The Ulster Canal 00: overview

Mildly updated  in February 2012; updates in this font.

Waterways Ireland is a cross-border “implementation body” set up under the British Irish (Good Friday) Agreement of 1999. It has “responsibility for the management, maintenance, development and restoration of inland navigable waterways principally for recreational purposes. The waterways under the remit of the body are the Barrow Navigation, the Erne System, the Grand Canal, the Lower Bann, the Royal, the Shannon-Erne Waterway and the Shannon Navigation.”

It was also to “take forward appropriate studies and appraisals in relation to the possible restoration of the Ulster Canal”. The Ulster linked Lough Erne to Lough Neagh; it was last used in 1929 and it was officially abandoned in 1931. About 93km long, it included 13km of the River Blackwater at the Lough Neagh end, 74km of canal and 5km of the River Finn at the Lough Erne end.

The southern strategic priority

The first recent study of the possible restoration of the Ulster Canal was a scoping study in 1994. Between 1997 and 1998 four firms carried out a feasibility study for the Rivers Agency of the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland and Dúchas, the Heritage Service of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. The study covered engineering, economic, environmental and heritage aspects; restoration would cost £68.4 million, but “the community” would benefit by at least £7.5 million a year. Two years later, an update put the capital cost at £89 million and the net present cost at £39 million. A report on funding options was commissioned in 2002; after it was completed in 2003, there was no further talk of restoring the whole of the canal and the minister introduced the idea of a “phased or partial approach”.

While the operation of the political institutions in Northern ireland was suspended, the cross-border bodies, including Waterways Ireland, were unable to begin new projects, but Mr Ó Cuív and David Hanson of the Northern Ireland Office asked Waterways Ireland “to urgently review the reports on the Ulster Canal as they relate to a section from the Erne upwards and from Lough Neagh downwards”. By March 2006, the ministers had received two reports from Waterways Ireland: “a socio-economic summary report for the north-east and south-west sections of the Ulster Canal and a feasibility study into the reopening of the Ulster Canal”. Restoration of the entire canal was off the agenda; the two ends might be restored and the bit in the middle might be done later.

By November 2006, the “redevelopment” of the Ulster Canal had become “a priority project for progression in a North-South context” for the Irish government, although the reason for this prioritisation was not made clear. The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs commissioned an “outline business case for the restoration of the Ulster Canal” from Fitzpatrick Associates.

Then North/South Ministerial Council meetings resumed, with a plenary meeting in July 2007 at which the Council “agreed to proceed with the restoration of the section of the Ulster Canal between Clones and Upper Lough Erne in the light of the Irish Government’s offer to cover the full capital costs of the project”.

So, after thirteen years, the Irish government had got Northern Ireland’s consent to its proposal. But it was no longer for the whole of the Ulster Canal; nor was it for the two ends of the canal. There was no agreement on phased restoration and no commitment by the Northern Executive, the Assembly or Her Majesty’s Government that any of their money would ever be spent on the Northern Ireland sections of the canal. The Irish government’s diplomatic achievement was to get permission to spend its own money building 13km of canal linking Lough Erne, via a sort of Danzig Corridor across some fields in Northern Ireland, to the town of Clones.

Since 2007, Waterways Ireland has been working on implementing the decision of the North/South Ministerial Council. On 18 August 2010 it published a Restoration Plan, Environmental Report and Appropriate Assessment. It also announced two “public information days” for consultation and said that written comments should be submitted by 30 September 2010.

Ulster says no

As far as I can see, neither British nor Northern Irish ministers have any intention of ever participating in the completion of the Ulster Canal from Clones to Lough Neagh. Successive ministers have said how nice it would be, but none has ever given any hint that hard cash might be spent.

That might change if Sinn Féin ever becomes the dominant party; it would probably have SDLP support (if the SDLP still exists at the time) for a big cross-border project, but perhaps HMG would control the purse strings. 

Michael McGimpsey MLA, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in 2001, said:

 The project will not stand up to a scrutiny that is concerned purely with pounds and pence or with viability.

In 2004 Angela Smith MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said in the House of Commons that:

As re-opening is not viable in purely monetary terms, it will be difficult to secure Government funding for this significant capital project.

In 2007 Martin McGuinness MLA, Deputy First Minister, reported the NI Executive’s acceptance of the Irish government’s offer to cover the full capital costs of the restoration of the Clones to Upper Lough Erne section of the Ulster Canal. He said:

However, that decision does not confer any commitment on the Irish Government or the Executive to fund further restoration of the Ulster Canal.

