With your permission, I wish to make a statement, in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in inland waterways sectoral format.
The meeting was held at the Radisson Roe Park Hotel, Limavady, on 4 July 2008. The Executive were represented by Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, MP, MLA, and me, and the Irish Government were represented by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív, TD. The statement has been agreed with Minister Murphy, and I make it on behalf of us both.
Mr John Martin, chief executive officer of Waterways Ireland, provided a report on developments since the previous meeting in October 2007. We were pleased to note the content of his report, in which he outlined the continued progress on the restoration of the Royal Canal and explained that an additional 86 metres of public moorings were provided on the Royal Canal and the Shannon.
Since the end of August 2007, 283 metres of moorings have been provided on the Erne system and a 36-metre floating mooring and gangway was installed on the Lower Bann. Waterways Ireland’s accessible sailing initiative was launched at the London Boat Show in January 2008 in the company of the then Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Edwin Poots, and Minister Ó’Cuív.
Furthermore, Waterways Ireland exhibited at the Earls Court Boat Show in December 2007, and the Lakelands initiative is being actively promoted. Ministers were pleased to hear that work on the new Waterways Ireland headquarters is on time, on budget and due for completion this month.
The Council reviewed progress to date on the restoration of the Clones to Upper Lough Erne section of the Ulster Canal and noted that Waterways Ireland carried out consultations with the Clones Erne East Partnership and landowners, and also had discussions with various relevant statutory agencies.
Ministers noted that Waterways Ireland commenced procedures to have the preliminary design undertaken and also that it proposed to take forward the land acquisition in advance of letting the contract. Waterways Ireland presented its revised future plans for consideration. We discussed its revised business plan for 2008 and noted that the targets and budget will continue to be reviewed throughout the year. We also noted the impact of currency fluctuations on the value of the allocations.
We heard and noted Waterways Ireland’s capital investment proposals for a programme of activity under the capital expenditure plans contained in the national development plan 2007-2013. Those proposals include the completion of the reopening of the Royal Canal to boating traffic in 2009, and completion of investigations and construction of extensions on the Shannon navigation. The proposals also include the consolidation of other existing navigations by improving access to facilities and infrastructure, carrying out feasibility studies and preliminary design work on additional projects that might be taken forward if sufficient resources become available. Waterways Ireland also intends to undertake preliminary investigations on a number of other waterways. The Council noted the Waterways Ireland annual reports and accounts for 2006, which were presented on 4 July 2008, prior to being laid before this Assembly and the Oireachtas.
The Council noted that Waterways Ireland has commenced a pilot study to assess the resources and the processes required to register all of its property. We also noted that a tender has been awarded in respect of a pilot property registration of two areas of the canals in Dublin. The Council agreed to proposals for one compulsory purchase order and a number of disposals, all of which were in Minister Ó Cuív’s jurisdiction.
Ministers welcomed Waterways Ireland’s tourism and marketing initiatives, which include the key objectives of developing Waterways Ireland’s corporate identity; promoting greater use of the waterways; awareness creation; and the building of platforms for sustained market development. The Council agreed that its next meeting in the inland waterways sectoral format would take place in October 2008.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In February 2008, the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure met representatives of Waterways Ireland. In April 2008, the Committee met the Blackwater Regional Partnership, which is an alliance of local authorities from Armagh, Monaghan and Tyrone. Both bodies made a strong case for the reopening of the Ulster Canal and emphasised the tourism and economic benefits of that. I welcome the fact that that was discussed at the meeting.
When the issue of the reopening of the canal was discussed, were any timetables or timescales detailed to take the project forward? When will the contract be let?
In an individual capacity, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I apprise the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, because the Sam Maguire cup is safe and well; back home in the O’Neill county after an epic encounter. Yesterday, the Minister will have received a number of representations for civic receptions in Parliament Buildings; one from the deputy First Minister and another from me, via a telephone conversation with the Minister’s office. Having spoken to many sportspeople and followers of Gaelic games yesterday, I know that there is concern about the Minister’s political comments. The Tyrone team will be going through the front door of Parliament Buildings.
The question in the Member’s contribution was in relation to the Ulster Canal.
