The Ulster Canal 05: studies and appraisals

The southern legislature seems to have taken no interest in assessing whether it is now, or ever was, a good idea to reopen the Ulster Canal or to build a canal to Clones. As far as I can see (and I am open to correction here), no member of the Dáil or Seanad has ever asked a question about

  • the costs or the benefits of the proposal
  • whether they might have changed since it was first made
  • whether something that seemed like a good idea when Ireland was thought to be rich was still affordable now that public expenditure is to be cut.

Indeed there is no evidence that legislators have considered the implications of the change from a canal linking two major sets of waterways to a canal linking one waterway to Clones. But then the supposed €35 million cost of the canal is no doubt small change for a state that can pour €35 billion into a dead bank.

I do wonder, therefore, whether legislators have read any of the many reports that have been produced on the subject. Not all of them are available on t’interweb, but some of the later one are, and citizens are free to examine the matter, using such information as they can get.


I found myself getting confused by the different reports and their interrelationships, not helped by the confusing names given to them on official websites. This page, therefore, sets out what I think the relationships are, but I am of course open to correction. The page is necessarily, alas, rather boring.

As far as I can make out, these are the reports submitted so far.

1994 Scoping study. Clients: Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (RoI) and Department of Agriculture (NI). No information on who carried it out. Does not seem to be available on the interweb.

1997–1998 Feasibility study (including engineering, economic, environmental and heritage aspects). Clients: Rivers Agency of the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland; Dúchas, the Heritage Service of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. Carried out by ESB International, Ferguson McIlveen, PricewaterhouseCoopers [PwC] and Tourism Development Ireland. It put the cost of restoration at £68.4 million and the benefits at over £7.5 million a year.

2000–2001 Updating of previous study and its costings, answering certain specific questions and studying the feasibility of reopening the two ends of the canal. Client: Waterways Ireland. Carried out by ESB International and Ferguson McIlveen. Does not seem to be available on the interweb.

2001 Waterways Ireland assessment of the ESBI/Ferguson McIlveen reports. I think this probably is (or includes) the “previous 2001 Economic Appraisal which PwC prepared on behalf of Waterways Ireland” referred to in the Fitzpatrick Associates Restoration of the Ulster Canal Updated Economic Appraisal – Final Report June 2007, which was actually prepared by PwC and seems to have been included as an Annex to the Fitzpatrick Associates Outline Business Case (see below).

One or more of the 2000–2001 documents (without having seen them, I can’t say which) put the capital cost at £89 million and the net present cost at £39 million (both at 2000 prices) and said that construction would take seven years.

2002 WI and consultants dealt with queries from the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (RoI) and Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (NI), which were now responsible for waterways. The queries were about economic assumptions and social needs. Does not seem to be available on the interweb. I have no idea what the outcomes were.

2002–2003 The two government departments commissioned a report on funding options. I do not know who carried it out or what it said, but after June 2003 (when Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs said that he had received it) there was no further official discussion of restoration of the whole of the Ulster Canal: the “phased or partial” approach was adopted.

2004 While the cat was away, During the period when the operation of the Northern Ireland political institutions was suspended, the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the (UK) Northern Ireland Office asked Waterways Ireland to review the existing reports “as they relate to a section from the Erne upwards and from Lough Neagh downwards”.

2006 This gets a bit complicated, but at least we can be glad that some documents from 2006 are available. The review requested in 2004 seems to have resulted in the production of two documents:

  • the first is a feasibility study (available as a PDF on the yet-again-renamed Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs website with the unhelpful title “Reopening the Ulster Canal”). Appendix C Programme is not included. Appendix A Map of Proposed Navigation Route may refer to Ulster Canal Route Map or to a combination of Ulster Canal North Eastern Section and Ulster Canal South Western Section; all three are available for download. The feasibility study is not the subject of this set of comments
  • the second is a socio-economic “summary report” (although it’s not clear what it is a summary of) called Waterways Ireland Socio economic Summary Report for the NE and SW Sections of the Ulster Canal Final Report February 2006, downloadable as “Ulster Canal Socio Economic Report”.

The socio-economic report was drawn up by PricewaterhouseCoopers [PwC] in association with Tourism Development International [TDI] (although TDI is not mentioned in the acknowledgements on the second page). However, at more or less the same time, PwC and TDI were conducting a more extensive exercise for the Blackwater Regional Partnership, which brings together Armagh City & District Council, Dungannon & South Tyrone Borough Council and Monaghan County Council. As it says in the report for Waterways Ireland:

1.6 This study was carried out over a short 6 week period which included the Christmas period. It has therefore been based largely on existing research material.