In September 2009 the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland MLA, said:

There are currently no plans to develop the next section of the Ulster canal.

In February 2010 he said:

Despite extensive and expensive studies, it is regrettable that the economic benefits remain unproven. However, that is an essential requirement before we can decide if the project can proceed in its entirety.

And in June 2010:

Nothing is being ruled out in the longer term, but the lack of money […] is something that will be with us for a considerable time.

The minister also decided against bringing any more waterways under Waterways Ireland’s control or establishing a navigation authority for Lough Neagh, the River Blackwater and the upper River Bann.

I see no evidence whatsoever that the Northern Ireland executive, or Her Majesty’s government, has any intention of ever starting the JCBs rolling along the Ulster Canal. They are happy to support the principle of canal restoration; they are even prepared to allow southern taxpayers to spend money crossing northern soil. It is possible that, if the canal to Clones brings wealth and prosperity to Co Monaghan, the northern executive will rethink. But as it stands, the evidence suggests that the southern taxpayer will be permitted to dig to Clones, and perhaps even to Monaghan and Caledon, but that the canal will never get any further.

The costs

Waterways Ireland’s Ulster Canal Upper Lough Erne to Clones Draft Restoration Plan (2010) says that

The full capital cost of the project (estimated at €35m/£23.8m) will be met by the Irish Exchequer […].

But the document gives five options for the Lough Erne end of the canal to Clones, with costs ranging from €8.5 million to €15.9 million. So is any of them included in the €35 million figure? Should the real figure be somewhere between €43.5 and €50.9 million? The difference of €7.4 million between the lowest- and highest-cost options is about 20% of the €35 million quoted, and it seems remiss to omit an explanation of what the quoted figure covers. I asked Waterways Ireland to explain; it ignored my question.

I asked again in late 2011, when I was told that the cost would be €38 million + VAT, which might be €45 million. I was refused details.


The benefits

The analysis of potential benefits in the Updated Economic Appraisal has been carried out with great care, but I fear that it overstates the benefits. That is probably not the fault of the analysts, for four reasons:

  • in many cases there is little reliable statistical information available on patterns of Irish inland waterways consumption
  • in the absence of such information, data from British Waterways were used in some cases, as was a demand model, but I suggest that they are not appropriate to Irish conditions
  • some assumptions that might have been reasonable in the context of restoration of the whole of the Ulster Canal are not applicable to the restoration of the waterway from Lough Erne to Clones
  • the economies of Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland have changed drastically since the report was written and both are now facing, amongst other ills, major cuts in public expenditure.

In particular, I think that the estimates for benefits from boating are too high, especially for a short canal to Clones. I cannot see why anyone would moor a boat there, knowing that the first and the last two and a half hours of every trip will traverse the same stretch of canal: far better to moor at Quivvy or Belturbet and have a choice of routes.

The study assumes that three hire boats would be based on the Clones–Lough Erne stretch. Given that the hire-boat industry seems to be in decline, that a small firm based at Quivvy closed down and that there are three hire firms on the Shannon–Erne Waterway, I think this is unlikely — and it is also unlikely that a three-boat firm could survive. An eight-mile canal is not in itself going to attract tourists from overseas.

The study assumes one trip boat and three day boats. Whatever about the day boats, I don’t think a trip boat will last beyond the first season. Outside Dublin, no Irish canal (including the Shannon–Erne Waterway, which had two) has been able to sustain a trip boat. A volunteer operation might work, but managing it, and obtaining and maintaining the requisite approvals, would be very difficult.

One final point on boat usage: it seems to me that the waterway that is most similar to the Clones canal is the Lough Allen Canal, leading from the Shannon at Battlebridge, near Leitrim, to the lake at Drumshanbo. This canal is only 7km long, with three locks, whereas the Clones canal seems likely to be 13km with one, two or three locks. Like the Clones canal, the Lough Allen is a canal leading off a popular river and lake navigation. Lough Allen itself is largely deserted, despite having two harbours in addition to the pontoon berths at Drumshanbo. And the lock at Drumshanbo is the least used on the inland Shannon (the sea lock in Limerick is the only one that is less used, at 178 passages in 2008).