Waterways Ireland is involved in a procurement exercise to engage a consultant to undertake preliminary design work. A call for expressions of interest was published on 15 May 2008, with the deadline for replies being 16 June 2008. From that process, a list of six consultants was compiled, and they will be asked to submit proposals based on the brief for the works. Waterways Ireland expects to appoint a consultant later in the autumn.
In addition, Waterways Ireland consulted the major statutory authorities on both sides of the border, including the roads agencies, the planning authorities, local councils and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Forty-six of the 49 known landowners along the route of the canal from Clones to Upper Lough Erne have been contacted and advised about the canal proposal. Furthermore, Waterways Ireland has appointed an internal project manager, who will act as liaison consultant on the project. I hope that I have answered the Member’s queries about Waterways Ireland.
The other points he raised have no connection with Waterways Ireland but are connected with the sporting element of my responsibilities. As I indicated yesterday, every request, whether for a meeting or reception, will be considered. I said that when I was appointed, and I repeated it yesterday — all requests will be considered.
I hope that the urgency with which requests concerning the sporting element of my portfolio were made will be repeated when dealing with Executive business. I expect to hear such urgent matters being dealt with equally speedily.
The Member’s question is relevant and timely. Waterways Ireland, in common with other employers in Northern Ireland, is required to monitor its staff’s community background. The position as of 1 September 2008 — so, obviously, these figures are up to date — is that Waterways Ireland had 76 permanent employees based in Northern Ireland. Of those, 26 had a Protestant community background; 46 had a Roman Catholic community background, and four were described as others. Therefore, the percentage composition of the workforce was: 60·5% Roman Catholic; 34·2% Protestant; and 5·3% other or not stated.
In the most recent census, the community background split in the Fermanagh District Council area, which is the catchment area for most of Waterways Ireland’s staff, was 58% Roman Catholic and 39·8% Protestant. When Members talk about equality, they should be aware that I am very interested in that subject and have campaigned for it for many years. It is obvious that appointments must be made on the basis of merit, because that is the only basis on which people must be recruited, but, in situations in which there is a small under-representation — which there is in Waterways Ireland — I will keep that matter under the closest possible scrutiny. I wish to ensure, as much as possible, that people are offered employment using the merit principle and that staff in that organisation, like those in all others, reflect the community background spread as closely as follows.
It is ironic that the Minister’s statement about such work can be brought to the House when the Executive, which is part of this Government, cannot meet to deal with the bread-and-butter issues that concern our constituents.
I am disappointed that the only concrete progress that appears to have been made, although welcome, is on the Royal Canal around the Dublin area and in the west of Ireland.
The Minister said that 46 out of 49 landowners around Lough Erne have been contacted about the potential of the Clones Erne East Partnership making progress on that part of the extension to the system.
Did any discussion take place about extending the navigable system from Maghery along the River Blackwater, to the upper reaches of the latter, that would enable an approach from both sides? It appears that all the movement is taking place south of the border. I know that, in the long term, those developments will link up with changes that will be made in the Northern Ireland section. However, little progress seems to be being made there at present.
I will raise my concern in a question to the Minister: in the light of pressures on public-expenditure budgets in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, was the need to revisit Waterways Ireland’s potential budget discussed?
I thank the honourable Member for his question. He refers to irony at the same time as he talks about “concrete progress” on waterways. I am sure that the mixed metaphor will not be lost on other Members.
The Member is right to say that significant progress has been made in the Irish Republic. It is right and proper for that country to make that progress. The North/South Ministerial Council must see progress in both countries. I, as a Minister in this country, share Mr Robinson’s desire to see further development, and not only on the waterways about which he spoke. I hope that a process with that objective will begin at the next NSMC meeting in the inland waterways sectoral format.
I also want to see progress being made on the development of the Lower Bann in order to permit a link-up across Ulster that will incorporate the Ulster Canal and other waterways under which I have jurisdiction. I also want to see sensible, active commercial promotion of those waterways. Therefore, the honourable Member has raised a serious issue that requires significant resources, which we must review in the light of ongoing budgetary constraints. However, I am well aware of the issues and want to promote the development of waterways. I trust that I will get support from across this House in doing so.
