Tag Archives: Northern Ireland Assembly

The DUP fightback

I mentioned here that the ridiculous decision by the Sinn Féin Minister for Marching Bands [and Sheughs] to ask the DUP Minister for Finance and Personnel for £46 million for the Lisburn Sheugh might have been intended to annoy the DUP. Most of the Lisburn Sheugh, formerly the Lagan Navigation, ran through unionist territory; the Lagan Valley constituency is solidly unionist, and specifically DUP, in both Westminster and NI Assembly elections. It costs Ms Ní Chuilín nothing to pass on the Lisburn lunacy to the Dept of Finance, leaving it to a DUP Minister to turn down the funding application.

But the DUP has lobbed a neat hand-grenade response back at the Shinner fortress. Brenda Hale, DUP MLA for Lagan Valley, has put two questions to the sheughery enthusiasts:

AQW 48647/11-16 To ask the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what financial support her Department has offered the Lagan Canal Trust, given that their budget has been cut by 11 per cent. [09/09/2015 Awaiting Answer]

AQW 48646/11-16 To ask the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure when the Lagan Navigation Canal Locks where last maintained. [09/09/2015 Awaiting Answer]

Ye’ll no’ fickle Thomas Yownie.

Why DCAL shoved the Sheugh?

It is possible that the NI Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has been putting pressure on the republic’s Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, to get it to start shovelling Saunderson’s Sheugh, because DCAL was aware of its own impending demise. According to Peter Robinson, speaking to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 2 March 2015:

The Stormont House Agreement of 23 December 2014 included a commitment that the number of Departments should be reduced from 12 to nine in time for the 2016 Assembly election, with the new allocation of departmental functions to be agreed by the parties. […]

The Department for Communities will combine the existing functions of DSD with most DCAL functions, with the exceptions being inland fisheries and waterways. […]

The Department for Infrastructure will exercise the existing responsibilities of DRD, but will also take on a range of functions from other existing Departments: vehicle regulation, road safety and Driver and Vehicle Agency functions from DOE; the Rivers Agency from DARD; inland waterways from DCAL; and, from OFMDFM, the strategic investment unit and several regeneration sites, including the Crumlin Road Gaol.

I’m sure that, for some waterways folk, it would be a relief to be back in with engineers. And, if the Department for Infrastructure goes to a Unionist in 2016, all sorts of things might change. But by then there might be enough Sheughery to get Carál and Heather reelected, and it might not matter if there were no more money after the River Finn had been dredged to Castle Saunderson.

WI budget

I mentioned the Northern Ireland budget and its effects on Waterways Ireland here; Nelson McCausland [DUP] gives an overview of the effects on DCAL here, including this:

The North/South language bodies and Waterways Ireland, while outside the scope of this budget reduction exercise, will see their budgets fall by over £1 million collectively, as agreed at the relevant North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meetings.


The contagious cargo cult

Readers will be saddened to learn that Ireland’s cargo cult, the delusion that canals bring prosperity, is spreading. It may even be that an increasing frequency of political references to Saunderson’s [né the Clones] Sheugh means that the devotees are about to engage in sympathetic magic by attempting to dig a sheugh.

The sheugh was mentioned in both legislative assemblies on the island on 20 January 2015. In Dublin, Gerry Adams [SF, Louth] said:

I remind the House that the peace process is the most important political project on this island at this time and it needs to be nurtured, protected and enhanced. It must be at the top of the Government’s agenda alongside other priorities.

I wonder how many priorities can dance on the head of an agenda ….

I welcome the financial commitments that have been made, including €25 million in annual funding for the A5 road project, which will assist people in Tír Chonaill, Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone. I welcome additional funding for reconciliation under the European Union’s PEACE and INTERREG programmes and the Government’s renewed commitment to the Narrow Water bridge and Ulster Canal projects. These are important developments which need to be delivered.

If the Shinners are going to prioritise such nitwitted public spending projects, Goldman Sachs will never allow them into government [assuming that Goldman Sachs cares what happens in Ireland, which they might not, pace Peter Sutherland]. Nobody else mentioned the sheugh in that debate, but several Norn Iron politicos seem to have succumbed to the delusion. They had a debate on “Ulster Canal: Tourism Benefits“, which is like having a debate about the nature of unicorn excrement without first checking to see whether unicorns exist.

Note, in what follows, the complete absence of any quantification of benefits, with only a single mention of costs and with an unwavering belief that canals bring prosperity, even if they lack any interesting features (apart from the engine shed in Clones). There is no attempt at identifying why tourists would be attracted to the sheugh, no discussion of the mechanism by which public spending is translated into tourism revenue and then into local or national benefit.

Not that southern politicians are any better, of course.

Anyway, back to the NI Assembly. Sean Lynch [SF] “asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for her assessment of the potential tourism benefits of re-opening the Ulster canal”. Note that he didn’t say how much of the canal he wanted.

