The Ulster Canal 07: the supposed benefits

The analysis of potential benefits in the Updated Economic Appraisal has been carried out with great care, but I fear that it overstates the benefits. That is probably not the fault of the analysts, for four reasons:

  • in many cases there is little reliable statistical information available on patterns of Irish inland waterways consumption
  • in the absence of such information, data from British Waterways were used in some cases, as was a demand model, but I suggest that they are not appropriate to Irish conditions
  • some assumptions that might have been reasonable in the context of restoration of the whole of the Ulster Canal are not applicable to the restoration of the waterway from Lough Erne to Clones
  • the economies of Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland have changed drastically since the report was written and both are now facing, amongst other ills, major cuts in public expenditure.

Rather than deal with this in the abstract, it might be best to look at each of the categories of direct expenditure identified in the report. Table 6.5 gives these figures for Option 5b, restoring the south-west section (Lough Erne to Clones). The figures include “value added” of 33.1%:

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland have provided a value added factor to estimate the economic benefit of additional tourist spend in Northern Ireland. It estimates the direct value added from tourism spend at 33.1%, therefore in order to accurately state the economic value attributable to the project this factor (33.1%) has been applied to each item of tourism income.

Three sets of figures are given, to cater for three different levels of displacement. I have given, below, those for 50% displacement, the middle one of three possibilities covered in the report. Zero displacement would mean that any money spent along the Ulster Canal would not otherwise have been spent anywhere in Ireland, north or south, which would mean that visitors were attracted to Ireland solely by the canal to Clones or that Irish people chose a canal holiday instead of a week in Spain. The figures are:

  • moored boats £16,264
  • visiting boats £2,386
  • hire boats £11,645
  • trip boats £7,192
  • day boats £4,159
  • canoeing £1,930
  • angling £411
  • cycling £6,131
  • informal visitors £199,294
  • total £249,412.

Moored boats

This figure is based on the assumption that 30 boats will be based in a marina between Clones and Lough Erne (6.24–6.28); Waterways Ireland’s Restoration Plan (2010) locates the marina in Clones.

But why would anyone want to base a boat (other than a liveaboard boat) at Clones? It will be eight miles and at least two locks away from the Erne, which means at least two and a half hours away at canal speeds. So every time you want to take your boat out, you will spend the first two and a half hours, and the last two and a half hours, navigating the same stretch of canal, week after week. You would be better off in a marina at Quivvy or Belturbet, where you have a choice of directions: up to Clones, along the Shannon–Erne Waterway or to Upper Lough Erne.

I suspect that a marina at Clones would end up being occupied only by the sorts of boats you find on the Royal Canal: small cruisers and day-boats, with the occasional narrowboat or wide-beam narrowboat.

In the absence of Irish data, figures from British Waterways (or perhaps I should say from British waterways) were used in assessing how much each moored boat might be worth. The source is clearly identified in Table 4 Ulster Canal Full Restoration: Quantification of Market Potential and Impact (pages 69–75) from which figures for Option 5b (the Clones end) were derived.

The table suggests that owners of moored boats make 6 non-cruising visits and 9.5 cruises per boat per year. That balance seems a little odd to me: I’d have put the ratio of cruising to non-cruising much higher, although of course I have no data. But “days spent on the canal per cruise” is said to be taken from WI data from 2004, and is put at 6.7 days for private boaters, which seems far too high: how many people have nine weeks’ holidays? This may be the result of a misinterpretation of this sentence from the WI report Survey of Waterway Users 2004 (4.3.2 Length of time spent on the waterway):

The average time spent private boating on the waterways was 6.7 days.

I would take that as the average for the year, not for an individual visit, but I can’t be sure whether the figures come from the answers to this question:

How frequently do you use the waterways i.e. number of days per year?

Or to this one:

How long will you/did you spend on the waterways?

The other point to be made here is that, for a boat moored in Clones, only about 0.7 days of a 6.7-day trip would be spent on the Ulster Canal.

Visiting boats

The study assumes 600 trips, some of which would be by those moored on the canal.

