General Election candidates urged to prioritise Ulster Canal project

11 February 2011 4 Comments by The Northern Standard

Candidates in the Cavan/Monaghan constituency in the forthcoming General Election are urged to make explicit commitments to the realisation of the project to revitalise the Ulster Canal as a flagship project for the stimulation of tourism in the Border region.
Brian Cassells, a past President of the Inland Waterways of Ireland, said this week that the region was awaiting “the political champion to step up to the mark and deliver the re-opening of the complete canal”, in order to “complete the missing link in the waterway chain.”
Mr Cassells asked: “What political party and what individual champion is going to deliver the dream for this forgotten border area?
“I’ve heard it said the last major financial investment for the border was the building of the canal itself.”
He called on those elected in the local constitutency to give local people their pride back, and give them something to develop. He also emphasied the potential of the canal restoration project to provide employment opportunities to young people in the region.
“This is an area populated by small farmers genuinely struggling to make ends meet,” the former Waterways President stated.
“This project creates farm diversification, which will create the part-time employment necessary to keep families on the land and small shops open.”
Mr Cassells said it must be remembered that the reopening of the Ulster Canal was not only about boats.
“It is for walkers, ornithologists, fishermen- the boat is the catalyst, that which provides interest for those who enjoy the great outdoors.
“There is an interesting statistic from British Waterways that for every boat on their system, there are 84 people associated with it. These include those whose experience is enhanced by merely seeing it, and the majority of those people spend money – financial investment badly needed in this neglected Border area.”
Taking a historical perspective, he commented:
“Controversy abounded in the nineteenth century as to whether or not a waterborne link between the Erne and the Lough Neagh should be built. Controversy still abounds today as to whether or not this now defunct waterway should have a second chance.
“Then as now, the dream was to link Limerick with Coleraine, Belfast and Newry. Obviously the reasons now are different, the logic is alike but the prize still eludes all.
“Our vision has been whetted, the arrival of the canal to Clones in 2013 is indeed welcome but the complete dream needs to become a reality.
“We need leaders with vision- the canal needs a political champion, someone to make this their swansong. So far no one has emerged.
“The phenomenal success of the Shannon/Erne waterway is largely down to the far sighted vision of the late Charles Haughey who had the dream of what has become an enormous tourist success.
“Once dilapidated and neglected towns such as Ballyconnell, Ballinamore and Leitrim, not to mention Keshcarrigan, have been revitalised. Job opportunities, both full and part-time, were created in areas where the only future was emigration.
“The reasons for the demise of the original Ulster Canal were many: shortage of water supply, pint-sized locks, the onslaught of the railways, cheaper and quicker road transport to name but a few.
“But the fundamental reasons were lack of finance, lack of foresight and poor planning, not to mention the creation of the Border.
“In a nutshell, many of those who were supposed to be visionaries were blinkered; let’s not see history repeat itself.
“Dimensions for the new waterway will be compatible with the Shannon Erne canal; locks will be automated, operated by a smart card, all the necessary infrastructure that the modern tourist demands will be provided. Co-operation and goodwill between North and South has never been more positive.”


  • Brian J Goggin said:

    It would undoubtedly be nice for Clones and for boat-owners if the Ulster Canal were restored, but it would be a very poor investment for taxpayers.

    Of the many reports commissioned on this subject since 1994, not a single one has shown that this would be a worthwhile investment. That has been pointed out by successive Northern Ireland Executive Ministers for Culture, Arts and Leisure and by the British Labour Party’s Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 2004.

    By that stage, the southern government had stopped talking about complete restoration: it spoke of a “phased or partial approach”, restoring sections at both ends of the canal. The Northern Ireland ministers still wouldn’t bite, so the southern ministers decided that they would pay the full costs of the restoration of the section from Lough Erne to Clones, even though about half is in Northern Ireland.

    I do not believe that the canal will ever get beyond Clones — if it gets that far. Although no full costing has been carried out recently, a cost of €35 million has been quoted, with annual running costs of €300,000 a year. However, the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs refuses (even in response to a Freedom of Information Act request) to say where it is going to get the €35 million. I presume it will be added to the national debt: there is not enough in the department’s budget to pay for it, and its proposed sell-off of Waterways Ireland property seems unlikely to raise anything like enough money.

    I also believe that the benefits of restoration to the local economy have been overstated. No Irish canal outside Dublin has sustained a trip-boat for very long. A boat-hire firm is unlikely to set up at the end of a cul-de-sac (and anyway the Irish boat-hire business is contracting). And if you owned a boat, would you keep it at the Clones end of the canal, when the first and the last two and a half hours of every trip would be over the same stretch of water? I suggest that potential investors should be very careful about accepting rosy estimates of the business opportunities arising from canal restorations.

    Comparisons with the Shannon–Erne Waterway are not valid and tend to ignore the contribution of Sean Quinn to the prosperity of the area along the SEW. A better comparison is with the Lough Allen Canal, another cul-de-sac, whose Drumshanbo Lock is the least used on the Shannon.

    This project is being pushed by the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, which funds the position of the Clones Regeneration Partnership’s Project Coordinator. It seems to be their equivalent of the Bertie Bowl. But it makes no economic sense, and we can’t afford this sort of prestige project any more.

    However, I do not want to see Clones lose out. According to the most comprehensive economic appraisal of the canal, over 80% of the economic benefits would come from non-boating users, especially walkers and cyclists. And the land could be acquired, and a towpath built, for about one fifteenth of the cost of full restoration. Boaters would contribute very little extra but cost a huge amount more.

    And if that isn’t enough, I suggest providing a free taxi from Belturbet to Clones for any boaters who want to visit the town. For the 600 boat crews expected each year, that would cost about €30,000: one tenth of the running costs of a canal, and with no capital spending required.

    Finally, given the level of cuts experienced by Monaghan General Hospital, how can we consider spending €35 million on a canal?


  • P McPhillips said:

    I agree totally: it would be pleasant to have the canal restored but let’s not get starry-eyed. If it never turned a profit for its operators in the golden age of canal transport so it is unlikely to represent good value for money today. Much better would be to restore the towpaths and some of the infrastructure such as the lock operators’ cottages and bridges.

    For the same money we could have long distance greenways along the entire course of the old GNR throughout the region: Clones has some fantastic railway architecture and an incredible story to tell, but the canal is a minor part of that.

    In 10 or 15 years’ time, if and when the state finances are in better condition, we can revisit the canal decision, but right now, it wouldn’t make much sense. The important thing is that local authorities preserve the course of the canal from short-sighted development in the meantime.

  • Brian Morgan said:

    Gentlemen, the responses given by you ignore totally the fact that PriceWaterhouseCooper pointed out in their 2006 Report “Socio Economic Summary Report for the NE and SW Sections of the Ulster Canal” – – the economic benefits of opening the Ulter Canal; but then again, what would PWC know about economics !?

  • P McPhillips said:

    I’ve just read the PWC report and it’s extremely flimsy- the usual sort of rubbish our local authorities have been spending fortunes on for years. It consisted mainly of interviews with “stakeholders” including councillors with a couple of appendices of similar projects in Britain.

    They don’t highlight how they arrive at the potential revenue generated (estimated at a maximum of £4million per year if the entire canal (and not just the top and bottom sections) is restored. This includes the multiplier effect.

    I don’t dispute the benefits, including the larger potential which could be unleashed by the canal being a catalyst for change in the area, but it is bad value for money right now.