Arlene Foster [DUP] [for it was she] said

The waterways of Northern Ireland have the potential to become an integral part of the tourism experience in Northern Ireland. The proposed Ulster canal development could provide opportunities for canal boating as well as supporting infrastructure to support walking and cycling, all of which would benefit our visitors and the local area.

All of which is waffle. She provided no assessment.

Although the project is being led by DCAL, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) continues to work with the Ulster canal inter-agency group through the Destination Fermanagh steering group and with the Clones Erne East Blackwater project to try to maximise the tourism benefit that this project could bring.

Nice to hear that the treasure-seekers, the “inter-agency group”, still exist. I wonder what they do.

So far, Arlene seems to be sticking to her script and hasn’t given much away: the sheugh could do this, that or the other, but there’s nothing concrete. But Mr Lynch asks a follow-up question:

I thank the Minister for her somewhat encouraging answer. Does she agree that, because the canal goes through Monaghan, Fermanagh, Cavan and Tyrone, both tourism boards on the island of Ireland should work closely together to ensure that it is a success?

If it were worth doing, why would the tourism boards have to “work closely together”? Would not hundreds of thousands of foreigners, from lands without canals, come flocking to the sheugh and to the irresistible attractions of Clones? What more could the tourism boards do to sell the thing? “Visit a short canal in the middle of nowhere leading to Clones”?

Mr Lynch may just have been trying to trap Ms Foster into agreeing to some tourism crossborderality. But she seems to have been doing a bit of crossborderality of her own:

The TD for Cavan-Monaghan, Heather Humphreys, has taken a particular interest in the matter, as you would imagine. It is in part of her constituency, as it is in part of ours; therefore, she is keen to move the project forward. When I last spoke to her, she again mentioned the need to push ahead on the Ulster canal.

Oh dear.

So, I think, generally, there is support for the project. I suppose that the big challenge for us all is funding. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board — or Tourism Northern Ireland, as we should now call it — will work with its counterparts to assist and make sure that all the tourism benefits are put into any business case that is put forward.

When ministers are asked questions by members of their own parties, I wonder whether the questions were arranged beforehand in order to allow the ministers to make certain points.

William Humphrey [DUP] said “The Minister is quite right that the primary responsibility lies with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.” The minister knew that already. But then he asked two questions. The first was:

Is Fermanagh District Council taking a collaborative approach to the cross-border element?

That might be intended to sell the prospect of further local government crossborderality to DUP supporters. The minister answered:

As I understand it, Fermanagh District Council is part of the Clones Erne East partnership, which seems to be driving this initiative. Of course, the Erne East councillors will be part of that partnership.

Humphrey’s second question, which elicited an interesting answer, was:

Obviously, in the current economic climate, budgets are tight. Has the Department looked at the possibility of funding from the European Union, given that it is a cross-border venture?

Ms Foster said

I simply do not know is the answer, because DCAL leads on this issue. However, I do know, and I have been advised, that some €54 million would be needed to secure the project to get it completed within 21 to 24 months. It is a large sum of money. If there are options to look elsewhere for funding, we would of course be supportive of them being explored.

Now, what is that €54 million for? Irish ministers have been quoting a figure of €35 million for years, even after 2011 when I was given a revised estimate of €45 million [overview of the history here]. That was to get to Clones. Is Clones now to cost €54 million? Or is that to Castle Saunderson? Or to Lough Neagh? Probably not the last. Note that these cost increases have come even before anybody starts digging anything.

Why does Clones deserve €54 million? Its population seems to be slightly below 3000; why not give every man, woman and child €15,000 each to forget about the sheugh, thereby saving €9 million?

Back to the Assembly. Basil McCrea [UUP], who may be the most sensible MLA, suggested, as he has suggested before, that users of inland waterways pay “for example, through a boat tax” something towards the cost of the waterways “provided that the money is used specifically for enhancing inland waterways?” Ms Foster said that was not her business and added

I want to encourage more people to come and use the inland waterways. Of course, I want them to use Lough Neagh and Lough Erne in particular.

I wonder why she omitted the Lower Bann, the Shannon–Erne Waterway and the various derelict navigations — including Saunderson’s Sheugh.






ESB Erne elvers

Northern Ireland Assembly question here.

Backing Basil

Can it be that there are two sane politicians on the island of Ireland? If so, that would be the highest number since Morpeth and Mulgrave.

Down here in the Free State we have the Sainted Leo Varadkar [KH, I see]; Oop North, where it’s grim, they have Basil McCrea [BRA] of NI21. Basil has another Written Question for Carál Ní Chuilín, NI Minister for Waterways Ireland [and Lambeg drumming, according to some of her fellow-MLAs]. Basil’s question is:

To ask the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether her Department is considering the introduction of an annual fee for boat users to fund and improve boating infrastructure.

The only problem with that is that — at least for the Waterways Ireland navigations — the fee is needed not to improve the infrastructure but to keep the lights on, get the equipment repaired and buy basic consumables. It seems to me that boat-owners either don’t know or don’t care how bad the financial situation is. I presume that the owners who are helping themselves to free moorings around Lough Derg are in the don’t-care category.

