The Ulster Canal 12: departmental bullshit

This page covers my January 2011 exchange of emails with the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, a sort of departmental ragbag known to some of its admirers as Craggy Island. Incidentally, you can read its website in Irish but not, alas, in Ulster-Scots, despite its co-funding Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch.

Anyway, revenons a nos moutons, as they say in the Gaeltacht. If you’ve read the other 22,000 or so words I’ve written about the Ulster Canal, you’ll gather that I have an interest in the subject. I don’t believe it should be restored because I don’t believe the proposal makes economic sense. I came to that conclusion after spending a lot of time reading every report, statement and other document I could get hold of. So my view is based on a certain amount of study, but I am open to correction by anyone who has, and will produce, more and better information.

I also have reservations about a separate point: I don’t believe that the Irish state — which promised to pay for restoration from Lough Erne to Clones — can afford even that limited project. So, for several months, during which the state has had to be bailed out by the EU and the IMF, I’ve been trying to find out where the money is to come from. The latest round began on 3 January 2011 when I emailed Craggy Island saying this:

Now that …

(a) Waterways Ireland’s valuation of its assets classified as surplus has been cut by over fifteen million euro

(b) the capital allocation to Waterways Ireland in the current budget has been cut from eight to six million euro

… I would be grateful if you could tell me your revised plan for funding the restoration or reconstruction of the Ulster Canal from the Erne to Clones. I understand that the suggested cost is thirty-five million euro and that the work is expected to be completed by 2013.

This was the meat of the reply:

The Government remains committed to the restoration of the Ulster Canal. As indicated previously the precise funding mix as between Waterways Ireland’s own resources and Exchequer funding to be used in advancing this work will be kept under review as required.

I responded thus:

Thank you for your email. Unfortunately it contains no information whatsoever. Work is due to start on the restoration now, this year.

What money will be used to pay for the work in 2011?

What money will be used to pay for the work in 2012?

What money will be used to pay for the work in 2013?

In the absence of any concrete information, I would be forced to conclude that there is no money available this year.

That resulted in this waste of pixels, which arrived on 12 January 2011:

The position is as set out in earlier email. Funding is being provided as required to ensure that the project continues as planned.

I replied:

What work is planned for 2011? When will it begin? When will it end? What will it cost? From what sources is the funding being provided?

What work is planned for 2012? When will it begin? When will it end? What will it cost? From what sources is the funding being provided?

What work is planned for 2013? When will it begin? When will it end? What will it cost? From what sources is the funding being provided?

What work is planned for 2014? When will it begin? When will it end? What will it cost? From what sources is the funding being provided?

What work is planned for 2015? When will it begin? When will it end? What will it cost? From what sources is the funding being provided?

What work is planned for 2016? When will it begin? When will it end? What will it cost? From what sources is the funding being provided?

What work is planned for 2017? When will it begin? When will it end? What will it cost? From what sources is the funding being provided?

What work is planned for 2018? When will it begin? When will it end? What will it cost? From what sources is the funding being provided?

What work is planned for 2019? When will it begin? When will it end? What will it cost? From what sources is the funding being provided?

What work is planned for 2020? When will it begin? When will it end? What will it cost? From what sources is the funding being provided?

Why is a government department unwilling to provide basic information?

I’m sure that will be as much of a waste of time as my previous efforts, but I wouldn’t like to leave any stone unturned. And that, and my future efforts at extracting information, will at least keep the staff of the soi-disant Press and “Information” Office amused.

In The Latest Decalogue (1862) Arthur Hugh Clough wrote:

Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive
Officiously to keep alive.

That, mutatis mutandis, seems to be the policy of the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs towards the truth: it won’t tell porkies, but it will provide no useful information. (I may, of course, be wrong; I would be delighted to say so if a bundle of useful documents arrived tomorrow morning from the department.)

My Freedom of Information request

My last email to Craggy Island went unanswered, so I sent in a Freedom of Information request. On 11 February 2011 I got a response.

I have been maintaining that Craggy Island hasn’t got the money and doesn’t know where it’s going to get it. But if they granted my FOI request, and showed funding streams providing lots of lovely lolly going into a hole in the ground over the next several years, I’d look a bit of an idiot. It wouldn’t take much to shut me up, though: just a tiny bit of evidence (a memo from the Department of Finance, say, or a note from Angela Merkel saying “Great idea, guys: go with it. Here’s the money”, or even a budget or projected cashflow) that the money was available.

So imagine my joy when I got a four-page letter, an eight-page schedule of documents (showing, for most of them, why I couldn’t see them) and a pile of miscellaneous crap –ministerial speeches and suchlike — that I was allowed to see.

