For reasons now lost in the mists of time, I forgot to draw the attention of Learned Readers to an exchange in the Dáil on 18 April 2012, which was reported on the invaluable KildareStreet website as well as on the Oireachtas site. Jack Wall, a Labour TD for Kildare South, asked this question:
Question 702: To ask the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the position regarding the canal system under Waterways Ireland; the plans the agency has for the development of the canals; the number of lock keepers in the system; if there are any vacancies; if so, when same will be filled and the mechanism that will be adopted to do so; if the agency has any plans to refurbish existing systems that are not in use at present; if the agency has any plans to increase the number of berthings on the canals and if so, in which areas; if the traffic on the canals has shown a percentage increase over each year for the past three years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18431/12]
Now, that’s a bit of a portmanteau question. I wonder whether Jack Wall was prompted to ask about lock keepers but not quite well enough briefed to ask follow-up questions. The minister, Jimmy Deenihan, gave a four-paragraph answer, and I’m going to break it up so that I can discuss each element individually.
The minister’s first paragraph was background music:
Since its formation in 1999, Waterways Ireland has continued to upgrade the facilities on the canals through the capital allocations under the National Development Plans. The canals system has benefited extremely well during that time, particularly with the number of additional mooring and landing spaces that have been made available. The provision of further mooring space will be dependent on available finance and priorities over the coming years.
I’m going to move the third paragraph up and deal with it next.
The minister said:
I am informed by Waterways Ireland that there are 20 lock keepers employed at present on the Grand Canal and Barrow Navigation. A number of staff have retired recently and decisions on their replacement will be taken having regard to the business needs of the organisation. I understand that Waterways Ireland is not planning to recruit lock keepers at this time. Any posts filled will be either by internal transfer or external recruitment, depending on the particular circumstances.
Although the minister mentions the Royal Canal elsewhere in his answer, and the question certainly does not exclude the Royal, the minister doesn’t mention it in this paragraph. In fact, there are several things the minister doesn’t mention:
- that there are no lockkeepers on the Royal
- that agency staff have been employed
- that, far from considering recruiting replacement lockkeepers, Waterways Ireland might be considering reducing their numbers, or at least assigning some of them to other duties, perhaps on the Royal.
Now, I’m not saying that any of those actualities or possibilities is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, given the virtual absence of lockkeepers on the Canal & River Trust’s English and Welsh canals, it’s hard to see why the Irish canals, with much lower traffic, need so many.
But my point here is that a TD, and especially a Labour Party TD (haven’t they something to do with supporting workers?), might be presumed to be interested in the aspects that the minister did not mention. The minister’s answer was true but incomplete.
For the 2011 election Fine Gael published a document called Reinventing Government, with section headings on “More Open and Transparent Policy-Making Processes” and “New Systems of Openness and Transparency”. Where are they?
Here is the minister’s second paragraph:
My Department’s 2012 capital allocation for Waterways Ireland is €4.5m. This will facilitate continued investment in the development and restoration of the inland waterways. The main thrust of the refurbishment of the waterways over the next few years will be focused on the re-opening of the Ulster Canal from Upper Lough Erne to Clones. However, Waterways Ireland is also undertaking feasibility studies on the Kilbeggan Branch of the Grand Canal and on the Longford Branch of the Royal Canal. These are due to be completed by the end of 2013.
They’re thinking of digging even more sheughs!
Look. I know that engineers love to have excuses (and money) to do engineering: all that kit, wellies and hard hats, muck-shifting and the satisfying feeling that you are bringing joy (and tourists) to a small town. But it’s a waste of time and money. And there is absolutely no point in doing feasibility studies: what you want are cost-benefit analyses. Pretty well every single canal ever built with public funding in Ireland has been a waste of money and there is no reason to believe that relining the canals to Longford and Kilbeggan will be any better. I mean, look at the Naas Branch: very scenic, but hardly anyone ever goes there other than in convoy.
What you want to do is to explain, politely, to the TDs of Longford and Kilbeggan that they can have canals only if they will agree to having all other public services (including the drinking-water supply) cut off. But of course both Kilbeggan and Longford already have ways of attracting tourists. Kilbeggan has a distillery while Longford has an absence of signposts, especially to Athlone, thus causing motorists to drive around in ever-decreasing circles until they imitate the oozlum bird.
I mean, the canal age is over; this is the age of the camper van.
Here is the minister’s final paragraph.
I am informed that boat traffic numbers on the Grand Canal and Barrow Navigation have remained fairly constant over 2009 and 2010. In 2011 the numbers increased by 30% following the re-opening of the Royal Canal and the fact that access was available to the Tall Ships event in Waterford.
Now this is really interesting, for three reasons:
- first, Waterways Ireland keeps telling me that it cannot produce any usage figures for the canals and the Barrow. So on what traffic numbers are the minister’s statements based?
- second, note that the basis of comparison between the earlier years (2009 and 2010) and the later (2011) is not clear. The Royal was not officially open during the earlier years, although there was some traffic. Was it counted? And does the 2011 figure that shows the 30% increase include Royal figures (in which case it would be an invalid comparison) or not (in which case the few boats doing the complete triangular route caused a huge increase in traffic)?
- third, note that the minister does not give any actual usage figures. Could it be that they are very small?
What the canals and the Barrow need is action to increase the amount of traffic, especially in summer (when few people travel because of weed and sometimes water shortages) and winter (when few travel because it’s miserable). Adding extensions only spreads the existing traffic more thinly over a larger number of destinations. When you get to the stage of having traffic jams at locks, you can begin to think about extra destinations. Until then, put the shovels away.