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North/South Ministerial Council:  Inland Waterways

Ministerial Statements  – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 3rd June 2014.

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Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, with your permission, in compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998, I wish to make a statement regarding the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) inland waterways meeting that was held in Enniskillen on 3 April 2014.  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 lead Minister Dinny McGinley TD, Minister of State with special responsibility for Gaeltacht Affairs, and by Jimmy Deenihan TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.  The statement has been agreed with junior Minister Bell, and I am making it on behalf of us both.

The meeting dealt with issues relating to inland waterways and their constituent agency, Waterways Ireland.  Ministers had a discussion on various priorities within their remit and noted that those will be contained in a report that is to be considered at a future NSMC institutional meeting as part of the ongoing review into sectoral priorities.  Waterways Ireland delivered a presentation to Ministers entitled 'Ireland’s Inland Waterways — Building a Tourism Destination'.  The presentation provided an overview of the progress that Waterways Ireland is making in placing waterways and the waterway experience at the centre of the tourism offering in Ireland and internationally.

The Council received a progress report from Dawn Livingstone, the chief executive of Waterways Ireland, on the activities of Waterways Ireland.  Those include the planned maintenance and repairs during the winter season; a public consultation that was undertaken on the proposed canal by-law amendments in the South; the completion of a built heritage study of the Lower Bann navigation and a geographical information systems-based navigation guide for the Lower Bann; the donation of two barges for recreational and community use; the development of a strategic development plan for the Grand canal dock, Spencer dock and plot 8; the winning by Waterways Ireland of the 2013 environmental award at the Docklands Business Forum awards for its continued work in restoring, protecting and promoting the heritage dockland assets; the continuation of towpath development and work on the cycleway from Ashtown to Castleknock; and work with others to utilise three unused navigation properties for community and recreational use.

Ministers noted the position with the 2013 business plan and budget.  They also noted that Waterways Ireland has undertaken a public consultation on the draft corporate plan 2014-16; the preparation of the draft 2014 business plan by Waterways Ireland; and that the plans will be reviewed after the public consultation is analysed.  They also noted that sponsor Departments will continue to work with Waterways Ireland to finalise the business plans and budgets for 2014 and the corporate plans for 2014-16 that will be presented for approval at a future NSMC meeting.

The Council received an update on plans to restore the Upper Lough Erne to Clones section of the Ulster canal and consented to a number of property disposals. 

Ministers approved the Special EU Programmes Body business plan and budget 2014 and corporate plan 2014-16.  The Council agreed to meet again in inland waterways sectoral format in October 2014.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement.  I note that she referred to a presentation from Waterways Ireland, titled 'Ireland's Inland Waterways:  Building a Tourism Destination'.  I recall that the Minister's June 2013 statement talked of Waterways Ireland's new website and how it could be used to promote the waterways as a major tourist attraction and a valuable recreational and educational resource.  Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made on realising that tourism attraction ambition?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I am happy to tell the Member that, even going by the presentation that we received at the sectoral format meeting, a lot of schools, community groups and local councils are involved.  There is absolutely no doubt that the potential for tourism, particularly around waterways, is vast.  We need to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to realise the potential to make connections.  Also, the educational value of the website will, undoubtedly, be invaluable, particularly for children and young people involved in education.  I am happy to provide an update on progress to the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee and to Members after future meetings.  I am also happy to forward a link to the website, if the Member does not already have it, so that he can see it at first hand.

Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas a thug sí dúinn ar maidin.  What are the main priorities for Waterways Ireland in the 2014-16 period?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question.  Some of the main priorities are about making sure that the management and maintenance of the navigation are safe, and that it is open and accessible to people using the waterways and as a recreational space.  As I said in a previous answer, it is also about making sure that more people have better knowledge of what is available to them around and on the waterways, particularly the rich environment and the heritage attractions. 

There will also be a focus on unlocking the opportunities for growth in the economy; on social and recreational growth; and on reorganising and optimising the resources that should be there for public use, but certainly within the budget efficiencies.  We will look at other funding opportunities for the Ulster canal in particular, but not exclusively, and how we can better maximise investment in our waterways to get a better return for everyone.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her statement.  May I take this opportunity to ask her to convey to Waterways Ireland my deepest appreciation for its endeavours to transform what was a drainage system into a first-class tourist amenity?  I am talking about the River Bann, which will, I hope, one day emulate the River Shannon in its ability to draw tourism.  In her statement, the Minister referred to:

"the completion of a Built Heritage Study of the ... Bann".

Is she aware that many of the artefacts that have been recovered from the bed of the River Bann at Kilrea have been stored for many years?  Will she undertake to raise that with those who are conducting the study to see whether those artefacts can be recovered and become part of a very important study?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his comments, and I will happily forward them to Waterways Ireland.  That is an example of it doing a job and doing it well. 

