28 February 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

A very significant moment for the many voluntary, community, stakeholder and local and national political interests who have been waging a long campaign to bring the Ulster Canal restoration project fully into realisation arrived this week.

Cavan/Monaghan’s Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys TD announced that Government approval had been secured to restore the Ulster Canal from the Shannon-Erne Waterway to the Castle Saunderson International Scout Centre near Belturbet.

While a relatively small step in the overall vision that its advocates have for the project’s entirety, it is perhaps the most important one – a major development over which a frustrating amount of uncertainty as to its realisation had hung for a long time is now firmly on the launch pad.

Minister Humphreys deserves commendation, as a relatively new addition to the Cabinet, for summoning the necessary adroit persuasiveness that won from her colleagues the green lighting of this phase of development. As a Border representative she is acutely cognisant of the considerable tourism and job creation potential the Ulster Canal restoration possesses, as well as its value in strengthening the links between communities on either side of the island’s divide that have been sundered, and extremely disadvantaged, by the deleterious effects of the Troubles.

While targeted European funding programmes and some co-operative interaction between the Dublin and Stormont administrations have helped alleviate some of the “Border blight” that has conferred economic disadvantage and community decline, and the peace process has created an environment where old cross-Border links have been renewed and new ones fostered, there is still a great more that needs to be done to include this area in the ambition for balanced regional development that figures so frequently in the aspirations, although it is not always reinforced by the actions, of government departments and agencies.

The Ulster Canal has the potential to be a lead project in the effort to have this situation rightened. The problem is that its continued development to completion will extend over the term of not just the current but also perhaps several succeeding Government administrations. This initial commitment is very welcome, but it would have been strengthened considerably by some positive statement of intent by the Minister that it was the declared intention of the current administration to see the project through to its full completion.

While such a commitment would be hostage to fortune, dependent on the same make-up of administration remaining in power into the foreseeable future, and upon the current gently elevating economic fortunes of the country continuing to prosper, it would nonetheless have been an important marker – one that the advocates of the project could have used to leverage similar undertakings from the other parties who might find themselves in power in the future. It would also be a potent persuader for those contemplating investment in tourism and hospitality related enterprises along the projected course of the development, and who would be understandably keen to “get in on the act” as early as they could and acquire a prime position from which to reap the commercial advantages of a development that had explicit political commitment across the board. It has been proven by previous waterway developments that there is a rich bounty in heightened visitor spend to be reaped from the areas through which they pass – and the beneficial ripples created in the wider economy, coupled with the concomitant boost to community pride and prestige, means that the advantages are not confined to the immediate stakeholder business sector.

Waterways-based tourism is one of the growth markets of this particular sphere, and the reach of the Ulster Canal into the Clones area and other parts of our county would form a strong nucleus for the marketing of the Monaghan tourism product, which is still struggling to overcome the promotional disadvantages of having a rich but diffuse range of attractions with which to tempt the visitor.

Monaghan Co Council, which is currently working hard to develop a distinctive marketing brand for the county, would seem to have a particular stake in the Ulster Canal project reaching its full fruition and they will no doubt be quick to avail of any lobbying opportunity for its further development that might follow upon the buoyant mood music sounded by Minister Humphreys’ announcement.

Everyone with an interest in the economic development of our county will hope that this week’s good news is merely the beginning, and that the long awaited Ulster Canal redevelopment is genuinely and finally up and running!

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