The Ulster Canal 20: update to April 2013

This page covers some Ulster Canal items discussed in the Oireachtas in recent months; the information comes courtesy of alerts on the excellent website. I have added a note about newspaper accounts of the granting of planning permission in Northern Ireland for the Clones sheugh.

gerry Darby’s job

In February 2013 I noted that “the Clones Regeneration Partnership Canal Officer post [had] come to an end”. I had not realised that Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin had tried to ensure that the post should continue to be funded. On 14 November 2012 Brendan Smith [FF Cavan-Monaghan] submitted a written question:

To ask the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government if he will review the decision to cease funding for a project (details supplied); if he will ensure that urgent consideration will be given to the provision of the necessary funding to enable this project continue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [50530/12]

Phil Hogan, Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government [FG Carlow-Kilkenny] replied:

The Clones Regeneration Partnership sought funding to support the employment of a co-ordinator to undertake a programme of development work in preparation for the opening of the Ulster Canal. It is hoped that the opening of the canal will make a major contribution to the economic regeneration of Clones and surrounding areas.

The formal approval given to Clones Regeneration Partnership in June 2009 outlined that funds would be made available to the end of 2012 from the Rural Development Fund, subject to the availability of resources. The support received to date amounts to €93,400 in respect of 2010 and 2011, with a further €85,000 approved for 2012. Accordingly, there was no commitment given beyond the current year in respect of this project.

The purpose of the Rural Development Fund is to finance research, evaluation and pilot actions, so as to provide information and advice for policy makers on important rural development issues; it is not, therefore, intended to be a source of long-term funding.

In response to a request for an extension of the funding to Clones Regeneration Partnership, to support the employment of a project co-ordinator to the end of 2014, I arranged for a review of the funding to be carried out. However, given the overall constraints on available financial resources, there is no scope to accommodate the extension request.

Despite that, on the following day Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin [SF Cavan-Monaghan] tried again:

To ask the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government if he will confirm that funding has been withdrawn from the Ulster Canal Project Co-ordinator post; the reasons for same; if in view of the importance of this role in terms of the delivery of this project and the realisation in full of its real potential for Clones and all host communities along the route of the restored waterway, he will reverse this decision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [50621/12]

Phil Hogan quickly shot him down:

I refer to the reply to Question No. 199 of 14 November 2012, which sets out the position in this matter.

On the same day, over in the Seanad, Diarmuid Wilson [FF] may have missed the previous day’s Dáil report, because he said this on the Order of Business:

In June 2009, Clones regeneration partnership was funded to employ a project co-ordinator for the Ulster canal project and the role of the co-ordinator was to increase awareness of the coming of the canal to Clones and to create a strong working relationship and connections between Waterways Ireland and the local communities and businesses to identify economic and social opportunities for the canal. Unfortunately in the weeks the regeneration partnership has been informed that funding for this co-ordinator would be withdrawn at the end of the year. This would be a retrograde step. Significant progress has been made with the project. It costs approximately ¤40,000 per annum to employ this co-ordinator and we hope to have it up and running in the very near future. Clones suffered economically and socially throughout the troubles. I ask the Leader to intervene with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to ensure the job of the project co-ordinator is funded for the remaining year or two of the project.

As far as I can see, the Order of Business gives legislators a chance to make brief speeches on matters of local interest, without having to make any well-developed case but equally without any chance of having their contentions taken seriously.

A Body for a body

On 18 September 2012 Jimmy Deenihan [op cit] responded to two written questions, one from Dara Calleary [FF Mayo] and the other from Seán Fleming [FF Laois-Offaly]:

To ask the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the number of agencies, authorities, boards, committees, working groups, tribunals, council services, task forces, agencies or other quangos set up by his Department since February 2011; the number abolished since then; the extra cost of quangos which were established; the savings from the abolition of quangos; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37239/12]

To ask the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the number of State bodies that have been set up since 9 March 2011; the rationale behind these decisions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39992/12]

Jimmy Deenihan took the two questions (listed as Nos 904 and 941) together. The relevant parts of his answer were:

No State bodies/agencies have been set up from within my Department’s Vote Group since my Department was established on 2 June 2011. […]

With regard to other committees, etc, referred to in the Deputies’ Questions, I am assuming that it is not intended that routine internal committees and working groups, established within my Department to support the delivery of its goals, be included. Other relevant committees, groups, etc, that have been established since 2 June 2011, are listed below. […]

Ulster Canal Inter-Agency Group to examine ways to help advance the Ulster Canal Project, including reviewing the timeframe for the project.

Incidentally, there is a marked lack of information on tinterweb about the inter-agency group. There is a press release here, but what has the group been doing since? Is it organising weekly draws, selling shares in canal bridges or looking for border region millionaires? I don’t know.

Sean Barrett’s enthusiasm

Sean Barrett is an independent senator representing [the graduates of] the University of Dublin [Trinity College]. In a debate on the Order of Business [op cit] on 16 October 2012 he said:

I agree with what Senator Moran said about last Friday. The meeting of the North-South Interparliamentary Association in this Chamber, chaired jointly by the Speaker, William Hay, and the Ceann Comhairle was a remarkable event. There were superb presentations by Geoffrey Shannon and Ian Elliott on the cross-Border dimension of child protection. For lighter relief in the afternoon Brian Cassells and John Martin spoke about the restoration of the Ulster Canal as a tourism facility. Great credit is due to everyone who ensured that part of the Good Friday Agreement was finally implemented. Thanks are due to the Speaker, the Cathaoirleach and the secretariat. It was a most important day. One of the remarkable parts was that virtually everyone on the Unionist side claimed to be originally from places such as Monaghan or Donegal. The nine-county Ulster project was definitely revived last Friday. It was a great occasion and credit is due to everyone who organised it so well. History was made here last Friday.