1.7 The report draws extensively on work carried out on the Ulster Canal Socio-economic Study, commissioned by Blackwater Regional Partnership (BRP) and conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Tourism Development International. The BRP study was still ongoing at the time of completion of this report. However, Blackwater Regeneration Partnership have kindly agreed to allow us to make use of our work for them in preparing this report. Whilst we have been able to draw heavily on the findings of the BRP study, it is important to point out that these findings will need to be reviewed in light of the outcome of the final BRP report. The terms of reference for the BRP study are attached at Appendix A for information.

1.8 The BRP study is concerned with the impact of re-opening the entire Canal. It investigates the potential social and economic benefits to the area along the Ulster Canal corridor, which has been defined as the zone stretching 6 miles on either side of the Canal. In addition, it will investigate potential sources of funding and will examine a number of management models and look at the tasks required to reach implementation.

So while the two reports for WI were being prepared, the Blackwater Regional Partnership [BRP] was having its own report written by PwC and TDI; BRP presented its case to the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure on 24 April 2008.[i] (The website of the Houses of the Oireachtas is being upgraded and the record of committee debates cannot be searched at the moment, so I have not been able to see whether the Partnership was ever heard at the Oireachtas.) I have copies of the BRP reports, although I don’t know whether they are downloadable: the relevant documents are Socio Economic Study of the Ulster Canal Final Report and Socio Economic Study of the Ulster Canal Appendices; the reports draw on Waterways Ireland’s Survey of Waterways Users 2004 (downloadable from the WI website).

2007 The BRP reports seem to have been drawn on again in 2007. Fitzpatrick Associates, Economic Consultants, prepared the 35-page Restoring the Ulster Canal: Outline Business Case June 2007 for the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; it can be downloaded as “Final Outline Business Case”. A 194-page Updated Economic Appraisal – Final Report (download as “Ulster Canal Economic Appraisal Final”), prepared by PwC, is deemed to constitute an Annex to the Outline Business Case.

2010 Waterways Ireland published its Ulster Canal Restoration Plan.


I want to look at some of the details of the economic reports later, but it might be useful to summarise their outcomes first. For the earlier reports, I have to rely on what was said in Oireachtas, Parliament or Assembly about them.

  • 1994 scoping study: no information
  • 1997–1998 feasibility study (including engineering, economic, environmental and heritage aspects): cost of restoration £68.4 million, benefits over £7.5 million a year
  • 2000–2001 updating of previous study and its costings and Waterways Ireland assessment: capital cost £89 million, net present cost at £39 million (both at 2000 prices), construction to take seven years. “The project will not stand up to a scrutiny that is concerned purely with pounds and pence or with viability”; a negative economic benefit
  • 2002 queries: no information
  • 2002–2003 report on funding: no information
  • 2006 Waterways Ireland Socio economic Summary Report for the NE and SW Sections of the Ulster Canal Final Report February 2006: this report assessed the benefits of reopening the two ends of the canal. It estimated that there would be increased economic activity in the two sections of the canal corridor of up to £2 to £4 million per annum, construction jobs of 600 to 740 person years over three years and wider employment creation of up to 100 jobs resulting from increased economic activity. The report did not assess the costs
  • 2006 Blackwater Regional Partnership Socio Economic Study of the Ulster Canal Final Report and Socio Economic Study of the Ulster Canal Appendices: BRP commissioned this study to “examine and quantify these wider social and economic benefits [identified in earlier reports] of restoring the Canal.” However, the study was not intended to compare costs and benefits. It says that “the latest outline cost estimates from the engineers suggest a figure of £125 million at January 2006 prices, including £110m capital costs and £15m non-capital costs” It estimated visitor expenditure along the entire Ulster Canal corridor at £3.1–4.0 million (including multiplier effects), with increased economic activity adding £5–10 million to the local economy, with additional receipts (income tax, VAT and rates) for the public sector
  • 2007 Fitzpatrick Associates Restoring the Ulster Canal: Outline Business Case and Updated Economic Appraisal – Final Report: this is the serious one, and most of my comments in later sections will be addressed to these documents. The take-home message is this: “In terms of formal quantified economic appraisal, all restoration options involve significant net costs over benefits.”
  • 2010 Waterways Ireland Ulster Canal Restoration Plan: there will be some questions about this document in later sections.

Note that the latest cost estimates seem to be based on prices at January 2006, at least five years before construction might commence. Prices might have gone up or down since then, but nobody seems to care enough to publish updated figures.

Next: more on the costs.

[i] Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Culture Arts and Leisure Presentation from the Blackwater Regional Partnership on the Ulster Canal 24 April 2008

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