The first meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in sectoral format for inland waterways and languages took place in Belfast on Wednesday 21 June. The inland waterways meeting was held in the morning, followed by language in the afternoon. Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Ms Bairbre de Brún and I represented the Executive Committee. The Irish Government was represented at the waterways meeting by Silé de Valera TD, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, and for the language meeting by Minister Ó Cuív, Minister of State. I am making this report on behalf of myself and Ms de Brún, who has approved the report.
The inland waterways meeting opened with an oral progress report from Mr John Mahony, interim chief executive. The council noted that Waterways Ireland had responsibility for the Shannon Erne waterway from 2 December 1999, and from 1 April 2000 it had responsibility for Lough Erne and the Lower Bann navigations in Northern Ireland, and the Royal Canal, the Grand Canal, the Barrow navigation and the Shannon navigation in the Republic of Ireland. Ownership of Shannon Erne Waterway Promotion Limited transferred to Waterways Ireland on 16 June 2000. Waterways Ireland will have its headquarters in Enniskillen with regional offices in Dublin, Carrick-on-Shannon and Scariff in County Clare. The council noted that temporary premises had been established at each of these locations and that options on sites for permanent premises were being pursued. To date 230 staff have been seconded to Waterways Ireland.
(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)
The council noted that ESB International and Ferguson McIlveen have been commissioned to update their earlier feasibility study on the restoration of the Ulster Canal. This will provide an updated cost estimate for the project.
The council approved Waterways Ireland’s proposed activities for the period up to December 2000, including a detailed programme of works, estimates of expenditure and targets for other work including staff recruitment, financial arrangements, equality and human rights issues, development of a promotion strategy, property acquisition, health and safety issues, liaison with user groups and proposals to commence reviews of by-laws.
The council also considered and agreed Waterways Ireland’s proposals for its organisational structure and staffing levels, the distribution of functions between headquarters and regional offices, and interim pay and grading proposals. When Waterways Ireland is fully operational it will have around 381 staff, of which 257 will be industrial and 124 professional, technical and administrative. Of the 124 non-industrial staff, 70 will be based in Enniskillen, and the majority of these will be new posts.
The council also agreed to Waterways Ireland’s outline draft equality scheme. Following public consultation the scheme will be referred back to the North/South Ministerial Council in final format before submission to the Equality Commission. That completes the statement on Waterways Ireland.
Will the Minister give us an assurance that established groups like the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland and the Ulster Waterways Group, who have an interest in the waterways of Ireland, will be consulted and kept informed of development plans by Waterways Ireland as they unfold? I am assuming that he will keep the House informed of such plans. Will the Minister also elaborate on how he thinks Enniskillen will benefit from having the headquarters of Waterways Ireland there?
I will take the three parts in reverse order. As I indicated, Enniskillen will benefit from 70 jobs. We estimate that about 80% of those will be new posts, so around 55 to 60 new professional, technical and administrative jobs will be created.
I will certainly keep the House informed of developments on the Waterways Ireland board. As we get reports through I will make them known automatically to the House. It is very important that interested groups are kept fully up to speed about and consulted on the work of Waterways Ireland and all such similar bodies. The development of waterways will complement other public and private sector businesses who will be consulted, including the Tourist Board, local authorities and — and this is very important — other groups who have an interest in waterways.
I welcome the meeting by the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and representatives from the Irish Government on the waterways strategy. It certainly makes good sense to have co-operation right across the island and at the highest level. Waterways Ireland has the potential to capitalise on a huge tourist business throughout the island and in Northern Ireland, in particular. To date the inland waterways in Northern Ireland have experienced a great many problems and continue to be at a great disadvantage to those in the Republic. The Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee is presently engaged in a full public inquiry to see what the problems associated with the angling and fishing fraternity are. Can the Minister assure the House that sooner rather than later Northern Ireland will enjoy the benefits of easy, accessible, enjoyable and affordable activities for everyone on all our waterways?
Of particular interest to some Members is the large investment in Lagan navigation. This is also of particular interest to Lisburn Borough Council. Will the Minister agree that his Department has a responsibility to promote the Lagan navigation and will he look for support, if necessary, through the North/South Ministerial Council?
Yes, I agree completely that the inland waterways activities is a navigation body. The benefits will be primarily economic. There is an enormous potential out there to attract tourists. We have only got to look south of the border in the Irish Republic and in England at the sort of experience they have with their inland waterways. Also on the Continent where they see the huge potential for water-borne tourism. People like to have their holidays on water, using canals, or cabin cruisers. We have an enormous potential in this area, and that is what we are looking to capitalise on.