Hire boats

The study assumes that three hire boats would be based on the Clones–Lough Erne stretch. Given that the hire-boat industry seems to be in decline, that a small firm based at Quivvy closed down and that there are three hire firms on the Shannon–Erne Waterway, I think this is unlikely — and it is also unlikely that a three-boat firm could survive. An eight-mile canal is not in itself going to attract tourists from overseas.

Trip boats and day boats

The study assumes one trip boat and three day boats. Whatever about the day boats, I don’t think a trip boat will last beyond the first season. Outside Dublin, no Irish canal (including the Shannon–Erne Waterway, which had two) has been able to sustain a trip boat. A volunteer operation might work, but managing it, and obtaining and maintaining the requisite approvals, would be very difficult.

The gross income of the trip-boat operator (page 71) is put at £67,400 from 210 trips with a 50-seater boat at 60% occupancy, a fare of £5 per trip and £4,400 from corporate trips. I can’t see anyone rushing to invest in that.


The report assumes that 10 canoes will be available for hire. Given how few canoes are available for hire elsewhere on the waterways — I know of no canoe-hire operation on Irish canals — I don’t think this is realistic. Again, the figures are based on BW data, and may not be appropriate to Ireland.

Angling and cycling

I know nothing about these activities, so I have no comment, save that all the figures seem to come from British sources. I would have thought that there would be Irish data, at least for angling.

Informal visits

Here is what the report says:

Informal Walking Visitors

6.42 In recent years, with the introduction of electronic counting, there has been greater realisation of the large number of visits to canal areas by informal visitors. The British Waterways model uses a UK average density of 10,000 visits/km/year. However, to allow for the extensive rural area of the Ulster Canal, a density of around one-third (30%) is assumed here (as explained above).

Even then, this suggests almost 280,000 visits per year (30% of 10,000 x 93km). However, this is modest compared with other canals (eg 7.7m for the Kennet and Avon and 10.3m for Scotland’s Lowland Canals).

6.43 As in the case of cyclists, these informal visitors are divided into 3 categories of visitor. The total expenditure by these visits is estimated as £9.33m for the full canal, £3.41m if both ends are opened reducing £1.20m and £2.21m for the Lough Erne to Clones and Lough Neagh to Maydown sections respectively.

I find it hard to believe that people who have no particular reason to visit a short stretch of restored canal are going to spend four times as much as all other categories of visitors put together, especially as the other visitors have some interest in canals and water whereas the walkers don’t. The numbers of visitors are based on (albeit reduced from) numbers of visitors to British Waterways waters; I would be happier with figures for Irish canals.

Comparable canals

One final point on boat usage: it seems to me that the waterway that is most similar to the Clones canal is the Lough Allen Canal, leading from the Shannon at Battlebridge, near Leitrim, to the lake at Drumshanbo. This canal is only 7km long, with three locks, whereas the Clones canal seems likely to be 13km with one, two or three locks. Like the Clones canal, the Lough Allen is a canal leading off a popular river and lake navigation.

Lough Allen itself is largely deserted, despite having two harbours in addition to the pontoon berths at Drumshanbo. And the lock at Drumshanbo is the least used on the inland Shannon (the sea lock in Limerick is the only one that is less used, at 178 passages in 2008). Here are some figures for 2008:

  • Victoria Lock, Meelick: 6347
  • Pollboy Lock (River Suck to Ballinasloe): 1710
  • Athlone Lock: 6284
  • Tarmonbarry Lock: 4896
  • Clondra Lock (which parallels Tarmonbarry): 734
  • Roosky Lock: 6053
  • Albert Lock, Jamestown: 8187
  • Clarendon Lock (to Lough Key): 5483
  • Battlebridge Lock (downstream lock on the Lough Allen Canal): 1156
  • Drumleague Lock (middle lock on the Lough Allen Canal): 1108
  • Drumshanbo Lock (top of the Lough Allen Canal): 645.

Each transit of the lock is a passage, so the number of visiting boats should be around half that of the number shown. Would Clones get many more visitors at the head of a longer canal?