Barbara Lewis Solow, in The Land Question and the Irish Economy 1870–1903 [Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts 1971], shows that the problem with Irish agriculture in the late nineteenth century was that rents were too low and there were not enough evictions. Much the same could be said of Irish waterways: charges are pretty well non-existent and even such few rules as there are are widely ignored.

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

What Waterways Ireland and the Irish waterways need, fast, is a new set of strict byelaws, with significant user charges and strict enforcement mechanisms, preferably empowering the tax authorities to seize income and property.

The ministers should stop faffing around and get on with it.



Our favourite TUV MLA …

Jim Allister wants to know

[…]  the amount in overpayments to staff of Waterways Ireland for subsistence rates from 2002 to 2011; and whether the overpayments have been independently validated by Internal Audit and recovered.


Jim Allister and WI’s business plans

I noted here that Jim Allister, Traditional Unionist Voice MLA, had been asking questions about the “regularity” and “legality” of certain amounts granted to Waterways Ireland and the cross-border Language Body by the NI Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. His two questions to the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure were answered last week.

AQW 35466/11-15: To ask the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, in light of the Comptroller and Auditor General qualifying her Department’s Resource Accounts for 2013/14, whether she accepts that grant payments of over £8m made by her Department’s North/South Bodies were irregular; and if she will seek approval from the Department of Finance and Personnel for all such payments in accordance with the statutory requirements of the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. [Priority Written]

Answer: The accounts for both agencies of the North South Language Body and Waterways Ireland for the 2013 and 2014 years have not yet been completed and audited.

My Department’s Accounting Officer reported that during the 2013/14 year, DCAL incurred irregular spend in respect of grants to the Language Body and Waterways Ireland as the business plans for these respective periods have not been approved. Draft business plans were in place against which the performance and budget of the bodies were monitored, and Corporate Plans for the period 2011- 13 for Waterways Ireland and both agencies of the Language Body, which were approved by Sponsor Department Ministers; both Finance Ministers and the NSMC Ministers were in place.

That’s a lesson in how to avoid answering the questions you were asked.

AQW 35541/11-15: To ask the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether she will place into the Assembly Library, a copy of the documentation received from the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), or otherwise recording DFP approval, which verifies the claim by her Department’s Accounting Officer in the Resource Accounts 2013/14 that DFP approval of grants to North/South Bodies was given for the amount of the grant at estimates or efficiency stage negotiations. [Priority Written]

Answer: The 2013/14 Main Estimate is published on the Department of Finance and Personnel’s website (http://www.dfpni.gov.uk/main-estimates-2013-14.pdf). My Department included within the 2013/14 Main Estimate on specific lines entitled “Language Body” and “Waterways Ireland” an estimate of the grants (before any efficiency savings were applied) my Department intended to allocate to the North South Bodies during 2013/14.

Estimates are prepared by departments and examined by DFP Supply to ensure that they meet Assembly propriety requirements and are consistent with the Executive’s expenditure plans.

After approval by DFP Supply the Estimates are presented and recommended (as required by Section 63 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998) to the Assembly by the DFP Minister who moves the Supply Resolution/s summing up the requests for Supply for each body.

On the basis of legal advice, the Department considers that the process and published Main Estimate document shows approval by DFP for the grants allocated to the North South bodies. DFP did not approve the final business plan which has resulted in the grants being deemed irregular.

It would be nice to see that legal advice.

Last week’s Phoenix magazine had an article headed “Flanagan falls flat on face” [not online] about severe constipation in the business of the Northern Ireland Executive. It includes this paragraph:

The DUP have plunged the [NI] institutions into a blast freezer since May when unionist ultra Jim Allister, staunch opponent of the GFA [Good Friday Agreement], got 75000 votes in the Euro elections. His party won thirteen council seats the same day. That sent a high voltage chock through the party. They stopped doing business with Sinn Féin, fearful of losing votes in next year’s British election.

But the WI/Language Body business plans problem surely began before May 2014.

NI21 and waterways charges

Basil McCrea is MLA for Lagan Valley and leader of NI21. He is a member of the NI Assembly’s Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. He has asked two questions of the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure:

AQW 35965/11-15: To ask the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the Department’s total expenditure to Waterways Ireland in (i) 2012; (ii) 2013; and (iii) 2014 to date.

AQW 35966/11-15: To ask the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether there is legislative provision for her Department to impose a charge on users of waterways.


NSMC explained

I reported here on April’s meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council (inland waterways flavour). I wasn’t there, though, and Carál Ní Chuilín was. Here is her account of the meeting, as explained to the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday. There is much of interest, including the prospect of new byelaws on the Erne.

Members of the free state parliament don’t, as far as I know, get similar briefings.

It is slightly disconcerting to note that Jim Allister, the Traditional Unionist Voice MLA, seems to be the only person on the island, apart from me, to worry about delays in approving Waterways Ireland’s budgets.