Currently, we have only two navigable waterways. One is the Lower Bann and the other is Lough Erne. Canals formerly in existence are now defunct. The Ulster canal is one, the Newry canal is another, and the Member is quite right about the Lagan navigation. Some work is being done on that by Laganside in the City Council boundary and also by Lisburn Borough Council. We would see that as very much part of the priorities and of the agenda to get the Lagan navigation and the Ulster canal into operation. That brings up the fact that Lough Neagh does not have a navigable process, or navigable channels. Therefore navigation will have to be looked at in Lough Neagh.
The benefits are primarily economic, and there is potential for those rural communities along the path of the canal to ease their difficulties by tapping into those benefits through the development of arts and tourist craft shops, restaurants, pubs and so on. That is the experience in other parts of Europe.
Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhairle. I would like to welcome the Minister’s statement. I am pleased that meetings on inland waterways are now being held. Inland waterways have the potential to create both tourism and jobs. May I ask the Minister whether Waterways Ireland will give some consideration to the issue of licence differential?
As he will know, the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into fisheries, fishing and the angling fraternity. One problem that surfaces frequently is licence differential and the effect that that has on the angling community and tourism. This is an important issue requiring serious attention.
May I also ask the Minister how Waterways Ireland proposes to examine the various concerns about hydroelectric schemes. The Erne Anglers Association gave evidence at the inquiry and raised serious concerns about the Ballyshannon hydroelectric scheme. However, we also have a host of these in the North, and these schemes sometimes operate illegally. It seems that the problems raised by anglers and the impact that these have on the angling fraternity have no means of being addressed.
Finally, will the Minister say how the new body will relate to the various other regions? I am thinking of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission and the Fisheries Conservancy Board for Northern Ireland in particular.
I agree with the underlying issue raised by Mrs Nelis about licence differentials and the associated concerns and difficulties. However, the meeting on inland waterways was not concerned with fishing licences or angling. It was concerned with navigation and the Lough Erne and lower Bann navigation ways. It was also concerned with the economic benefits that can flow from developing our inland waterways.
The licence differentials are primarily the concern of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission and the Fisheries Conservancy Board for Northern Ireland. Previously if one wanted to fish in the Foyle Fisheries catchment area and used an FCB licence one could have it endorsed accordingly, or one could buy a licence for one area and a licence for the other, or one licence for one area and have it endorsed for the other.
That process now continues except that Carlingford Lough is out of the Fisheries Conservancy Board for Northern Ireland’s area and part of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission’s area. However, that cross-border body is not under my area of responsibility; it is under the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Whilst I can talk about licences from the Fisheries Conservancy Board for Northern Ireland, I do not have the authority to discuss licensing for Foyle.
I welcome the report from the Minister and wish to ask him what arrangements exist between the North/South body for waterways and the Rivers Agency in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to ensure the cost effective management of flood defence. Also what is the extent of staff transfers from the Rivers Agency to this North/South body?
I will answer the last part of the question first. As regards transferring staff, the Rivers Agency is currently carrying out work for Waterways Ireland under a service level agreement that will last for two years. The Rivers Agency has 460 staff and 10 are being transferred to Waterways Ireland — it is only a very small part of the total. Waterways Ireland does not have responsibility for flood defence, that lies with the Rivers Agency. Waterways Ireland is concerned with navigation, and in Northern Ireland terms, we are talking about Lough Erne and the lower Bann. Flood defences remain a matter for the Rivers Agency.
The current year funding for Waterways Ireland is £11·5 million. Northern Ireland’s contribution is £1·3 million, and that has been allowed for in the budget. The creation of 70 jobs in Enniskillen — of which we estimate 80% will be new jobs — is essentially for headquarters, administrative and technical staff. A major item of work is the feasibility study into the Ulster canal and how it can be opened. That is a major project with large sums of money attached.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and his positive outlook for Waterways Ireland. In terms of joined-up Government, will he assure us that the very real benefits this body will bring will be exploited by the new international tourism company, jointly owned by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Bord Fáilte with its northern headquarters to be established in Coleraine?
