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Tag Archives: Shannon-Erne Waterway
The Shannon–Erne Waterway, a mix of canal, river and small lake, links the Shannon (at Leitrim) to the Erne (near Belturbet). Formerly the Ballinamore & Ballyconnell Canal, and originally the Junction Canal in the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Drainage District (or some such combination of elements), it was rebuilt in the early 1990s with automated (boater-operated) locks, service blocks, a logo, marketing and other such new-fangled extras that had not engaged the attention of the Office of Public Works.
I have not been able to find a proper cost-benefit analysis, but my impression is that Irish taxpayers paid relatively little of the cost, so that it was a good investment for them. It has been used as an example of the regenerative power of restored waterways, although (unlike, say, the River Suck or the proposed Clones Sheugh) it was a link between two busy boating areas, rather than a dead-end canal. Even so, several of the businesses that were started in the early years have since vanished, although there are some new ones like Ballinamore Marina.
On a recent visit (from Leitrim to Haughton’s Shore and return), though, I felt that the waterway had an air of neglect. This view may have been formed by two nights (one on the outward, one on the return journey) at Keshcarrigan in the rain. Some improvement work was started at the harbour some time ago, but it seems to have been suspended or abandoned: fencing, equipment and materials were left on site. Given that Keshcarrigan was one of the areas afflicted by post-Celtic-Tiger ghost estates, the state of the harbour does not encourage visitors, despite the pleasure of staring at what appear to be the resident boats (one of which, sporting a “For sale” notice, was occupying one of the few long spaces and monopolising one of the few shore-power sockets).
Ballinamore, however, was much more cheerful, especially with a festival going on (the rain drowned the nighttime noise of the funfair), and Haughton’s Shore was peaceful, with not even one dancing van.
But the infrastructure seems to need attention. The paint on many of the navigation markers had faded, although admittedly that rarely caused a navigation problem.
The waterway seemed to me to have become shallower in places (we were told that we would meet even shallower bits if we went on to Ballyconnell), even making allowances for a dry summer. It felt as though there were bars of sand or clay underneath when coming out of locks (going down), but even on some of the stretches between locks the water felt shallower than it should be. This is of course only a series of impressions, but I would be interested to know whether the waterway’s profile has changed since it was rebuilt. It would not be surprising to find that it had: the passage of boats, and especially of those travelling fast, may have undermined the banks. I do not know what programme of dredging Waterways Ireland carries out.
The worst feature is the trees, which don’t seem to have been cut back for some time. They need a large amount of serious industrial-scale equipment to be applied to them for weeks or months.
In some places, large branches had fallen in and not been removed. In others, there was less than the width of the boat between the trees stretching from the two sides. They seriously impeded the ability to see the lines of bends, to judge the approaches to bridges or even to spot oncoming boats: for most of those we met, we had very little time to react (so it was just as well that, except for the lake sections, we didn’t get above tickover speed for the entire journey). Had there been kayaks or other small craft using the waterway, I suspect we wouldn’t have seen them until the last moment.
In some places the trees stretched out so far that it was hard to stay in the (presumably) deep water in the centre of the channel. But the really challenging part was when trees impeded the approach to a bridge, making it impossible to line up properly. Several of the bridges are on sharp bends and, with a large boat, the trees caused severe problems.
The extent of the overgrowth is such that it requires a major commitment to tree-cutting. I can imagine that that would be hard to organise: the bird-fanciers have limited the cutting season to the more unpleasant months of the year, when days are short; getting to and from the cutting site takes several hours out of the limited working day; removal of cuttings would be a major undertaking. But something will have to be done: it’s already bad enough that I won’t return unless I know that the trees have been cut, and if they’re left for another year or two even smaller vessels will have problems.
Update 26 September 2018
Waterways Ireland’s Marine Notice 99 of 2018 says that “tree trimming and hedge cutting will be carried out at various locations on the Shannon-Erne Waterway” between September 2018 and February 2019.
This is good news; I hope that the shrubbery will be given a thorough cutting.
Fans of recreated recreational waterways might consider that they need serious amounts spent on maintenance. It is not clear that all proposed recreations could generate the traffic to justify the expenditure.
Concerns have been raised in recent years about the coverage of dozens of minor harbours and landing places in the UK.
Her Majesty also has a land border, part of which runs along the Shannon–Erne Waterway, so no doubt volunteers will be needed there too. The Ulster Special Constabulary provides a possible model, notably the B Specials:
- B Specials – part-time, usually on duty for one evening per week and serving under their own command structure, and unpaid, although they had a generous system of allowances (which were reduced following the reorganisation of the USC a few years later), served wherever the RIC served and manned Mobile Groups of platoon size; (originally 19,000 members).
