The Ulster Canal 04: 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.

In 2001, the NI Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure was Michael McGimpsey MLA. He set out the problem:

An updated feasibility study on the Ulster Canal has been conducted, and the cost at 2000 prices is £89 million. Because of the lifetime of the canal, construction will take seven years by traditional methods and with traditional funding. The price, therefore, will rise.[i]

Against that, […] we must also consider the estimated life of the canal, which is 56 years. There is a discount rate for the total cost, and we end up with a net present cost. If allowance is made for that, for income generated during the construction period and for maintenance costs, the net present cost is about £39 million, which makes the Ulster Canal unviable. [ii]

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

He said that the revenue from a completed canal would cover the costs of maintenance, renewals and refurbishment. The capital cost would be split roughly fifty-fifty between Northern Ireland and the republic and private finance might be attracted.

We have considered private finance and private investment for the Ulster Canal. Economic activity along the canal network, as enjoyed in other countries, will be attractive to business and private investment. I am convinced that we will not need to meet the full amount of capital cost. [iv]

In September 2002, he said that the feasibility study showed a negative economic benefit and that ‘the centre’ (presumably Her Majesty’s Government) would not pay for it:

We will have to find inventive ways to fund such a large capital projeczt. The Ulster Canal and Lagan Navigation capital projects should proceed, resources allowing. It is not simply a matter of making a case in the Assembly and then receiving the money in a cheque from the centre. That would not be possible. We must look at other sources, such as public-private partnerships and possibly the reinvestment and reform initiative.[v]

During the period when the operation of Northern Ireland’s political institutions was suspended. Angela Smith MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said in the House of Commons:

The updated Economic Appraisal on reopening the Ulster Canal in its entirety is currently with both Governments for consideration. As re-opening is not viable in purely monetary terms, it will be difficult to secure Government funding for this significant capital project. I welcome the supporting efforts of organisations such as the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland whose application for INTERREG III(A) funding to re-open a south-western section of the Ulster Canal is proceeding through the assessment system.[vi]

In July and August 2006, civil service evidence to the Northern Ireland Transitional Assembly Subgroup on the Economic Challenges Facing Northern Ireland made it clear that the Ulster Canal was not, and would not be, one of the Signature Projects that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board identified as having the best opportunities for tourism growth, with the potential to create international stand-out and world-class excellence for Northern Ireland:

The direct and candid answer to your question is that the Ulster Canal is not among the six listed signature projects; there would have to be a change of policy in the classification to include it.

The Ulster Canal would involve a significant capital investment, which could be upwards of £60 million, perhaps even into three figures. That would be an extensive capital project, and even if the policy classification were changed, there would still be the issue of budget affordability.[vii]

After the Northern Ireland Assembly resumed its sittings in 2007, Martin McGuinness MLA, Deputy First Minister, reported 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:

In light of that offer, the Executive have agreed to engage with the Irish Government to progress that restoration and share the ensuing costs of the restored and re-opened section, when it is complete. However, that decision does not confer any commitment on the Irish Government or the Executive to fund further restoration of the Ulster Canal.[viii]

In November 2007 Nigel Poots MLA, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, expressed the hope that the “Republic of Ireland” would bring the canal from Clones to Caledon (across Co Monaghan) and that the Northern Ireland administration would take it thence to Lough Neagh, but he saw it as a very long-term project:

[…] it will involve central Government, local government and the private sector, along with the Heritage Lottery Fund. We have to look at creating a cocktail of funders to make it happen, and I am very keen to see it happen.[ix]

But in February 2008 Martin McGuinness MLA, Deputy First Minister, was cautious:

Although I know that there is tremendous interest in the further development of the project, progress on it must be made one step at a time, commensurate with affordability.[x]

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

[…] There are currently no plans to develop the next section of the Ulster canal. The outline business case that was submitted to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in December 2006 concluded that the preferred option was to restore the south-west end of the canal. However, when the decision was taken to proceed with the south-west section between Clones and Upper Lough Erne, Ministers in the NSMC agreed to keep the remainder — from Clones to Lough Neagh — under review. The matter is now under review, but there are no plans at present.[xi]

In February 2010 Mr McCausland said:

[…] studies and appraisals have been carried out in recent years to examine the costs and potential benefits of reopening the 45-mile stretch of the Ulster canal which starts in Northern Ireland. About half its route is in Northern Ireland. The latest socio-economic report indicated that reopening is technically feasible at an estimated £125 million at 2006 prices. That figure should bring some realism to our discussion because, on the basis of a 50:50 split, Northern Ireland’s share of that cost is approximately £62·5 million. 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.

The Irish Government have identified the Ulster canal as one of their strategic priorities for agreement in joint projects with Northern Ireland.[…]

During its meeting in inland waterways sectoral format on 17 October 2007, the North/South Ministerial Council approved Waterways Ireland’s proposals to take forward the restoration of the 12-kilometre Clones to Upper Lough Erne section of the Ulster canal over the next six years. The total estimated cost of those restoration works is €35 million or £24 million at 2006 prices. The full capital cost is to be met by the Exchequer in the Irish Republic, with subsequent recurrent costs to be shared between the two jurisdictions. It is important to emphasise that that decision did not confer any commitment on either jurisdiction to fund further restoration of the Ulster canal, but both Administrations will keep that under review. [xii]

And George Robinson MMLA said:

I am sure that the idea of sailing from Portstewart to Limerick is appealing to many, but we cannot get away from the basic problem of funding. I fully acknowledge and accept that developing natural tourist resources is an important part of building Northern Ireland’s local economies […] I cannot justify spending money that would be better spent on alleviating the shortage of public sector housing, improving the Roe Valley ambulance service, attracting high-quality jobs to the area or helping to train people who need new skills to get back into employment.[xiii]