I assure the Member that we will be making every effort to co-operate. One of the prime raisons d’être for this initiative is tourism, and one of the main features for the tourist body in selling tourism and in attracting tourists will be the potential of our waterways. In terms of canal development, we are a long way behind the Irish Republic where there is an extensive and well-developed canal system. Our canal system is not developed, and that is what we are looking to do. Major benefits will come from that, and it will be one of the selling points for a tourist body in attracting people.
I thank the Member for his question. Waterways Ireland does not have a responsibility as regards pollution. That responsibility lies with other Departments. Pollution is obviously a matter of enormous importance, and if we are trying to sell water-borne tourism by developing canals, and the water quality is poor, that will have an impact on the project’s feasibility.
The matter is one which requires joined-up Government and the ability of Departments to sympathetically work together and complement each other. I take the Member’s point and I assure the House that it is something we are trying to achieve. To be specific, water quality would be a matter for the Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
I welcome the statement that there is going to be a feasibility study for the restoration of the Ulster canal. I hope that the study will also incorporate the Coalisland canal in that area. It is a pity this body was not up and running a few years ago, so that we could have had more control over the waterways coming into the Erne system. There has been an infestation of zebra mussels from the Shannon system, and I hope the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure will endeavour to make sure that this manifestation is contained and does not develop further.
I look forward to the Minister’s paying close attention to this environmental issue, if it is part of his remit, and to his addressing other issues, such as the craft that are coming onto our waterways from the South of Ireland. I also hope that the Department will institute a feasibility study into the size and power of the craft on inland waterways; some of them are no longer suitable for inland waterways. I look forward, with interest, to seeing how this new body works for the advantage of Northern Ireland’s waterways.
Matters such as the size of craft reflect back to the question Mr Wilson asked earlier and also the ability of Waterways Ireland to take on board the views of interest groups, local authorities and other Departments. It is very important that that be done and that issues such as the size of craft and jet skiing are taken on board.
The issue of zebra mussels is not specifically the responsibility of Waterways Ireland, but it is the responsibility of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in terms of the angling estate, and the reality is that there is no answer to zebra mussels. In fact, I had never heard of zebra mussels until a few months ago. Apparently they are very small mussels the size of your thumb; they are inedible and have come in from the Caspian Sea. There are no natural predators, and their population is exploding. Our concern is that they are consuming the habitat that native fish rely on. Queen’s University and other universities throughout Europe are looking at the issue, but, to date, nobody has come up with an answer of how to control them.
Go raibh maith agat a LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to re-enforce the point made earlier by Mrs Carson about the Ulster canal and the need to include in the feasibility study the Coalisland canal. There is a need to have access to the town of Coalisland from the Ulster canal up the Coalisland canal. The two are interlinked, and it is very important that they be done at the same time in order to establish that link.
Secondly, with regard to the issue of zebra mussels, there needs to be some way of controlling vessels travelling from the Shannon waterway, which is infected, right up the Blackwater and into Lough Neagh, which is not infected. If there are no controls, the fishing stock in Lough Neagh will be severely damaged. We need some way of ensuring that when boats come into Lough Neagh they are clean and safe.
I welcome the placement of the office in Enniskillen, and I seek reassurance from the Minister that those who will be employed there will be new employees and that equality will become a main part of the agenda in the recruitment of staff for that office.
I will answer the questions in reverse order. The Waterways Ireland Board, under the agreement, is currently producing its equality scheme which, in common with all other Government Departments, bodies and public authorities, will be lodged with the Equality Commission in September.
Of the estimated 70 jobs for Enniskillen, 80% will be new, many of them locally recruited, depending on skills available in the area. The head office, which will be the main focus for the Waterways Ireland operation, will be in Enniskillen. If the Ulster canal were open now, there would be difficulty avoiding the transfer of the infamous zebra mussels. That would have to come as part and parcel of the planning study as the Ulster canal is developed, since we recognise the danger to Lough Neagh. There are means to ensure that boats are sanitised as they move from one waterway into the other, pending our developing a means of controlling the mussels.
The Ulster canal is a big scheme, half lying in the Irish Republic, and half in Northern Ireland. The last estimate for its renovation, in 1998, was £70 million. We are now looking at an update of that cost, and how we address it will be another matter. The Ulster canal will link with Lough Neagh, which will require work on a navigation way through it, since there is none at present.
Relating to another question, the Lagan navigation — the linkage from Belfast — will also be connected. Our future plan is that one will be able to get into a boat in Belfast and travel to Dublin using canals and waterways.