I have reported regularly on Shannon traffic figures [most recently here] but I have paid relatively little attention to the Shannon–Erne Waterway [SEW]. I am therefore grateful to Waterways Ireland for supplying me with the last five years’ monthly traffic figures for Locks 1 and 16 on the SEW. I had some queries about the figures for certain months and I have put them to Waterways Ireland, but I presume that the annual figures are OK.
Clearly, not all boats go all the way through: if they did, the figures for Locks 1 and 16 might be the same. The hire bases for Locaboat, Riversdale and Corraquill were all on the Erne side of the summit level; does Lock 1’s excess of traffic over Lock 16 suggest that hirers, perhaps wishing to minimise the number of locks they passed through, headed for the Erne rather than the Shannon? The figures, which I presume are gathered automatically, do not distinguish between private and hired boats.
The other point that strikes me is that the level of traffic is actually quite low. I put in the figures for Pollboy and Athlone locks to allow comparison. SEW traffic is greater than that on the Lough Allen Canal, but it is not much greater than that on the River Suck to Ballinasloe. In that case, WI is [according to its Business Plan 2015] considering automating Pollboy Lock to reduce costs.
The SEW locks are already automated, but the costs and benefits may have to be re-examined, especially now that Locaboat has moved from Ballinamore to Quigleys Marina at Killinure on Lough Ree: I presume that that will result in less traffic on the SEW.
Pollboy and the CLones Sheugh
In 2006 Pollboy traffic was used as the basis for estimating likely traffic to Clones on the Ulster Canal’s “SW section”:
The total number of boat parties/groups for the SW section is assumed to be 600. This is based on a comparison with another “offshoot” like the Suck Navigation which had around 1,250 boat parties/groups in 2005 (obtained by dividing the passages through Pollboy Lock by 2) in a much busier section of the whole system. So, for the SW section, a level of around 50% (ie. 600) is regarded as a reasonable assumption.
Waterways Ireland Socio economic Summary Report for the NE and SW Sections of the Ulster Canal Final Report February 2006
Now that Pollboy’s traffic is half what it was in 2005, no doubt the estimate for the number of boats that would visit Clones, if a canal ever reached it, has likewise been halved, which would give an average of about ten boats a week over a seven-month season: four boats every Saturday and one a day for the rest of the week. Folk intending to build restaurants to cater for the cruiser traffic might be wise to reassess their investment plans:
In overall terms, the benefits of waterway restoration derive from the fact that these can facilitate a variety of leisure and recreational activity, that the users will benefit from this activity, and that there will also be wider spin-off benefits in the areas, e.g. facilities such as restaurants etc built to service canal traffic.
Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Restoring the Ulster Canal from Lough Erne to Clones Updated Business Case February 2015
There’s not enough business there for a burger van, never mind a restaurant.
The magic of the Shannon–Erne Waterway
But if Pollboy, the River Suck and Ballinasloe are no longer cited as support for the construction of a Clones Sheugh, the Shannon–Erne Waterway is still used as an example, in that and in other contexts. Take, for example, this:
I’ve nicked that from a slide show called Economic, Recreational and Social Benefits of Rural Waterways in Ireland, which was to be delivered [PDF] by Garret McGrath of Waterways Ireland at the World Canals Conference [PDF] in Milan in 2014.
Now, if the Shannon–Erne Waterway had caused all that construction activity, we’d have to drag Waterways Ireland before the Irish banking enquiry. Skipping lightly over the question of the ghost estates, and the departure of Locaboat from Ballinamore, we come to the real problem with this sort of stuff: the post hoc fallacy. We are invited to believe that
- a waterway was built
- prosperity followed
- so the waterway must have caused the prosperity.
Well, maybe it did and maybe it didn’t, but the argument presented in the slide show isn’t sufficient to prove it. You would have to check to see whether there were any other possible explanations: any other changes that might have resulted in all that construction.
Along the Shannon–Erne Waterway, I can think of two other possible factors: Sean Quinn’s business empire and the Upper Shannon Rural Renewal Scheme, a tax dodge that applied in Leitrim, Longford, Roscommon, Cavan and Sligo, five of the six counties that had the highest rates of vacant housing (excluding holiday houses). So there are two problems here:
- much of that construction activity may have been driven by tax breaks rather than by the existence of a nearby waterway
- the construction itself may not have had beneficial effects.
