment to pay for the Clones Sheugh.
Along the banks
Anyway, back to the Dáil. Heather Humphreys, who may not have seen many canals, responded, saying (inter alia):
The canal is an iconic, achievable project that is worthy of support.
Naturally, I disagree about the “worthy of support” bit, but even “iconic” is nonsense. The Ulster Canal was a relatively minor, small, uninteresting waterway carrying insignificant cargoes, and there is little to attract the tourist. The Royal Canal is much more “iconic”, and even that pales by comparison with some canals elsewhere.
The minister finished by saying:
Potential funding from the €150 million PEACE IV programme is very important. If we could source funding from it that would give a greater possibility of the project progressing in the near future. I hope that having completed the CPOs we can make a start on the project in 2015 or 2016. As Deputy Humphreys indicated, it is an iconic project and it would give a major boost to that part of the country which has suffered considerably from rural depopulation. The farming community is under a lot of pressure as well.
Certainly, this project would be seen to be a major asset to the local community and local economy.
It seems that the rural seclusion of the area between Lough Erne and Clones will not be broken by the sounds of JCBs just yet.
The extent to which newspaper uncritically regurgitate press releases is embarrassing – but, of course, they’re unlikely to reveal where they got the press releases from, as they never ‘disclose their sources’ as that would ‘compromise their journalistic integrity’ /sighs/
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