My faith is reinforced. They haven’t got the money. But I’m going to help, by appealing the decision and thus contributing even more to the departmental coffers.

What is going on?

Waterways Ireland’s Ulster Canal: Upper Lough Erne to Clones: Final Restoration Plan: 16 December 2010 says:

This project commenced in 2007 and is programmed to be completed in 2013.

and

The plan also forms part of the organisation’s key objective to deliver the capital works programme  under the National Development Plan 2007 – 2013 in the South which includes a proposal for the restoration of the Ulster Canal from Clones to Upper Lough Erne.

Incidentally, it repeats the assertion that the full capital cost is to be met by the Irish Exchequer, which is at odds with what the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs says. Such documentary evidence as I have seen supports Waterways Ireland’s position; I have seen nothing to support the department’s contention (but, if such evidence exists, I would be delighted to read it and to amend my account accordingly).

Anyway, it seems that Waterways Ireland sees 2013 as the completion date. The Minutes of the North South Ministerial Council (Inland Waterways Sectoral Format) mention no completion date, although the minutes for 9 July 2009 suggest that there exists a programme for completion. However, the Final Restoration Plan describes the next steps thus:

On completion of the public consultation and subsequent adoption of this Restoration Plan  Waterways Ireland intends to progress with investigating the feasibility of restoring the Ulster Canal from Upper Lough Erne to Clones with project level studies and an Environmental Impact Assessment of the preferred Route Option. If Waterways Ireland finds it is environmentally, financially, socially and technically feasible to progress with the restoration of the navigation on this route they will be applying for Planning Approval via the relevant Planning Authorities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

It doesn’t mention time required for the acquisition of land, but the NSMC Minutes of 16 January 2009 say:

[…] following the acquisition of land and receipt of planning, Waterways Ireland will let the contract for the design and construction of the project to a single entity.

All in all, it looks like a lot of work before the JCBs are let loose. I don’t know whether the project can be completed by 2013 (any engineers care to comment?) but it seems likely that much of 2011 will be spent at the desk rather than with the shovel. I will of course be looking forward to seeing the financial feasibility study.

Let us now examine the non-information provided by the department:

The Government remains committed to the restoration of the Ulster Canal. As indicated previously the precise funding mix as between Waterways Ireland’s own resources and Exchequer funding to be used in advancing this work will be kept under review as required.

and

The position is as set out in earlier email. Funding is being provided as required to ensure that the project continues as planned.

“The Government remains committed” bit is meaningless without a completion date. I remain committed to world peace and stuff, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be doing much about it. So we can ignore that bit and concentrate on the rest.

Note first the change in tense, from “the funding mix … will be kept under review” and “Funding is being provided”. Second, note that the later email is more concrete: it implies that actual loot is being handed over to Waterways Ireland right now. And, third, note that there is no indication of what “as planned” means: is it completion by 2013, as WI suggests, or has the department some plan of its own, with completion set for 2020 (or whenever Fianna Fáil drags itself out of the electoral grave)?

It is possible, therefore, and consistent with the text of the emails, that the department’s capital allocation to Waterways Ireland for 2011 is enough to pay for the various studies to be carried out this year. But it is also possible, and equally consistent with the text of the emails, that the department hasn’t the slightest idea where it is going to get its hands on the balance of the €35 million, or whatever it turns out to be, that the Clones Canal will cost.

That’s the problem with its having provided no information and no evidence: different interpretations are possible. I see several possibilities (and if you see more, please say so). All of these are, I think, consistent with what the department has said; they might, to varying degrees (and with different levels of plausibility), explain why the department said it. Some possibilities:

  • the department has a well-worked-out plan, with several fall-back positions, for getting hold of the requisite tranches of funding as they’re required. I know this is not so because, before Christmas, the department said it wouldn’t bother thinking about where to get the loot until it needed to spend it
  • the department has numerous financial experts, with good links to the international financial markets, and is confident that it will be able to raise the money when it’s needed. I think that, if that were the case, the experts would have been recruited by NAMA or the NTMA
  • the department is confident that it will get the money from the Department of Finance as and when it’s required. And the Dept of Fin will get it via the IMF and EU mechanisms, which will see the Clones Canal as a good investment …. No, somehow that seems unlikely
  • the department is run by Mr Micawber, and is confident that something will turn up. This approach would fit with the government’s economic policy of kicking the can down the road, and is likely to be equally successful
  • the department is engaged in a battle with Waterways Ireland, hoping to get it to pay for the work, but Waterways Ireland is resisting, partly because it has few saleable assets but also because, as Éamon Ó Cuív said in the Seanad in 1999, “[Waterways Ireland] is a body corporate and, as such, it will own all the assets.” I think this possibility is quite plausible, but I don’t think it will do the department much good. The stuff about “the precise funding mix” is nonsense because, unless Waterways Ireland sells a few locks to British Waterways (which won’t be able to afford them either), it has no chance of raising anything close to the cost of the Clones Canal
  • the department realises that the game is up, but it can’t admit it because to do so would mean (a) admitting to them ‘uns up north that the Irish state is all fur coat and no knickers and (b) possibly losing FF votes in the forthcoming election. If this is so,  we might expect no admission of defeat before the election, and perhaps even a staged announcement or two — launch of a feasibility study, visit to a lock site — to provide a photo opportunity. Incidentally, the “Ministers” section of the department’s website is currently blank
  • the department hasn’t a clue what to do. It knows it can’t get the money; it can’t face them ‘uns; it hopes the problem will go away, at least until after the election.