Will the Minister outline the proportional capital and revenue costs of Waterways Ireland’s new headquarters to each Government? Does he believe that those costs represent value for money? Furthermore, will the Minister give a commitment to the House that he will continue to attend, and participate in, North/South Ministerial Council meetings?
I did not know that there was any uncertainty about my future attendance, other than from parties other than the Member’s party and mine, which are currently preventing Executive business from proceeding and, consequently, preventing the North/South Ministerial Council from meeting. I am not preventing that, and I know that the honourable Member’s party is not. However, that is a matter that must, and I hope will, be resolved.
In an earlier answer, I mentioned that urgent correspondence can be received within hours of a sporting event’s taking place. I trust that we can resolve more serious business within days. I await a speedy response on that.
DCAL funds 100% of capital costs of navigational work. The Department pays nothing towards capital costs in the Irish Republic. By agreement, the Irish Government fund 85% of non-capital costs, while the Northern Ireland Executive pay 15% of those costs.
First, to give Mr McElduff a look-in, I hope that one day the Sam Maguire will be able to come North through the inland waterways network rather than by road. I hope that the trophy’s journey will be to County Fermanagh, the home of my ancestors.
I have two questions for the Minister.
Secondly, is it possible to ask the Government of the Republic of Ireland to make a contribution towards the cost of the elite facilities that we are developing in Northern Ireland as a result of the national development plan, particularly those that are based around inland waterways, for example, those planned for the Upper Bann area? Such a contribution would recognise that the facilities will not just benefit citizens of Northern Ireland, they will help those from the Republic of Ireland who, undoubtedly, need assistance to match the wonderful achievements of local residents in the field of sport.
The Member’s ingenuity knows no bounds.
The Waterways Ireland marketing and promotion strategy was launched in 2004 and will be reviewed in 2009. Waterways Ireland has a marketing advisory group, which, this year, decided to continue with the implementation of the existing strategy. Members will not be surprised to hear that the strategy has five marketing objectives, which are: awareness creation; development of a corporate identity; promoting greater use of the waterways; working in partnership with other bodies; and building a platform for sustained development.
The key objective is working in partnership with other bodies, because virtually everyone will agree that we are years behind other regions of the UK and other parts of Europe in the promotion of our waterways as a tourist destination. We must be active in that, but sensitive, because environmental concerns must be considered. My Department and Waterways Ireland will be working with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and with Fáilte Ireland on the cross-border aspect, to ensure that we get the most bang for our buck, to use that awful phrase that was coined in America.
As yet, we have not discussed the elite facilities with the Government of the Irish Republic. I know that the Member has a strong interest in those facilities, given that he is a resident of the borough that will receive the first of them under the elite programme. We will review the programme as it unfolds, and will want to consult the Government of the Irish Republic and discuss any cross-border aspects.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I note that Waterways Ireland also intends to make preliminary investigations into the development of other waterways. Will the Minister state whether any progress has been made into establishing a navigational authority for Lough Neagh so that that area can be developed as a tourist and recreation authority?
The statement refers to the impact of currency fluctuations on the value of allocated budgets. Is the Minister confident that the budget for the scheme will be sufficient, given current economic difficulties?
It is exceedingly difficult to give a definitive and comprehensive answer to both of the Member’s questions, because — as the Member probably knows — the Lough Neagh area involves several landowners, so there are administrative difficulties in promoting that waterway. However, it is vital that we ensure that that fantastic facility is developed by active promotion, particularly the areas around the Lower Bann and the other waterway stretches that go into the Lough.
The currency fluctuations have created considerable problems, simply because resources are allocated at a given point in time with a given currency exchange rate. When that rate changes, the value of the budget either increases or decreases, depending on the movement. That is very difficult to anticipate and is a challenge for Departments both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic, but we must rise to it.
I have a particular interest in the section of the waterways between Clones and Upper Lough Erne. I have been told that it will be expensive to reinstate that section of the waterways, given the development that has taken place there over the years. Does the Minister agree? Further to that, does he have any idea as to what the cost to reinstate it might be?
The Member is correct in assessing that it will be expensive; all the work in all the waterways will be expensive, and we must endeavour to ensure that we have the resources for their development, promotion and maintenance. I do not have an estimate of the cost to hand, but I will obtain one and forward it to the Member in writing.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Is it possible — or too early, perhaps — to ascertain how tourist numbers and boat usage have increased as a result of the work that Waterways Ireland has done on the canals, particularly on the Erne and the Lower Bann?