The unquantifiable benefits

The Updated Economic Appraisal says:

8.1 An economic appraisal does not concentrate solely on quantifiable financial matters. With any project there will be issues which cannot readily be quantified but which must be considered in order to arrive at a balanced overall view of the various options. The non monetary evaluation is a recognised essential part of the economic appraisal process.

It identifies four qualitative criteria:

  • cross-border and cross-community interaction
  • enhanced profile (external to the island of Ireland)
  • leverage of additional economic and regeneration activity
  • heritage benefits.

The Outline Business Case says that “a number of important factors have not been fully captured in the cost benefit analysis”:

  • restoration as a North-South project attracting both cross-border and, crucially, cross-community support within Northern Ireland
  • “peace dividend” benefits whose “timely and concrete scope for cross-border and cross-community co-operation” give the Ulster Canal a “strategic economic significance”
  • the last major step in integration of Waterways Ireland’s existing inland waterways network
  • “non-monetised benefits of exercise and recreation” where the use of inland waterways addresses “lifestyle and health issues”.

I got the impression (no doubt an erroneous one) that by that stage Fitzpatrick Associates were struggling to find anything that could be said in favour of spending taxpayers’ money on this project. The “lifestyle and health” point is nonsense: a walking route would do far more to provide opportunities for exercise than a canal would (driving a boat doesn’t require much human energy). The “peace dividend” point is merely a restatement of the first point, which I will discuss in a moment. And the integration of WI’s network is a minor benefit (the connected network is already quite large) that doesn’t apply to a canal to Clones.

I don’t think much of the Updated Economic Appraisal’s point about enhanced profile either. It might conceivably apply to a full restoration, but a canal to Clones, lacking any major attraction like the Caen Hill flight of locks or the Falkirk Wheel, is not in itself sufficiently interesting to attract much international attention.

So that leaves us with three benefits:

  • cross-border and cross-community interaction
  • leverage of additional economic and regeneration activity
  • heritage benefits.

While these are more substantial points than the other claimed benefits, I don’t think that any of them is substantial enough.

The Updated Economic Appraisal says:

8.5 Section II highlighted that waterways have long been identified as an area for North/South co-operation. Restoration of the Ulster Canal would not just create a lasting North/South physical amenity, it would result in greater levels of joined up working on a North/South basis, right through from the planning stage through construction to ongoing operation. In doing so it will engage politicians central and local government representatives, statutory bodies, the private and potentially the voluntary and community sector in a process of North/South dialogue and interaction. In addition it will encourage individuals from ROI to visit NI, where they may not otherwise do so (and vice-versa). Related to the above there is also clear potential for cross-community interaction, which has the potential to contribute to efforts to consolidate in respect of community relations.

I suspect that the completion of the canal to Clones will not be met by public rejoicing on the Shankill Road and the Falls Road. The active republican terrorists, who regard Martin McGuinness MLA as a “British Crown minister“, will not lay down their arms, and I don’t suppose their loyalist counterparts (if any are still active) will be much impressed either. “Individuals from ROI” in the area already cross the border regularly, and any boaters approaching from Lough Erne will already have crossed borders. That “politicians central and local government representatives, statutory bodies, the private and potentially the voluntary and community sector” might cooperate is an admirable thing, already seen in the workings of the Blackwater Regional Partnership, that can happen even without a canal.

The other point to be made here is that the only settlement along the line of the canal to Clones is Clones itself, which is in the republic. The canal crosses the border several times, but it’s in the middle of nowhere: there is no town or village on the northern side that might be a focus for celebration or participation. The canal to Clones may benefit Clones, but it seems unlikely to do much for Northern Ireland.

There probably would be some “additional economic and regeneration activity”, and the appraisal discusses that at length in Section III Assessment of Need, identifying four sectors that might use some of the dozen sites for development along the whole canal: accommodation (including hotels), hospitality (including restaurants and bars), ancillary businesses and housing. However, only two of the sites are on the Clones to Lough Erne section and I fear that, in the current state of the Irish economy, it is unlikely that anyone (other than NAMA) will be building houses, hotels or pubs for some time.