Now, I readily admit that that lot is all ill-informed speculation. What I want to give to readers is well-informed speculation, and that’s why I want the department to give me hard information. Why is the department so afraid of letting citizens know the truth, whatever it is?

The Department (or at least the local Project Coordinator whose post it funds) is, though, encouraging citizens to see the Clones Canal as an opportunity: read about that here.

7 responses to “The Ulster Canal 12: departmental bullshit

  1. Pingback: ~~~~~~ Pikeblog.de ~~~~~~ » Ulster Canal oder eher Raumfahrt?

  2. Rüdiger Steinacher

    Lieber Brian Goggin,
    Ihre Forschungen und Analysen lese ich immer besonders gerne, da sie den Nagel fast immer auf den Kopf treffen.
    Wenn man so die Wasserstraßenprojekte der vergangenen Jahrhunderte betrachtet, dann sind sehr viele schon in der Planungsphase stecken geblieben, da das Geld ausging. Beim UC war es ja nicht anders, aus Kostengründen schon im “Narrowstil” gebaut hatte er gegen die Eisenbahn überhaupt keine Chance und war wirtschaftlich gesehen eine totale Fehlinvestition.
    Hoffen wir, dass die neue Planung, mit dem Ziel den Tourismus zu fördern, mehr Chancen hat. Wenn ein wirklich durchdachtes Konzept vorliegt, wird sich sicher auch ein Investor oder Fond finden? Hoffen wir einfach das Beste leibe Leser!
    All the best an have a nice day

  3. Thanks, Rudi.
    Here’s how Google translated that:

    ===begins=====
    Their research and analysis, I always read very happy, because they almost always hit the nail on the head.
    If you like looking at the waterway projects of the past centuries, then many have remained stuck in the planning phase, as the money ran out. At UC there was no other way, built for cost reasons, even in “Narrowstil”he had against the railroad is no chance and was in economic terms, a total bad investment.
    Let us hope that the new plan to promote tourism with the aim, has more opportunities. If a really well thought out concept is present, there are certainly also an investor or fund? Just hope for the best body of readers!
    ===ends=====

  4. I find it difficult to imagine a waterways enthusiast being so negative towards the possible restoration (and development ) of the old ulster canal.
    The costing seems high in these recessionary times, however the benefits of such a project in providing work during a possible restoration, as well as the jobs and business benefits for the tourism and the local leisure industry, make it surely worthwhile.
    A restored Ulster Canal would enhance the existing canal and river navigation system in Ireland, link the Erne and Shannon to the Blackwater, Lough Neagh and Bann. It would be another piece in the jigsaw and add value to the existing tourism product of Fermanagh and the Erne waterway, bring a waterways/traffic business to Monaghan and onto Armagh/Tyrone. A developed canal provides facilities for walkers, fishing and cycling as well as boating. Moorings and other developments could be developed alongside camping and camper-van facilities.

  5. It is possible to be enthusiastic about waterways without switching off one’s critical faculties.

    I do not know whether you have read the studies produced by the project’s advocates. I have, and they show that the project is not, under current or any other circumstances, worthwhile. It is, to put it simply, a waste of money, and a waste of money that we have not got. A restored Ulster Canal would indeed do all the things you say, but the price is too high: it is a bad investment of German taxpayers’ money. You are listing vague and unquantified benefits and, because you like the sound of them, you are assuming (without providing any evidence) that they outweigh the costs. They don’t, and wishing won’t make ’em so. But don’t take my word for it: read the studies.

    The restoration of the Ulster Canal is a crackpot idea, conceived by a crackpot government that landed this country in the economic mire. In this case, the digging should not even start.

    bjg

  6. Dear Brian,
    I hope you are in a good order.
    Best wishes
    RJS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s