The Appraisal’s figure for “informal [ie non-boating] visits” is extremely high. I find it hard to believe that people who have no particular reason to visit a short stretch of restored canal are going to spend four times as much as all other categories of visitors put together, especially as the other visitors have some interest in canals and water whereas the walkers don’t. The numbers of visitors are based on (albeit reduced from) numbers of visitors to British Waterways waters; I would be happier with figures for Irish canals.

The Updated Economic Appraisal and the Outline Business Case discuss some unquantifiable benefits. Some of them are plainly nonsensical; the others are:

  • cross-border and cross-community interaction
  • leverage of additional economic and regeneration activity
  • heritage benefits.

I suspect that the completion of the canal to Clones will not be met by public rejoicing on the Shankill Road and the Falls Road. That “politicians central and local government representatives, statutory bodies, the private and potentially the voluntary and community sector” might cooperate is an admirable thing, already seen in the workings of the Blackwater Regional Partnership, that can happen even without a canal. But the only settlement along the line of the canal to Clones is Clones itself, which is in the republic. The canal crosses the border several times, but it’s in the middle of nowhere: there is no town or village on the northern side that might be a focus for celebration or participation. The canal to Clones may benefit Clones, but it seems unlikely to do much for Northern Ireland.

There probably would be some “additional economic and regeneration activity”, and the appraisal discusses that at length in Section III Assessment of Need, identifying four sectors that might use some of the dozen sites for development along the whole canal: accommodation (including hotels), hospitality (including restaurants and bars), ancillary businesses and housing. However, only two of the sites are on the Clones to Lough Erne section and I fear that, in the current state of the Irish economy, it is unlikely that anyone will be building houses, hotels or pubs for some time.

Finally, I find it difficult to understand the scoring system for heritage benefits. The “do nothing” option is given a score of 2, the Clones option 3 and all other options 3, 4 or (for full restoration) 7. Yet the only option that would leave the existing artefacts alone is the “do nothing” option: other options involve rebuilding locks and removing towpaths from under bridges.

The funding

In 2007, the Irish government insisted on paying the bill. Éamon Ó Cuív TD has rejected the ideas of involving volunteers, setting up public–private partnerships, imposing user charges or seeking EU funding. The cost of reconstruction was to be “met by the Irish Exchequer”: after all, the state was the envy of Europe for its wealth ….

In 2008, however, Mr Ó Cuív said that the work “is being funded from within Waterways Ireland own resources”. And in July 2010 his Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs told me “There is some uncertainty in the current economic climate about whether the cost will — as was intended — be met by sale of Waterways Ireland assets in Dublin (where there is some property vested in WI that has commercial potential).”

Three points arise. The first is that it is not clear to me that the assets of Waterways Ireland form part of the Irish Exchequer: WI’s assets should not be at the disposal of Irish ministers. Its control over its own assets was stressed in a Seanad debate in 1999:

 This is a body corporate and, as such, it will own all the assets. There is provision here to hold or dispose of land or property. It is not that it is joint ownership — the body will have the ownership as a body corporate. Like any body corporate, it will own the assets under its control.

The speaker was Éamon Ó Cuív TD.

The second point is that I have found no evidence of a formal decision to change the source of funding from having the Irish Exchequer pay for the canal to having Waterways Ireland pay for it. Indeed in the Restoration Plan published in August 2010 John Martin, CEO of Waterways Ireland, says that the Irish Exchequer will be paying and makes no mention of the possibility that the funding will come from the sale of WI assets. Furthermore, I have seen no evidence that Northern Ireland ministers are clear on this point.

And the third point is that it is not clear to me that either the Irish Exchequer or Waterways Ireland can afford the Ulster Canal. In 2010, the southern state is broke, with a deficit for the first quarter of 2010 of 36.51% of GDP (and no doubt a much higher proportion of GNP). The government has been trying to find cuts in public expenditure, and it seems that at least €1 billion will come from capital spending.

On 26 July 2010 the Irish Department of Finance published Infrastructure Investment Priorities 2010-2016: A Financial Framework. It said that:

There is a Government commitment to the restoration of the Ulster Canal. Where possible, Waterways Ireland’s own resources will be used in advancing this work. In the absence of readily available exchequer funding, the sale of other assets may be considered where appropriate, subject inter alia, to value for money considerations.

The capital allocations to the Department of Community, Equality & Gaeltacht Affairs under the Public Capital Investment Programme 2010 – 2016 will be cut from €105 million in 2010 to €30 million in 2016. Even if the allocation to Waterways Ireland remains unchanged at €8 million (2010), it will not be enough to pay for the Ulster Canal over the period of construction (2011–2013). There is indeed an “absence of readily available exchequer funding”.