Finally, I find it difficult to understand the scoring system for heritage benefits. The “do nothing” option is given a score of 2, the Clones option 3 and all other options 3, 4 or (for full restoration) 7. Yet the only option that would leave the existing artefacts alone is the “do nothing” option: other options involve rebuilding locks and removing towpaths from under bridges.

Fungible boats

There is one other point that might be made here. It’s perhaps not strictly relevant to the canal to Clones, but it is to the idea of restoring the entire canal. The problem is that many proponents of restoration seem to believe that boats are fungible, but Irish inland boats are not.

Fungible items are pretty well interchangeable. If you buy a litre of diesel of a particular type and grade, it doesn’t matter which litre you get from the filling-station’s storage tank.

Britain’s inland waterways, and especially those run by British Waterways, are dominated by canals, they in turn are dominated by steel narrowboats. It was not always thus:

GRP cruisers were once the dominant pleasure craft on the canals. Today, they’re vastly outnumbered by steel narrowboats. Even on the Thames, where the wide locks can accommodate opulent gin palaces, there are hundreds more narrowboats than 20 years ago.[i]

As a result, boats on those waterways can be considered to be fungible: if a restoration project caters for one narrowboat, it will cater for most inland boats. But that is not true for Irish waterways, where there is a much wider variety of vessels. That does not seem to have been understood by Jan O’Sullivan, a Limerick Labour Party TD:

Given that I am at the bottom of the line in Limerick, I have a great interest in the development of the Ulster Canal and in making the connection from the North, through my constituency, to the sea.[ii]

John Dallat MLA (SDLP) shared the misunderstanding:

The Ulster canal project is, in reality, a vision for the future. As was said, boats from the River Shannon will be able to come north, through Lough Neagh and the Lower Bann, before making their way out to sea or continue their journeys to Derry and beyond, perhaps even to Scotland or its islands. [iii]

Incidentally, the rest of his dream was equally unrealistic:

The Ulster canal project will attract long-term investment to build hotels, boatyards, marinas and a host of other river-based projects that will generate thousands of well-paid, sustainable jobs, many of which will be locally based. […] In the Coleraine area, I envisage at least five hotels being built from where the Salmon Leap used to be to the Barmouth. I foresee the creation of many more facilities, because I believe in the project and have spoken to people involved in the development of the Shannon and Erne regions. I know that it will happen, but the Assembly must be a driving force. When investors see the activities of the Assembly starting to roll, I have no doubt that they will invest the same amount of money in the Lower Bann as they invested and lost in apartments.[iv]

But the main point is that the vessels most suitable for use on canals are steel narrowboats and barges, which have to be careful when crossing lakes and most of which are utterly unsuitable for use at sea.

Many cruisers can use canals too, but a lot of the modern cruisers, as well as the fast powerboats and high-powered day-boats, are not well suited to close contact with stone structures. They can use canals, but some find it difficult to keep down to canal speeds, and I suspect they would be happier zooming around on the lakes. So I suspect that some owners of such boats will make one or two visits to Clones, but will then feel that honour has been satisfied.


My overall impression is that the benefits are overstated. I hasten to say that I do not think the consultants are to blame. In some cases the economic situation has changed; in others the absence of Irish data has forced a reliance on British data that may not apply here. And I don’t think that enough has been done to re-assess the benefits that might flow from a short canal to Clones rather than a complete restoration of the Ulster Canal from Lough Erne to Lough Neagh.

Next: where the funding was expected to come from.

[i] Editorial, Waterways World, October 2010

[ii] Dáil Éireann 05 December 2006. British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill 2006 [ Seanad ] : Second and Subsequent Stages

[iii] Northern Ireland Assembly Tuesday 09 February 2010

[iv] Northern Ireland Assembly Tuesday 09 February 2010

One response to “The Ulster Canal 07: the supposed benefits

  1. Pingback: Shannon traffic 2013 | Irish waterways history

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