Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. With your permission, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998, regarding the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) Inland Waterways meeting, which was held in Armagh on the 20 November 2013.
The Executive were represented by me as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and by junior Minister Jonathan Bell from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Irish Government were represented by Jimmy Deenihan TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Dinny McGinley TD, Minister of State with responsibility for Gaeltacht Affairs. The statement has been agreed with junior Minister Bell, and I am making it on behalf of us both.
The Council received a progress report from Dawn Livingstone, chief executive of Waterways Ireland, on the work of Waterways Ireland, which included the following achievements: the provision of 742 metres of additional moorings; sponsorship support was offered for 112 events with a total expenditure of €200,000; maintenance of the waterways with 99·65% of waterways remaining open to 30 September; and the production of three new publications — 'A Taste of the Waterways 2013', 'What’s On 2013' and 'Guide to the Grand Canal'.
The chief executive set out the key strategic direction for Waterways Ireland for 2014-16 and highlighted the following strategic objectives: to manage and maintain the 1,000 kilometres of navigation that are in Waterways Ireland’s care to provide safe, open and accessible outdoor access; to inspire more people to discover and enjoy recreational activities on the waterways and to explore their rich environment and heritage; to focus future development on unlocking opportunities to achieve recreational growth, economic benefits and social inclusion; to reorganise and optimise the use of resources to deliver a high-quality public service and to achieve budget efficiencies; to explore and optimise opportunities to earn income to fund future investment in the waterways; and to continue to develop Waterways Ireland to be the respected, valued custodian of the inland waterways.
Ministers noted that sponsor Departments are working with Waterways Ireland to finalise the business plan and budget for 2014. The Council received a presentation from the chief executive detailing the strategic challenges and how they can be met over the corporate plan period of 2014-16. Once agreed, both plans will receive approval at a future NSMC meeting, following approval from both Finance Departments.
Ministers noted that planning approval for the project to reopen the Ulster canal from Upper Lough Erne to Clones has now been received from all relevant authorities. The interagency group that was set up to explore funding options for advancing the project met again on 9 October 2013 and continues to examine funding opportunities for the project.
The Council consented to three property disposals. They included two leases: one at Knockvicar, County Roscommon, for the construction of a 10-berth boat mooring facility; and one for an area of land to Grand Canal Sports to facilitate the provision of a ramp and platform for wheelchair access to the canal. The third involved granting a way leave to Leitrim County Council for an area of the Shannon-Erne waterway at Ballinamore for the installation of a new storm overflow pipe at its wastewater treatment works.
The Council agreed to meet again in inland waterways sectoral format in spring 2014.
The statement advises that the interagency group continues to examine funding opportunities for reopening the Ulster canal from Upper Lough Erne to Clones. What progress has been made to secure funding? Can she update us on any discussions that she has had with the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister about tourism opportunities on the waterways?
With the Member's indulgence, I will take the last part of her question first. I have not had any discussions with Arlene Foster about tourism, but that is in the planned schedule for things to do on this matter. It is quite important that the canal is reopened, because the benefits of tourism are huge, particularly in Mrs Foster's constituency.
On the interagency meeting about securing funding, my economists are finalising, if they have not, the latest economic appraisal. They are also looking at its status, given that it has been some time since it was last done.
As the Member is aware, I have also met Pat Colgan from the Special European Union Programmes Body (SEUPB) about any potential European funding. Again, in advance of the next sectoral meeting on languages and waterways, I hope to have discussions with my ministerial counterpart, Jimmy Deenihan, about anything additional that we can bring. Certainly, the Ulster canal remains top of my priorities. I hope that the Irish Government's economic situation has changed to a point where we can now start looking at ways in which we can develop that project.
I thank the Member for his question and, indeed, his ongoing interest in waterways and the Ulster canal. As I stated previously in the House, given that this is a very significant project for both Governments, certain timelines have to be considered based on the availability of funding.
Funding availability has dictated options for timelines. A single design and construction contract, for example, can take up to two years. Three or four smaller contracts spread over three to five years is an option, as is a large number of small contracts over six to eight years. We are looking at additional options.
As the Member may be aware, the fact is that the original proposition has changed, but not just because of the availability of funding. We are looking at options based on funding that we have and potential funding that may be realised in the future, because, frankly, doing nothing or standing still around this project is not an option for me. I believe that it is certainly not an option for Minister Deenihan either.
The Member is right: the new chief executive gave us a very good and detailed presentation. Indeed, the Member will be aware — if she is not, she will be when I finish my answer to her question — that there have been additional pressures on everybody across the board in achieving efficiencies. However, as I have repeated to the Member and to other Members, and despite the meetings that I have had with Minister Deenihan around any proposed additional efficiencies that the Irish Government are saying are required, I am totally reluctant to go above and beyond any efficiencies that we agreed previously, and I have stated that to the chief executive of Waterways Ireland. That is the position. Following that, the Finance Departments and, indeed, officials and Ministers will hopefully be submitting additional or new budget plans very soon. I think that issues relating to any agreement to additional efficiencies lie beneath the Member's question, but I can categorically state that I have not agreed to those.
I thank the Minister for her statement. Looking at the strategic direction for Waterways Ireland, I see that the need to explore and optimise opportunities to earn income has been highlighted. I also note and welcome the production of three new publications, 'A Taste of the Waterways 2013', 'What's On 2013' and 'Guide to the Grand Canal'. Does she believe that those initiatives have been successful in achieving an uptake in the number of users of the canal? What effect has that had in 2013 on the need to increase earnings and to up funds?