I note the Member's concern about the potential preservation and maintenance of any artefacts that have been found.  I will happily raise that and update him on progress, where those artefacts are and, more important, if they are of value, where they can be stored and displayed.  That is also part of the narrative and a good story about what we have in our waterways and how they can link in with other public services such as the arts centre in Limavady and libraries and whatever else in Coleraine.  If they are of value, they can be displayed in those local public services.  That is where we need to seize the opportunities and make the best use of them.

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

I suppose, to use a nautical term, we are looking at steady as she goes, and are managing the asset and taking what advantage we can out of it.  That is progress in itself, because of the advantages of a canal system. 

Minister, in your statement you referred to:

"an update on plans to restore the Upper Lough Erne to Clones section of the Ulster Canal."

That is another important piece of work.  Given the financial constraints that the Department is working under, how realistic is it to be talking about updating and raising ambitions with that?  Will the Minister give an indication of a notional plan or date for moving that forward?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question.  He is right to raise the issue of expectations.  As he will be aware, the Irish Government originally said that they would fund the entire restoration project but have had to rescind that offer because of the financial situation that they are in.  However, I was not content to leave it at that; I wanted to see what DCAL could do to enhance the opportunities for even a part restoration, perhaps through a phased approach.  To that end, the economists in DCAL have looked at the business plan.  We are looking at a final draft that could go to a final final draft, but the point is that an interagency body has been developed to look at other ways that council, European and heritage funds can be used to try to start the process of land acquisition and construction. 

Every Member, from across the parties, has mentioned the value of restoring the Ulster Canal.  We need to put our best efforts forward and try to look at other ways of starting that project.  That is where my commitment is.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

Michael has stolen my line — again.  We seem to be very interested in the same things and always want to ask the same questions.  I will move on to something else, Minister, although I am very interested in canal development and restoration. 

In your statement, you mentioned:

" working with others to utilise three unused navigation properties for community and recreational use."

Will you elaborate on that, please?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I will write to the Member with all the details, but, for example, Scouting Ireland is using one of the barges that was mentioned, and it is also being used by community groups, I think in Dublin.  It is about working with local councils, schools and community groups on the local environment, the flora and fauna and our waterways. 

I am happy to provide the Member with the details, but, suffice to say, although Waterways Ireland does not have the budget to maintain and bring some of those properties back to life, it is not letting them rot.  They are trying to make them safe, and they are trying to make them into an asset that can be used by the community, albeit not maybe for what it was originally intended to be.  I think that this is a good way where all local public bodies can come together around an area that is of interest to them all to see how they can make best use of assets, not just to preserve and maintain the asset but to make sure that it is used for good public service.  I will happily write to the Member with all of the details.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP 10:45 am, 3rd June 2014

I thank the Minister for her answers so far.  I welcome the progress that the Minister has talked about in relation to the Ulster canal.  Can the Minister provide some update to members of the Committee around that issue in a more expansive way than has been outlined here today in the Chamber?  On the matter of going forward with super-councils coming on stream, can the Minister advise on whether she is having ongoing discussions with super-councils on the development of the canal in Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to the canal along the stretch at Stranmillis up to Lisburn?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question.  I will take the last part first.  The Member will be aware through his connections with Belfast City Council that I have had very good working relationships with Belfast City Council in relation to the Lagan.  Those discussions will be ongoing.  We have had good discussions with Fermanagh District Council in relation to the Erne and Clones route.  I will happily provide an update to members of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee and, indeed, a current update on where the draft business plan is in relation to providing options around how we can commence work and land acquisition around the restoration of the Ulster canal

The Member will know that, both here and in Clones and Monaghan, planning permission around the restoration has been granted.  We need to make sure that, while planning permission has a shelf life, albeit of a couple of years, we put our best efforts together collectively to try to have this work commenced.  I will happily provide a better and more detailed update to the members of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee.

Photo of Rosaleen McCorley Rosaleen McCorley Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagraí go dtí seo.  I thank the Minister for her answers up to this point.  An dtig liom iarraidh ar an Aire an dtig léi a rá cad atá déanta ag Uiscebhealaí Éireann maidir leis na fadhbanna ag baint le jet skis agus rudaí eile atá ina bhfadhbanna ar Loch Éirne?  Can the Minister advise us on what action Waterways Ireland is taking to address the speeding issues relating to jet skis and other craft on Lough Erne?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for her question.  Waterways Ireland's inspectorate is responsible for enforcing the Lough Erne by-laws, which include speeding.  Jet skis and boats are asked to carry registration numbers, which are issued by Waterways Ireland.  I know, because a report was given, that any complaints are very robustly followed up.  I also acknowledge that, since the Lough Erne by-laws were introduced in 1978, the numbers of vessels and the popularity of Lough Erne have grown.  I also know that Waterways Ireland is planning to amend the Lough Erne by-laws, and these changes include proposals to create no-wash areas and minimise the risk of high-speed collisions, particularly with some of the larger seagoing vessels.

