The “restoration” of the Ulster Canal
Picture the scene. As far back as 2004, individual members of the Industrial Heritage Association of Ireland (who shall remain nameless, to spare them the animosity that is currently being directed at me) contacted me, in my then capacity as Secretary of the Association, expressing dismay at the proposal to “restore” the Ulster Canal. I use the term “restore” under protest, as what is ultimately proposed is a new canal, built to wider dimensions that that in use originally. There is only one logical outcome to this, the destruction of another significant part of Ireland’s industrial heritage past in the form of bridges and canal locks.
Given the aims and objectives of the IHAI, you would have thought that they and I would have had a sympathetic hearing from the IHAI Council. After all, to quote from the association’s website:
“Ireland's industrial heritage is being changed and destroyed at an unknown rate.”
“Although there is now official recognition of the importance of our industrial heritage, statutory protection is still low, due in the main to a backlog of listing of heritage structures.”
The minutes of the Council meeting of 21st September 2004 state:
“In response to concerns raised with the Secretary by property owners in Clones adjacent to the Ulster Canal and from members about the policy of the IHAI in relation to the proposed demolition of the built heritage features of the Ulster Canal, being sought by the IWAI as part of their proposal to develop the canal as an active waterway, the Council decided that the official policy of the IHAI is that the built heritage features of Ulster Canal should be preserved intact and in situ. It was suggested that those concerned about the proposal should raise their concerns with Waterways Ireland.”
The first part of this minute, which after all, is a record of discussion and decisions, does suggest that the Council took the matter seriously. However, the last sentence really says it all.
It is my opinion that the "restoration" of the Ulster Canal represents an act of gross sycophancy on the part of the Council of the IHAI. The failure of the Council to object to the destruction of another part of Ireland’s industrial heritage, until:
- it was repeatedly brought to their attention by me as a Council member that this was our purpose and
- it was too late, as the decision to “restore” had already been taken,
was a shameful act of omission on the part of the IHAI Council, that drove a horse and carriage (or should that be Shangri La) through the association’s aims and objectives.
The correspondence received by the IHAI from Waterways Ireland to the effect that WI will keep the IHAI informed of what is happening is purposeless PR on the part of WI.
The purpose of the IHAI is to advocate the conservation of industrial heritage - not to engage in sycophancy and specifically to not pander to vested interests whose aims and objectives are contrary to the retention and conservation of industrial heritage on the island of Ireland. This leads me to the next point. Why is the IHAI so opposed to the conservation of industrial heritage with specific reference to the Ulster Canal?
The attitude of the IHAI Council has, in my opinion, been swayed unduly by one of its members - Ruth Delany - whose background is boating. When boating and IH collide, IH loses. As a result, prior to the last AGM, in light of the shameful failure of the IHAI Council to stand up for the association’s aims and objectives, I proposed the removal from the IHAI Council of Ruth Delany. The level of animosity that I received from the other Council members upon taking this course of action, for having analysed the problem and apportioned blame (to one person), rather than affording Cabinet like collective responsibility to the Council of the IHAI, was suprising. It is my opinion that collective responsibility is the last refuge of cowardice. As a result of this failure to uphold the aims and objectives of the association, I stepped down from the IHAI Council. Those who support the removal of Ireland’s industrial heritage remain.
The Ulster Canal was built to narrower dimensions than those of the rest of the canal network in Ireland. Its "restoration" has been pushed by one individual - Colin Becker - who has expressed the desire to pilot his boat along the route to Lough Neagh to complete some sort of personal odyssey. An expensive odyssey for the Republic of Ireland taxpayer.
Anyone familiar with the history of the nearby Dukart’s Canal will be aware that in order to get a delivery of coal from the mines intended to be served by Dukart's Canal to Coalisland, the boats were physically man handled over the Dry Wherries that were a unique, but ultimately unsuccessful part of this system. As a throw back to tradition, Colin Becker should be facilitated to traverse the route of the Ulster Canal by means of man handling his boat along the route, especially as at a public meeting in relation to another canal (that to Ballynafagh Reservoir in Co. Kildare), Colin remarked to the audience that he was an anorak when it came to the conservation and restoration of industrial heritage and an industrial heritage nut (I was in the audience of said meeting). Obviously this doesn’t extend to the Ulster Canal, nor joining the IHAI. The danger of playing to an audience is that you don’t necessarily know who will be in the audience.
The supporters on the IHAI Council of the first phase of “restoration” of the Ulster Canal have stated that this will involve a new route which will not affect the original canal. There are a few points and clarifications that need to be made here. The recent publication “Guide To The Ulster Canal” clearly indicates on page 26 that the alternative new route to bypass the first two locks as just that, an alternative, i.e., no decision yet exists. This also ignore the reality that this proposed alternative section covers only the first 2½ miles of canal, the remaining distance to Clones (about 7½ miles) contains a number of road overbridges and an aquaduct. What is their fate?
There is also the unstated elephant in the corner. Assuming that this project goes ahead (there could be advantages to the recession that the Republic of Ireland is now experiencing), I wish to ask the IHAI Council what will become of the locks and bridges on the canal between Clones and Charlemont that are too narrow for the super cruiser brigade, when the inevitable pressure for Phase 2 comes about. Will these be restored to original dimensions? The response of builder Mick Bailey to James Gogarty’s question about getting a receipt for certain political donations comes to mind. Phase 1 of this project is a Trojan horse – once complete, there is no going back and the ability of the IHAI or anyone else to argue against further “restoration” is, like the IH of the Ulster Canal, history.
There is also the issue of what I would consider to be the voodoo economics of canals as a tourist resource. That the proponents of this project can cite the tourism potential of the Ulster Canal with a straight face says it all. Canals and boating are the playground of the rich (in that regard it is no surprise that the Government of the Republic of Ireland supports funding the “restoration” of the Ulster Canal and making the rest of us pay for it). For all the ‘soft’ economic benefits that are cited in support of such projects to make them economically viable on paper, as a qualified cost accountant, I can testify that I can make your project profitable, or unprofitable, merely by changing assumptions about costs/expenditure/usage etc. In other words, such calculations are subjective and far from being a science, they are an art form.
There is also the issue that bedevils any tourist project after opening, that of ongoing running costs. Traditionally, funding bodies will give you any amount of money for one off capital investment (in this case, “restore” the Ulster Canal). However, they will not give you as much as a red cent towards ongoing maintenance costs. This can be seen to in the form of unopened hospital wards and tourist centres that were built and subsequently closed (the heritage centre at Ballincollig Gunpowder Mills in Cork is a classic example). Closer to home, due to lack of maintenance, the Grand Canal in Dublin is at risk of becoming unnavigable. It is my opinion that this fate awaits the Ulster Canal and that other political “peace process” driven “restoration” – the Shannon Erne Waterway in the longer term. I would love to see an objective post opening cost benefit analysis done on the latter with real inputs as to how a boater who brings all their food and supplies with them from elsewhere, contributes to the surrounding community (they don’t). The use of full absorption cost accounting to ascertain a cost per boat would be even better.
I will end with one other observation. One of Ireland’s best known tourist attractions is Newgrange. An annual lottery takes place to admit a lucky few in to witness the Winter Solstice. As clearly demand for this exceeds supply, should we demolish Newgrange and build a bigger version to meet that demand? This is the equivalent of the supporters of the “restored” Ulster Canal are advocating.
Days Hotel Belfast - located in a lovely area of Belfast where the Union Jack flies from every lamppost and the kerbstones are painted blue white and red.
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