I thank the Member for his question. He is right: the three publications that he mentioned have been very significant work for Waterways Ireland, but I want to use this opportunity to congratulate its partners as well. Waterways Ireland does not have enough money to do the things that it wants to do, as is the case with many of our all-island bodies. One of the things that struck me, and I remember junior Minister Bell asking a lot of questions of Dawn Livingstone, related to opportunities on the waterside to develop initiatives and events that could raise money. The difficulty is that, in order to achieve that, Waterways Ireland would have to spend significant money to make significant money to offset some gaps in its budget, and it is not in a position to do that.
One thing about the publications is that they reflected the opportunities for people who live and work on the waterways to make income. That is to be welcomed. I would like to see that developed to ensure that it is maintained and that those people have additional earnings and employment opportunities for the years ahead. Hopefully, in the years ahead, that will have some kickback for Waterways Ireland, in conjunction with the tourist product and partners in local government, to try to develop a better product from one length of the waterways to another.
I thank the Minister for her statement. I want to follow up on the question from the Chair of the Committee in relation to the Ulster canal project. Has the interagency group been working with our four EU officials from the Assembly to explore any cross-border projects that may arise from the next round of EU funding?
I thank the Member for her question. She will have noted that I mentioned the chief executive of the Special EU Programmes Body, Pat Colgan, the meeting that I had and the work of officials in both Departments with not just SEUPB but local government on the proposed areas for the Ulster canal. It is really important. From what I see, the theme of social inclusion in INTERREG V is where the potential lies to have any future money from Europe. I took part in some of the INTERREG IV waterways exchanges. They were very beneficial for people who have lived all their life and have their livelihood around the waterways, but we are also keen to open up our tourist product.
I assure the Member and others that I will continue to ensure that every opportunity, particularly through Europe, is explored. We need development to happen. It not only will provide construction opportunities for an area that has been starved of construction and investment for decades but will open up a waterway and connect people, families, villages and communities. It will provide social inclusion and enhance the tourist product for those areas. At the minute, the officials are doing their best, but they certainly need people like me in government to produce the goods in order to make that and their plans a better reality.
The economic return has continued to increase over the years, albeit in a very steady way. As a result of the publications and the presentation that we received from Dawn Livingstone and the staff at Waterways Ireland, I became aware that the level of economic return has yielded significant economic benefits for people. By way of a couple of examples, private boating contributes €44 million per annum and the hire sector contributes some €20 million per annum. Indirect spend on recreation is estimated at €100 million, and it provides 3,000 full-time jobs. That is fairly significant. Part of the answer that I gave to Anna Lo mentioned opportunities for people, particularly around waterways and areas that have been deprived of significant investment for decades. I am convinced, particularly when it comes to places such as the Ulster canal, that, if the construction happens and the project is developed to its full potential, the figures will certainly be multiplied to a better level. It is important that we concentrate on what we are doing best now, add to it and keep our eye on future developments, which are really crucial for economic regeneration in those areas.
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis ar an fhoras um uiscebhealaí intíre na hÉireann. Ba mhaith liom cuireadh a thabhairt arís don Aire teacht agus an dea-obair atá ar siúl ag Cumann Uiscebhealaí Intíre na hÉireann ar an chainéal idir Iúr Cinn Trá agus Port an Dúnáin a fheiceáil. Ceapaim go dtabharfadh cuairt ón Aire spreagadh dóibh le gabháil ar aghaidh leis an obair sin.
I thank the Minister for her statement. I once again invite her to come down to Newry to see the excellent work being carried out by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI) on the canal between Newry and Portadown. I am sure that a visit from the Minister would be a great inspiration for it to continue that good work.
I thank the Member again for his invitation. I appreciate it. I will liaise with him to ensure that we set a date this side of Easter, and I will be happy to accept his invitation to visit the canal in Newry. I am very supportive of the work, even though it is not within the remit of work that people have done around canals and waterways in towns and villages. I look forward to setting an early date and joining him in a visit to the canal.
The Member is right that there is no board for Waterways Ireland as there is for other all-Ireland bodies. However, Waterways Ireland is accountable to DCAL and to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (DAHG) and, indeed, the NSMC. As Ministers, we discharge our oversight responsibilities for Waterways Ireland through the NSMC. That includes consideration and agreement of the budget, corporate plans, business plans, progress reports, business targets and project milestones.
I also want to provide the Member with the assurance that, in addition, we have bimonthly monitoring meetings that are chaired by senior civil servants from DCAL and DAHG. The chief executive and appropriate directors attend to account for business performance and corporate governance. Waterways Ireland's audit committee meets three times a year. It comprises three external members and has unrestricted access to internal and external auditors who access the work of internal audit and receive reports/ Finally, I can give additional assurance that DCAL and DAHG have increased the remit of Waterways Ireland's finance committee to enable more detailed scrutiny of audit and recommendations.
For all its double-spaced padding, what is really in this statement? We hear about a few extra metres of moorings. We hear that there are three new publications: wow. We hear that we want to inspire people to discover and enjoy recreational activities on the waterways. Do we really need to spend time and money on sending Ministers to the formality of a council to talk about such mundane and inane things, which really are at the level of council functions?
I am disappointed that the Member has such a disparaging and pitiful attitude towards the work of Waterways Ireland and has no regard for the people who work, live and try to develop their businesses on the waterways and around those communities. He has no knowledge whatsoever of how important these publications and the government support are, and, as we all know, he has no regard for the connection of waterways the length and breadth of this island. If the Member has so little regard for anything that is said in the statement, I wonder why he is here today.