I asked Waterways Ireland what capital grant it expected to get and what assets it might sell to pay for the Ulster Canal. From its 2008 Annual Report, we know that it has three surplus properties in Dublin: Percy Place, Plot 8 (at the Grand Canal Docks in Ringsend) and Lennox Street. Waterways Ireland gave me the current (2010) valuations; in the current state of the property market it is clear that they come nowhere near the cost of the canal to Clones.

From Waterways Ireland’s responses to my questions, I believe that it is at odds with the Department of Community, Equality & Gaeltacht Affairs: WI points out (correctly) that the NSMC decisions say that the state will pay for the canal, whereas the Department is trying to claim that WI assets will pay for it.

When I asked the Department about funding sources, it told me:

However, the question of funding source does not become an issue until construction actually commences next year or the year after. […] Why would we decide precisely [sic] to fund the purchase at this remove, particularly if we don’t know what the market will be like at the time?

So a government department, in a time of economic crisis, is proposing to commit to the spending of at least €35,000,000, without having any certainty of being able to get the money anywhere. Unless Waterways Ireland has surplus assets that I don’t know about, I cannot see how it can raise that amount by selling property in a slump; nor do I see any certainty that the Department of Finance will supply the money.

In November 2011, the Department admitted that funding was not available; the budget for 2012, and WI’s Corporate Plan, made it plain that there will not be enough money to pay for construction before 2014, although WI’s planning applications are being processed.

Kill it now

Members of the Oireachtas have never subjected the proposed Clones canal to any serious examination: they seem to have been happy to support the spending of €35 million without any proper discussion. But every economic analysis of the proposed canal has shown that it is poor value for money. And I think that those analyses overstate the likely benefits, while the figure quoted for costs has not been reassessed for some considerable time. As a canal to Clones it makes very little sense, and I see no prospect that it will ever reach Lough Neagh. And (to put it mildly) I think there is considerable doubt over the possible funding sources.

This project makes absolutely no sense. It should be killed off now.

But I don’t want to deprive Clones of the possibility of increasing its earnings from tourism. I have enjoyed visits to its Canal Stores and to its wonderful former engine-shed. So here are three suggestions for making some use of the Ulster Canal:

  • a taxi service. According to Waterways Ireland’s restoration plan, the running costs of the canal to Clones, after restoration, will be €300,000 a year. The taxi (hackney) fare from Belturbet to Clones is €25 each way, €50 for a return journey. The Updated Economic Appraisal expected 600 trips on the canal, but 600 crews could be carried from Belturbet to Clones for a mere €30,000
  • a voluntary restoration. Part of the problem with the Ulster Canal proposal is that it is too late: the various reports were written before British Waterways withdrew from the Cotswold Canal Partnership. But voluntary restoration effort continues in Britain, and (pace Éamon Ó Cuív) there is no reason why it couldn’t work here. In fact, a well-organised restoration campaign, with volunteers and fund-raising from both sides of the border, and local control and management, would be a far more effective example of cross-border cooperation than a scheme paid for and run by the Irish Exchequer or by Waterways Ireland
  • a walking and cycling route. According to the Updated Economic Appraisal, the acquisition of the land between Lough Erne and Clones would cost £1,268,280 and the construction of a towpath would cost £655,513, a total of £1,923,793 (€2,293,777 at today’s exchange rate). This would allow work on the canal itself to go ahead, while providing the benefits expected to come from non-boating users. That’s £205,836 of benefits out of the expected total of £249,412, but for about one fifteenth of the cost, with the option of full restoration (if the economy ever again permits) still open in the long term.

But the current proposal should be scrapped.

If you would like a more detailed account of the Clones canal proposal, read on.

5 responses to “The Ulster Canal 00: overview

  1. The ath surely does not seem to support this project. Your suggestion of a ” volunteer partnership ” seems to hold serious value. In my experience on this side of the Pond …that system works & costs that taxpayer much less, while still providing serious value added to all players.

  2. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Ulster Canal - Brian Goggins

  3. Richard: I agree. There is much relevant UK experience too. bjg

  4. Thanks, Ewan. FOI request gone in; we’ll see what happens next. bjg

  5. Pingback: Ulster Canal restoration: a history | Irish waterways history

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