In September 2010 I wrote:
[…] a government department, in a time of economic crisis, is proposing to commit to the spending of at least €35,000,000, without having any certainty of being able to get the money anywhere. Unless Waterways Ireland has surplus assets that I don’t know about, I cannot see how it can raise that amount by selling property in a slump; nor do I see any certainty that the Department of Finance will supply the money.
So the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs won’t be choosing between two sources of funding. Its only possible source is the Department of Finance, and its only possible argument is that, unless the taxpayer stumps up, the shame will be too great: the neighbours will realise that we’re all fur coat and no knickers.
Since the creation of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in 2011, we’ve seen a slow striptease, with the government flicking up the corners of its fur coat and gradually hinting at the nakedness underneath.
The setting up of an inter-agency group of treasure hunters was the most explicit acknowledgement that the Irish government could not afford to build the Clones Sheugh. The group included folk from Fermanagh District Council, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the NI Strategic Investment Board and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, so the burden of treasure-hunting was spread north of the border. But if that constituted the fifth veil — highlighting rather than concealing nakedness — the sixth has now been dropped.
On Tuesday 9 July 2013 the Select Sub-Committee on Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht was concluding its consideration of the revised 2013 estimates for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (and the National Gallery). Sandra McLellan, Sinn Féin TD for Cork East, said:
I have one more question, on subhead D4, Waterways Ireland. There is a promise of stage payments to Waterways Ireland to begin the process of making the opening up of the Ulster Canal a reality. Planning permission to begin the project was sought and is due to be approved at this month’s Fermanagh District Council planning meeting and permission has already been approved in County Monaghan. Once the Government releases the funding, the process should move quickly and whatever land purchases are needed will be made. Does the Government intend on doing this and will Waterways Ireland have the adequate funding to undertake the project in 2013–2014?
The minister, Jimmy Deenihan [FG, Kerry North/West Limerick], began by talking about planning permissions and compulsory purchases:
At this stage, the planning permissions have been granted. That, in itself, was a challenge because of environmental and other reasons. The next process will be the CPOs to get the land. In many cases, hopefully, we can acquire the land by agreement. That will be the next challenge.
He went on to say why the Irish government couldn’t afford the sheugh:
There is an inter-agency group sitting. It is something I established, where the local authorities and the statutory organisations, North and South, have all come together around a table and are looking for alternative sources of funding too rather than merely funding from the Dublin Government. Originally, the agreement was that this would be funded by Dublin and the funding for it was identified with the sale of property at the time. During the Celtic tiger, the property, down in the docklands, etc., was quite valuable. However, with the collapse of the property market, that potential source of funding was not there to the same extent, although, with the property market now recovering, that property could become valuable again. Hopefully, it will and can contribute to the overall costs.
Note that phrase “rather than merely funding from the Dublin Government”. But there is more to come:
The next stage would be the acquisition of the land in order to provide the canal and the inter-agency group is looking at possibilities. Also, my counterpart in Northern Ireland, the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín MLA, is looking at possible funding for the small portion that is in the North. Funding may be available for that from the Northern Executive and, maybe, Westminster. That, obviously, would help. Wherever we can get funding for this, certainly we will be striving to get it. It will be incremental. We will have to approach it on a staged basis but the important point is to get it started.
So the idea that the wealthy and munificent southern government would pay the entire cost of the sheugh, as a present to the benighted and miserable inhabitants of Norn Iron, and as a demonstration of the prosperity to be expected from a united Ireland, has been abandoned altogether. If Carál Ní Chuilín [who is, coincidentally, a Sinn Féin MLA] manages to extract money from her colleagues for that portion of the sheugh lying within Norn Iron, it will mean that the construction is being funded in the same way as other Waterways Ireland capital spending: each government pays for the development within its own jurisdiction.
Will Ms Ní Chuilín manage to persuade her colleagues? In September 2010 I wrote:
[…] 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.
It is possible that having a Sinn Féin minister running DCAL will change economic perceptions, and no doubt Simon Hamilton, the [DUP] Minister of Finance and Personnel, will be easily persuaded. Having an Irishman as UK Chancellor of the Exchequer may help the Sinn Féin cause: the last time that happened, HMG wasted half a million pounds on the Shannon.
But back to the minister:
It is a good North-South project. It links North and South. There also could be some possibilities under European funding, for example, there was funding available for the Ballyconnell canal and some of that was derived from European funding. We will be looking at every possible source of funding in order to get the project off the ground and to complete it over a period of time. Besides, Waterways Ireland, from its own capital budget, may have some small amount of funding available to initiate the project as well. I will be looking at identifying funding from different sources and, hopefully, over a period of time, we can provide the canal.
There are two sets of points in that paragraph. One suggests that the inter-agency group has not yet found the pot of gold, indeed that it has no very firm ideas about where to find it. Waterways Ireland is unlikely to be able to spare more than the price of a few shovels, but even if it devoted its entire capital budget to the Clones Sheugh it would take at least ten years to pay for it.
The other set of points is contained in the first two sentences:
It is a good North-South project. It links North and South.
Any minor boreen could be said to link North and South, but without costing €40 million or so. In fact, though, the Clones Sheugh is not a good project: it is a waste of money. It will link a couple of fields in the middle of nowhere to, er, Clones, which is no doubt a vibrant hub of culture. It will not attract significant numbers of foreign tourists, so it will merely displace waterways activity from elsewhere, and it will not generate new business or employment opportunities except perhaps for part-time summer jobs in a couple of pubs.
I have compared the Irish (and especially Sinn Féin) enthusiasm for canals to a cargo cult, but perhaps a more modern comparison, and one in line with this post’s heading, would be to the Underpants Gnomes (a metaphor I used here about the Shannon in 1792). It will be recalled that the Underpants Gnomes had a three-phase business plan:
- Collect Underpants
The Irish government’s (and perhaps Sinn Féin’s) devotion to the Clones Sheugh might be explained by their adherence to a similar plan:
- Build canal
- Peace and prosperity.
But, knickerless, they cannot gird their loins. Maybe Little Miss Higgins‘s video might provide useful advice.
The minister’s extensive reply did not stop Sandra McLellan from asking pretty much the same question nine days later, causing me to wonder why the shinners want the sheugh:
Is there something in the St Andrew’s Agreement, or some other bit of northsouthery, that promises a sheugh to Sinn Féin, to enable them to claim credit for some high-profile but non-threatening all-Irelandism? Is the Clones Sheugh the price of SF support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland? I don’t know, but there must be some explanation for the failure to kill off the sheugh.
[h/t to the learned AD, who drew my attention to the meeting of the select sub-committee, which I had not myself noticed. AD is not, however, to be blamed for my views — or for my metaphors]