You can read more about that here, noting in particular, on the map, the areas around the upper Shannon and the SEW with vacancy rates of over 25%; you might wonder whether Waterways Ireland is wise to claim credit for housing over-development.
But my main concern here is a different one: that, if you want to claim credit for economic benefits that followed waterways development, you have to measure the benefits and subtract those attributable to other factors, such as Sean Quinn and the Rural Renewal Scheme. Then it would be useful if you compared the remaining benefits with the cost of constructing your waterway: it might then be possible to say that waterways development is a good investment.
It may be that such a study has been done on the SEW, but if it has I don’t know where it is; I would like to see it if it exists. Until then, I regard this sort of thing, from DAHG’s Business Case, as drivel:
The broad existence and nature of the potential socio-economic benefits of canals and restored waterways are therefore well established and not really at issue.
Sorry, minister: that’s rubbish. As far as I know no proper evaluation has ever been carried out on the costs and benefits of any restored or new-built Irish waterway. So you’re not getting away with that one.
On 24 February 2015, the Irish Times published an article headed
First stage of Ulster Canal restoration due to begin in April
Some €2m will be spent on a section of the Shannon-Erne waterway
It ended with these sentences:
The €2 million will be drawn from the funds of Waterways Ireland, a north-south implementation body. It will carry out the dredging of a 2km section of the Erne river and the construction of a new navigation arch at Derrykerrib Bridge to accommodate boat traffic, with a target completion date of April 2016.
It may be that the Irish Times doesn’t know very much about waterways. If it did, it might have been aware that, on 18 December 2014, the North South Ministerial Council approved Waterways Ireland’s Business Plan 2015, which included this Action:
3.6 Progress the restoration of the Ulster Canal on an incremental basis. €1,000
So on 18 December 2014 the North South Ministerial Council — which for all practical waterways purposes consists of Heather Humphreys, the southern minister for waterways and other stuff, and Carál Ní Chuilín, her northern counterpart — approved the allocation of €1,000 to the Ulster Canal in Waterways Ireland’s 2015 plan. Yet, just over two months later, they expect Waterways Ireland to spend about €2 million on the blasted thing, about €1.5 million of it in 2015.
The southern government’s party of treasure-seekers seems to have disappeared entirely: at any rate it doesn’t seem to have found any money. And the two ministers’ departments have presided over successive years of cuts in Waterways Ireland’s current and capital budgets, cuts whose effect has been worsened by the woefully inadequate provision for an ever-increasing pensions bill. Waterways Ireland’s Corporate Plan 2014–2016 shows a cumulative increase of €984,000 in pension costs over the period of the plan, which wipes out a lot of savings in other areas.
I suppose that curiosity is a weakness in journalism. Were it not so, two questions might have struck the Irish Times:
- how is Waterways Ireland to come up with €2 million out of an ever-decreasing budget?
- why has Waterways Ireland’s Business Plan been so violently disrupted only two months after it was approved? The €2 million is half WI’s total capital budget spending in for the republic in 2015; it will be recalled that the republic, in a fit of more than usually nitwitted arrogance, undertook to pay for a canal to Clones, which is what the powers-that-be are pretending Saunderson’s Sheugh is.
I can answer the first question, at least for 2015, during which WI expects to spend €1,416,000:
- €166,000 will come from Heather Humphreys’s department
- €900,000 will (WI hopes) come from the sale of property assets
- €150,000 will come from the postponement of an IT programme
- €220,000 will come from the postponement of non-navigation works on the Shannon
- €90,000 will come from postponing development of the Barrow Blueway.
I don’t know what property assets WI can sell to bring in the requsite amount. It seems that damage to everyday navigation has been avoided, but the Shannon and the Barrow are to suffer to pay for dredging a river that merely provides a small extension of the Erne navigation.
As for the second question, I suspect that Sinn Féin put a gun to someone’s head: “We’re fed up waiting for our sheugh. Start digging or the baby gets it.” The baby might have been Heather Humphreys’s Dáil seat or it might have been something more important. And the gun was, I suspect, a message accompanying the “business case” prepared by the northern department and sent to the southern. [I have asked both departments for copies and other information.]
Arthur Aughey, then lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster, wrote in Magill magazine in February 2001:
Puritanical republicans grieve at the thought that the hunger strikers [of 1981] died to achieve the Waterways Ireland Implementation Board.
I suspect that the less puritanical republicans, those who operate in the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland, are now demanding that the southern government deliver, through the “Waterways Ireland Implementation Board”, what nitwitted previous governments promised. It’s a pity that Sinn Féin and those previous governments couldn’t have come up with a more sensible list of waterways and other infrastructural projects.