The Ulster Canal 14: my search for truth

On this page I wrote:

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.

So I did. Here is the text of my letter.

FOI Internal Review request

1 March 2011

Freedom of Information Manager
Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs
43–49 Mespil Road
Dublin 4

Request for internal review under Freedom of Information Acts

Your department has refused (your ref FOI/CEGA/2011/3) to allow me to see records concerning the cost and financing of work on the Ulster Canal. I appeal against that refusal.

I have devoted much attention to proposals for the restoration or rebuilding of the Ulster Canal. I have read every publicly available report on the matter, including the Minutes of the North/South Ministerial Council and the records of every relevant debate in the Dáil and Seanad, the Northern Ireland Assembly and its committees, the UK House of Commons and the UK House of Lords. I have also read every parliamentary question and its response in each jurisdiction.

I have noted that there have been three different proposals: complete restoration, restoration at the two ends and restoration only of the stretch from Lough Erne to Clones. The last of these is the current proposal, and I note that the North South Ministerial Council agreed to it on the Irish government’s undertaking to pay the full cost. I have not been able to find a full cost-benefit analysis for this proposal but, on the basis of the published analyses of earlier proposals, I have concluded that the Clones-only project makes even less economic sense than the previous proposals.

I have also concluded that neither the UK government nor the Northern Ireland Executive has any intention of spending a penny on any part of the Ulster Canal, and that (even if it does reach Clones) the canal will never get to Lough Neagh.

I acknowledge that I do not possess full information on the subject and I would be happy to consider evidence (as opposed to assertions) that might cause me to change my conclusions.

All of that is by way of background. In July 2010, I read the Department of Finance’s Infrastructure Investment Priorities 2010–2016: A Financial Framework, and was puzzled by two aspects. First, it seemed to me that, with major reductions in your department’s capital allocation, there was a possibility that Waterways Ireland would not get enough money to restore the Ulster Canal to Clones. Second, I did not understand why the Department of Finance said that “Where possible, Waterways Ireland’s own resources will be used in advancing this work.” That position seemed to be at odds with what the North/South Ministerial Council had been told.

I asked your department for clarification; the replies I received did not address all of my questions. In particular, they did not show how the Ulster Canal work was to be funded; the sentence “Why would we decide precisely to fund the purchase at this remove, particularly if we don’t know what the market will be like at the time?” suggested poor planning, a cause for concern to any citizen with an interest in the state of the public finances. Furthermore, the replies did not explain the contradiction between what the NSMC was told and what your department, and the Department of Finance, now proposed.

I submitted a Freedom of Information request to Waterways Ireland. Its response made it clear that the sale of its surplus assets would not yield anything like enough to pay for the Ulster Canal; the body also pointed me to the Minutes of the North/South Ministerial Council, where there was no mention of the use of Waterways Ireland assets to pay for the canal.

In January 2011, after the budget showed the reduced capital allocation to Waterways Ireland, I wrote again to your department to ask how it planned to fund the restoration of the canal. I received evasive replies; my final message, in which I asked very specific questions, received no reply. Accordingly, I submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Acts.

Note that, up to that point, there had been no suggestion that there was anything to prevent your department from answering my questions. However, my FOI request produced a list of 72 documents; I was permitted to see a few boring and unhelpful items, but:

  • permission to see 29 of them was refused because they were “matters relating to Northern Ireland”. Before I submitted my FOI request, there had been no suggestion that Northern Ireland was relevant
  • permission to see 16 of them was refused under two or three of the catch-all provisions of Sections 19, 20 and 21, without specifying which subsection applied
  • permission to see others was refused under provisions of Section 46.

I am trying to find out how an Irish government department proposes to fund a project and why the NSMC has come to be under a misapprehension. The source of the funding has nothing whatsoever to do with Northern Ireland, as the government of Ireland has undertaken to pay the entire cost.

An unsympathetic outsider might (no doubt mistakenly) come to believe that your department has no hope of raising the money for an obviously poor investment; it might attribute your unwillingness to release hard information to embarrassment. I am prepared to be less sceptical, but only if I see evidence. Your department says it is confident that the funding will be provided, but its narrative lacks the corroborative detail that might lend it artistic verisimilitude.

I request therefore that you reconsider the decision to refuse to release records. Show me the money.

As I expected, that request was refused: the amended FOI legislation contains enough loopholes to enable a pig-headed government department to refuse to give any information to anybody about anything. Accordingly, I appealed the decision to the Office of the Information Commissioner on 5 April 2011, paying the €150 fee (on top of the €15 + €75 paid to Craggy Island).

The Commissioner agreed to investigate the matter; decisions are usually made within four months of receipt of requests, which in this case would mean by 6 August 2011. Imagine my surprise, then, when, in late July, the relevant government department started revealing all sorts of information about the funding of the Ulster Canal …. The content of the relevations will be the subject of a separate piece.

2 responses to “The Ulster Canal 14: my search for truth

  1. Brilliant letter. When can I see the revelations?

  2. No repsonse yet from the Information Commissioner, but note the recent release of information, essentially confirming my suspicions. There is no money for the Ulster Canal and I think it unlikely that it will be a priority in the next budget, although I may be wrong. bjg

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