Mr McCausland said:

[…] The collective total capital cost of restoring navigation on the Ulster canal at £125 million and the Lagan canal at £50 million as well as establishing a navigation authority for Lough Neagh at £7 million, with the commensurate infrastructure improvements, amounts to an estimated £182 million, as well as involving significant year-on-year recurrent costs. Those are significant costs, given the current financial climate. Against that background, I have to conclude that we should wait to see the outcomes from the completion of works in 2013 on restoring the 12 km section of the Ulster canal between Clones and Upper Lough Erne. With the benefit of that experience, we will be better placed to establish and assess the benefits of undertaking further significant project works as a basis for evaluating the strategic worth of committing to future canal restoration projects.[xiv]

Finally, here is an exchange from June 2010:

Mr Leonard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In the context of the Ulster canal, the Minister mentioned marketing measures, priorities and dates. However, delivery on the section of the overall canal project in the more northerly Ulster counties has, in effect, been put back until at least 2020. Many people are aghast at that.

Does the Minister accept that a lack of delivery shows a lack of vision? Will he reconsider whether engagement on this part of the project should commence now? I anticipate the normal references to funds and recession, but does he further accept that to do so would be an investment in tourism potential, economic growth, construction work and regeneration along all sections of the canal and beyond?

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The Member raises that matter with considerable regularity on these occasions. I will simply respond by saying that it is not a question of a lack of delivery but of a lack of money. The vision is there to develop waterways right across Northern Ireland so that all areas of the Province benefit from the tourism potential and from the social and cultural benefits that flow from waterways. However, there are financial limits to what can be done at present. Nothing is being ruled out in the longer term, but the lack of money, which I highlighted already, is something that will be with us for a considerable time. As I indicated previously, if the Member wishes to encourage another Minister to release lots of money to free it up for my Department, I will be more than happy to spend it.[xv]

Other waterways

Within the last three years, the Minister has said that there is no intention of bringing any more waterways under Waterways Ireland’s control[xvi]:

I have concluded that within current N.I. budgetary constraints and priorities, the capital and resource implications of implementing the recommended Business Case option of extending the remit of Waterways Ireland are unaffordable.[xvii]

He also said that his department had recently

[…] commissioned a completed business case to assess the viability of establishing a navigation authority for Lough Neagh, the River Blackwater and the upper River Bann. The total capital cost of full implementation was estimated at £6·7 million. That would have increased DCAL’s contribution to Waterways Ireland’s North/South resource budget from the current 15% share to 24%. Reluctantly, I have had to conclude that, under current Northern Ireland budgetary constraints and priorities, the capital and resource implications of implementation are currently unaffordable.[xviii]

And:

My Department is also funding a business case assessment of the viability of restoring the 10-mile lower Lagan canal linking Belfast and Lisburn. That assessment is due for completion in March 2010. It will need to prove value for money, and we must also consider affordability. The assessment will also provide a basis for seeking and potentially securing partnership funding.[xix]

His department and the Department of the Environment had been willing to continue to contribute to the running costs of the Lough Neagh and Lower Bann Advisory Committees, but some of the local authorities were unwilling to do so and the Committees have shut up shop.[xx]

Maybe it’s just me …

I am not privy to the conclaves of the great, and it is possible that there are secret understandings between the governments and departments north and south, such that the completion of the canal to Clones will be followed speedily by the restoration of navigation from the Lough Neagh end and, within a few years, by the completion of the bit in the middle. If anyone has evidence of such secret understandings, do please send it in so that I can publish it here (WikiLocks?).

But on the face of it, 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 (borrowed from the bond markets) 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 question for the southern government must be: what part of “not a penny” don’t you understand?

Next: the various studies, reports and appraisals.


[i] NI Assembly 3 July 2001

[ii] NI Assembly 3 July 2001

[iii] 4 December 2001

[iv] NI Assembly 3 July 2001

[v] NI Assembly 10 September 2002

[vi] House of Commons 17 June 2004

[vii] Stephen Quinn, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, evidence to NI Transitional Assembly Subgroup on the Economic Challenges Facing Northern Ireland 1 August 2006

[viii] NI Assembly 18 September 2007

[ix] NI Assembly 6 November 2007

[x] NI Assembly 19 February 2008

[xi] Nelson McCausland MLA, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Ministerial Statement to the Northern Ireland Assembly Tuesday 15 September 2009 on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council: Inland Waterways Sectoral Format on 9 July 2009

[xii] Nelson McCausland MLA, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Northern Ireland Assembly 9 February 2010

[xiii] NI Assembly 09 February 2010

[xiv] NI Assembly 09 February 2010

[xv] Northern Ireland Assembly Tuesday 15 June 2010

[xvi] Nelson McCausland MLA, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Ministerial Statement to the Northern Ireland Assembly Tuesday 15 September 2009 on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council: Inland Waterways Sectoral Format on 9 July 2009

[xvii] Nelson McCausland MLA, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Northern Ireland Assembly 5 March 2010 Written Answers to Questions Lough Neagh and Upper Bann

[xviii] Nelson McCausland MLA, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Northern Ireland Assembly 9 February 2010

[xix] Nelson McCausland MLA, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Northern Ireland Assembly 9 February 2010

[xx] Northern Ireland Assembly Committee Business 9 February 2010 Lough Neagh and Lower Bann Advisory Committees; closure confirmed by phone calls and emails

2 responses to “The Ulster Canal 04: Ulster says no

  1. Pingback: The Clones dudes | Irish waterways history

  2. Pingback: Canal parties | Irish waterways history

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