I would be the first to agree that Brian Cassells and John Martin are good and interesting speakers but, if Sean Barrett thinks that the Ulster Canal is a good investment, his number of votes will be down by one in the next election.

Sinn Féin’s joke

The award for humour goes to Senator Kathryn Reilly of Sinn Féin. In an adjournment debate on road safety on 16 October 2012, she used reports of motoring misbehaviour on the N54/A3 near Clones to suggest that Gardaí should be allowed to invade the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The matter was, she said, serious because (inter alia):

This stretch of road will be the main route for tourists travelling to use the Ulster Canal when it is restored. That project will have an effect on tourism in the area.

How many tourists will drive to Ireland to look at a short canal? It’s not as though foreigners haven’t got their own canals to look at. Are we to assume that Clones itself will attract tourists from around the world — to an extent greater than it does at present?

The minister’s latest update

On 30 January 2013 Jimmy Deenihan [op cit] provided a written answer to Heather Humphreys [FG Cavan-Monaghan]. She had asked (again):

To ask the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if he will provide an update on progress on the Ulster Canal Project; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4271/13]

He said:

In July 2007, the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) agreed to proceed with the restoration of the section of the Ulster Canal between Clones and Upper Lough Erne. The then Government agreed to cover the full capital costs of the project, which were estimated at that time to be of the order of €35m. It was always the intention that the Ulster Canal project would be funded from the Waterways Ireland annual allocations, as agreed through the annual estimates processes in this jurisdiction, as well as the deliberations of NSMC in relation to annual budgets. I am advised that it was a key consideration throughout the process that the Ulster Canal project would be supported by a significant level of projected income from the commercialisation of certain Waterways Ireland assets. As the Deputy will be aware, the economic downturn has had a negative impact on those plans.

Despite this, the Ulster Canal project is progressing incrementally. I continue to explore all possible options that may assist in the advancement of the project and have established an Inter-Agency group in that regard. I attended the first meeting of that group and look forward to the group continuing its work in the period ahead. In the meantime, applications for planning permissions for the project have been submitted to the relevant authorities in each jurisdiction and I trust that the Deputy will agree that this is a significant milestone.

No doubt the [FG] minister’s words will reassure Heather Humphreys‘s [FG] supporters in Cavan-Monaghan, but it does not seem that any pot of gold has yet been found.

The minister’s response confirms that the €35 million figure is no longer operative. It would be nice to know what the latest estimate is.

Note these sentences, which are in line with what the current government has been saying for some time.

I am advised that it was a key consideration throughout the process that the Ulster Canal project would be supported by a significant level of projected income from the commercialisation of certain Waterways Ireland assets. As the Deputy will be aware, the economic downturn has had a negative impact on those plans.

Not so. In July 2010 the then-responsible department 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).

That seemed to suggest that WI assets would be sold [incidentally, it is not clear that the government has the right to sell WI assets] whereas the new narrative — “a significant level of projected income from the commercialisation of certain Waterways Ireland assets” — suggests that assets would be held but used to generate income streams.

It would be interesting, therefore, to know whether WI has any plans to generate any significant level of projected income ….

Northern Ireland planning permission and newspaper accounts thereof

The Irish Independent said on 26 April 2013:

Canal ‘to reopen’ after 80 years

Part of the cross-border Ulster Canal which has not been used for 80 years is to reopen, it has been revealed. […]

It said that the NI environment minister, Alex Attwood, announced that planning permission had been granted in Northern Ireland for the restoration of the Clones Sheugh and that Brian Cassells of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland expected restoration to be extended all the way to Lough Neagh, which he thought would be a good thing.

Waterways Ireland had a press release here [PDF], the Impartial Reporter covered it here, the Indo’s sister-paper the Belfast Telegraph report was here and 4ni had a brief account here.

I realise that it would be folly to expect newspapers to know anything about the subjects they write about, but shouldn’t they do something to check the press releases they’re given? A moment’s googling would have shown that “is to reopen” is, to put it mildly, an overstatement, because there can be no reopening until funding is provided. The last Irish government undertook to pay the cost but soon found that it couldn’t afford it; it and its successor have, since then, been trying to disguise the fact (and to find a crock of gold).

Of course, even if the Irish government does find the funding, spending it on a dead-end stump of a canal to Clones would be a waste of money, and there is not the slightest possibility that the canal will ever get any further. Some Clones folk, and inland boat-owners, are all in favour of it, but they’re not offering to pay for it.

But back to the newspapers. Shouldn’t they check the context, as well as the content, of press releases to ensure that the published accounts tell the full story?



6 responses to “The Ulster Canal 20: update to April 2013

  1. It’s seems like what is required here is for them to set up an Ulster Canal Steering Secretariat to act as a sectoral lead body for the Ulster Canal Inter-Agency Group, and assist it in furthering its goals vis-a-vis the Ulster Canal Partnership.

  2. Yes, but would it be an arms’-length body embodying leading-edge best practice in a world-class environment? Would its CEO be a thought leader in his space? bjg

  3. Clearly it would be necessary to set up the Waterways Governance Quality Comission to assess the matter.

  4. And conduct benchmarking exercises in the assessment of modalities. bjg

  5. Interesting to see Sean Barrett on the side of the New Ulster Canal, given that he is well known advocate for closure of the railway network on economic grounds.

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