Members are aware of the credit crunch and how it is hurting many people. The Minister’s statement referred to currency fluctuations. Has his Department ascertained whether they are having an effect on the number of people who are using the canals and, therefore, on tourism potential? Is it wise to consider spending a lot of money on this project when the economy is as it is?
The North/South Ministerial Council agreed a proposal for one compulsory purchase order. Will the Minister give some detail on what that refers to?
It appears that ingenuity is spreading throughout the Chamber. Tourism numbers is an issue primarily for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Fáilte Ireland. I am not aware of the numbers, but I will forward them to the honourable Member if I obtain the figures from both organisations.
Mr Shannon asked about promoting the entirety of the waterways in the environment of a fluctuating currency. That provides a challenge, but it is no different a challenge to that faced by tourists going anywhere in central Europe. When discussing a different aspect of my portfolio yesterday, I made clear that I am in favour of international development. I want to promote good relations between this country — our country — and the Irish Republic. If we can achieve that by getting tourists into the Republic and bringing them here — and vice versa — it should be done, because that is most definitely a win-win situation.
I also welcome the Minister’s statement. It is positive, and it comes at a time when there is some kind of cloud hanging over this place. I am pleased also that the Minister anticipates further meetings, because I would not want this to be the last will and testament of Waterways Ireland. The project is long term, and it will require years of planning. I imagine that the first boat that comes from the River Shannon to the Lower Bann will be as welcome as Sam Maguire.
The Minister will know from his discussions with developers and investors that they need to know when this wonderful event will happen. Given that tourism is our only growth industry, can the Minister gaze into his crystal ball and give us some idea of when the hotels and the other infrastructure — particularly in the Upper Bann, in which he and I have an interest — will be in place, so that the thousands of jobs for Protestants and Catholics will be created?
It is not often that the honourable Member asks me to help dispel the clouds of doubt that hang over anywhere. However, he has asked me to do that and I am happy to be of assistance. Hopefully, I will be able to do so.
On a more serious note, the Lower Bann requires a considerable amount of work done to it. It is a fantastic asset, and one that has been completely underutilised and underdeveloped. It will take a significant amount of resources to develop it in the way that he, I and all the Members of the House would like to see it developed. That development is work for the future, and it is work that I want to raise at an early NSMC meeting. Hopefully we will be in a position to do that, and hopefully last wills and testaments are a long way away.
The Ulster Canal is a phenomenal asset. It is not just an asset for the people who live near it and would use it following its development; it would bring considerable benefit to everyone in Northern Ireland and to Northern Ireland plc. However, there are sections of the Ulster Canal for which feasibility plans have not yet been forwarded, and I want to address that before making any further comment.
The development of all of the waterways of Northern Ireland would require funds in excess of £100 million, and the development would take many years. That is a significant amount of money — money that I do not currently have access to.
These are challenging targets and prospects for the future that we must not lose sight of and which we must actively aim to achieve. The Ulster Canal is central to that and, over the next few years, I want to target development along the lines that the Member and others have itemised. Hopefully then we can reach the desired conclusion.
I also thank the Minister for his statement. Mr Shannon has touch on one of the questions that I wanted to ask. In relation to the work that may take place on the River Bann — and the Upper Bann in particular — I hope that the development will enhance salmon fishing, and that it will not have a detrimental effect.
The Minister said that the Council has noted that Waterways Ireland has commenced a pilot study to assess the resources and processes required to register its property. Will that pilot study also include an evaluation of all its assets? Furthermore, in relation to the disposal of any assets — whether in Dublin or here — are those assets to be jointly owned by both jurisdictions? Moreover, what mechanism will be used for the transfer of those assets from Government agencies to Waterways Ireland?
My understanding is that the assessment will include the issues that the honourable Member has raised. I know the Member has a deep and abiding interest in fishing as a confirmed and long-standing fisherman — the success of which I do not know, nor will I endeavour to ascertain today. However, in all seriousness, it is something that we are looking at. I will respond in writing to the Member at a later date and will provide him with the minutiae of detail that his question demands.