I am happy to keep the Member and, indeed, other members of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee updated on those.  Certainly, Waterways Ireland is acutely aware of some of the complaints, as is Fermanagh District Council, that it has received from people enjoying sport and leisure on Lough Erne and who have been disrupted by speeding boats and jet skis.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

On the issue of the lower Bann built heritage study, the Minister will be aware that the Bann estuary, the north coast and the wider north-west is probably the jewel in the tourism crown of Northern Ireland.  What productive use is the built heritage study going to be put to in order to develop that jewel in the crown to attract additional visitors and tourists to the region?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question.  Yes, it is indeed one of the most beautiful parts of this island, but I think that every Member, including the Member's colleague at the back, would have something to say about their own constituency.

The undertone of the Member's question is whether the study will sit on the shelf and not be of any use.  The answer is no; it is not going to sit on the shelf.  It is going to dictate what we already know, which is that the tourism potential in those areas needs to better utilised.  The Waterways Ireland Riverfest took place in Coleraine, in the Member's constituency, in August, and there were over 100 participants and 7,000 visitors.  We need to capitalise on that event and make sure that it grows each year.  However, in relation to the study, we need to make sure that the schools, community groups, anglers and local councillors are involved and that they all can make use of the study.  It is about making sure that we have better use, better knowledge and better investment in our waterways.  I would not like any study to be brought forward, only for people to acknowledge it, note it and then do nothing about it.  I do not think that anyone wants that.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her statement.  Given the reprofiling of moneys through the Waterways Ireland budget, will the Minister give any reassurance that she will talk to ministerial colleagues in Northern Ireland to try to make sure that we get the Ulster canal opened up from Lough Erne to Lough Neagh, which would be the jewel in the tourism destination crown if it could be exploited?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question.  The part of the canal from Lough Erne to Lough Neagh is not on Waterways Ireland's schedule of work.  I appreciate that it is of tourism value, particularly for local councils and the surrounding area.  However, it is the Lough Erne to Clones section of the Ulster canal that is to be restored.  As the Member may have heard when I responded to other questions today, we face huge challenges in having the finance to secure that end, despite the fact that the commitments were made to do it some time ago.

I am optimistic in all of this, and if we are successful in attracting European funding, and canals are seen as having extreme value in heritage and tourism, I think it will lift the bar for other Departments and other bodies to look at what else can be done.  If I had the option to look at what else we could do, I would look at the Lough Neagh canal and make those connections so that we could go right from the Foyle — from one end of the island to the other — and enjoy our waterways, promote tourism and generate the economy, particularly for areas that do not enjoy the investment that they deserve.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The statement says that Ministers noted the position on the 2013 business plan and budget.  That is almost identical language to the communiqué of last June when they also noted the position of the 2013 business plan and budget.  What is that position?  Why is it that financial anarchy continues in that cross-border body and that, almost in the middle of 2014, we still have not had the 2013 budget approved?  The Minister may not care much about it, but will she explain how expenditure, therefore, was even legal if the budget was never approved?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

First of all, the spending is legal, and I am the anarchist in this case because I am refusing to implement additional cuts.  I have no qualms in saying it:  I am totally reluctant — totally reluctant — to agree to additional cuts that are above and beyond what both Finance Departments have agreed.  Until we can come to a resolution on this, the position will remain unchanged.  I make no apologies for that whatsoever.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Absolutely; it is totally legal.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I have received legal advice —

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

— and, thankfully, you are not a person I would seek advice from on any subject. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Thank you:  Members should make their remarks through the Speaker's Chair.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  I thank the Minister for her answers to date.  Can the Minister provide some detail of the real benefits that sponsored events have on and around our waterways?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question.  Some of the examples that I gave in answering questions from John Dallat and Gregory Campbell, particularly around the Coleraine Waterways Ireland festivals, show how we can use our waterways, in conjunction with investment from local government, to attract visitors.  Not even that, these festivals have proven, time and time again, to grow, and that is good news for us all.  We need to make sure that we take a collective approach of seeing the asset in and the potential of our waterways and invest in them wisely, because the return has proven, yearly, that such money is well spent and that tourist and local attractions continue to grow.  People feel part of something that is local to them and that the opportunity for investment will certainly be better secured if people have better use of their good public services.