The possibility of restoring the Ulster Canal has been considered for some time. On 14 February 1996, for instance, Jimmy Leonard TD (Cavan–Monaghan) asked the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht whether he intended to commission a feasibility study of the Ulster Canal, as recommended in the County Monaghan Tourism Plan. The Minister, Michael D Higgins TD, replied:
The possibility of restoring the Ulster Canal has been the subject of talks for some time now between the waterways service and its counterparts in Northern Ireland, the watercourse management division of the Department of Agriculture. In 1994, a scoping study of the canal was undertaken and this identified the main engineering and other difficulties which will have to be overcome should it be decided to proceed with restoration.
Consideration is now being given to the undertaking of a full scale feasibility study which would endeavour to identify solutions to these difficulties and would include also a cost benefit analysis and environmental impact assessment of the project. The availability of the necessary funding for the study is of course a prime consideration and this matter is currently being examined.[i]
In 1997 four firms [ESB International, Ferguson McIlveen, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Tourism Development Ireland] were commissioned by 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 to carry out a feasibility study into the restoration of the Ulster Canal. They reported in June 1998 on the engineering, economic, environmental and heritage aspects. In November 1998 the Belfast Newsletter reported that the restoration would cost £68.4 million, but that “the community” would benefit by at least £7.5 million a year.[ii]
Two years later, Waterways Ireland commissioned ESB International and Ferguson McIlveen to update the earlier study and its costings, answering certain specific questions and studying the feasibility of reopening the two ends of the canal — Lough Neagh to Milltown (Co Armagh) and Lough Erne to Clones (Co Monaghan) — rather than the whole thing. Waterways Ireland got the report some time before 29 January 2001[iii], made its own assessment and presented its findings to the North/South Ministerial Council on 27 June 2001[iv]. Michael McGimpsey MLA, the then Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, said afterwards in the Northern Ireland Assembly that the capital cost was now estimated at £89 million at 2000 prices and that construction would take seven years; the net present cost was put at £39 million at 2000 prices.[v]
By February 2002, the government departments, north and south, had put more questions to the consultants and to Waterways Ireland[vi] about economic assumptions and social needs.[vii] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, became responsible for Waterways Ireland in the south; he said in June 2002:
It is clear from the report that the project would not be justifiable on economic grounds. Therefore, any consideration would have to be on the basis of the social and general cross-Border social benefits to the areas through which the canal passes. Recently it was decided to commission a further report, at modest cost, into the various funding options which might be available. No decision has been made as to whether to proceed with the restoration of the Ulster Canal.[viii]
The report on funding options had reached the Minister by June 2003[ix]; it seems to have killed off the idea of restoration of the whole of the Ulster Canal, because in February 2004 the Minister introduced the idea of a “phased or partial approach”.[x] He mentioned phasing four more times later that year.[xi]
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.[xii] By October 2004, though, a sense of urgency had returned and the minister said that he and David Hanson of the Northern Ireland Office had 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. We are not talking about the whole canal. I have always taken the view, and I believe it is a rational one, that if we could start the work and do it in sections, we would be making progress. [xiii]
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”.[xiv] 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. There were Dáil questions about progress throughout 2006, notably from Seymour Crawford TD, but governmental attention was no doubt on the process that led to the St Andrews Agreement in October 2006 (and thus to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007). However, the Ulster Canal was discussed in Seanad Éireann in October 2006:
Mr Mooney: […] Last week the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, who is responsible for Waterways Ireland, indicated he was awaiting the British response. He was, in principle, in favour and said the Irish Government would financially support the project, which is the last link in the waterways of this country and would allow free passage for the Cathaoirleach from his own constituency in Limerick all the way to Lough Neagh and Belfast.
Mr O’Toole [a boat-owner]: Hear, hear.
Mr Mooney: I was astonished at the response of the Secretary of State to the effect that the British could not make any immediate move because they did not have the money, whereas the Irish do. That is farcical and a complete reversal of the historical position.[xv]
By the following month, the “redevelopment” of the Ulster Canal had become “a priority project for progression in a North-South context” for the Irish government.[xvi] The reason for this prioritisation was not made clear, although the Taoiseach touched on the matter later the same month:
We have already helped with a number of projects, including the Ulster Canal, the development of Derry Airport and improvements in the Belfast road, much of the work on which was undertaken by our engineers. We are examining ways of contributing to the peace process with infrastructural projects in other Border areas. […] If the North-South bodies were up and running again, some projects which would be well within our funding capability and would be helpful both North and South, without threatening anybody, could be progressed.[xvii]
Later that month, the Minister for Foreign Affairs said that “The Government is also committed to taking forward plans for the restoration of the Ulster Canal to create a further major inland waterway for the border region.”[xviii] But despite the new priority, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs gave only temporising responses to questions in the Dáil[xix], with the favoured phrase “with a view to taking this issue forward” providing absolutely no useful information. The minister’s department did, however, commission a report — described as an “outline business case for the restoration of the Ulster Canal” — from Fitzpatrick Associates during this period. Half of the cost of €48,957 was reimbursed by the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.[xx]
Then North/South Ministerial Council meetings resumed, with a plenary meeting in July 2007:
9. 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.
10. Waterways Ireland, a North/South Implementation Body, will be responsible for the restoration of this section of the Canal and, following restoration, for its management maintenance and development principally for recreational purposes.
11. Relevant Ministers, meeting in the NSMC Inland Waterways Sector will agree plans to take forward this restoration work, including details of funding arrangements, and will report on progress to NSMC Plenary meetings.[xxi]
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 (despite what Éamon Ó Cuív said[xxii]) 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. Éamon Ó Cuív said:
Dá fhad é an bóthar, caithfear tosú áit éigean — no matter how long the road is, one must start somewhere. I am delighted that this landmark project will finally proceed. I do not doubt that it will be a major success and that it will lead to further successes in the future.[xxiii]
Next: what has happened since 1997.
[i] Dáil Éireann 14 February 1996, written answers
[iii] Síle de Valera TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Dáil Éireann 13 February 2001, written answers)
[iv] NSMC June 2001
[v] NI Assembly 3 July 2001
[vi] Síle de Valera TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Dáil Éireann 26 February 2002, written answers
[vii] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann 09 October 2002, written answers
[viii] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann 09 October 2002, written answers. He gave an almost identical reply on 03 December 2002
[ix] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann 25 June 2003, written answers
[x] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann 17 February 2004, written answers
[xi] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann 29 September 2004, written answers; 09 November 2004, written answers; 23 November 2004, written answers; 14 December 2004, priority questions
[xii] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann 04 May 2005, written answers); 21 June 2005, written answers
[xiii] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann 26 October 2005, priority questions
[xiv] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann 21 March 2006, written answers: official engagements
[xv] Seanad Éireann 26 October 2006 Order of Business
[xvi] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann 09 November 2006, written answers
[xvii] An Taoiseach (Bertie Ahern TD), Dáil Éireann 22 November 2006, questions Northern Ireland issues
[xviii] Dermot Ahern TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dáil Éireann 23 November 2006, written answers
[xix] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann13 December 2006, written answers; 13 February 2007, written answers; 28 February 2007, written answers; 24 April 2007, written answers
[xx] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann 08 July 2008, written answers
[xxi] North/South Ministerial Council Plenary Joint Communiqué 17 July 2007
[xxii] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann 24 October 2007, pre-budget outlook
[xxiii] Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Dáil Éireann 24 October 2007, pre-budget outlook