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North/South Ministerial Council: Inland Waterways

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 2nd February 2015.

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Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 2nd February 2015

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mr Speaker, 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 that was held in Armagh on 27 November 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 Heather Humphreys TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and Joe McHugh TD, Minister of State with special responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs. 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 its constituent agency, Waterways Ireland. Ministers noted the approach being adopted by Waterways Ireland in attempting to maximise the benefit of EU funding opportunities. The Council received a progress report from Dawn Livingstone, chief executive of Waterways Ireland, on the activities of Waterways Ireland, including that the management and maintenance of waterways continued, with over 95% of the navigations open for the period from April to September. Revised draft canal by-laws for the South were prepared following a public consultation process, and consultation on revised Erne by-laws was scheduled for winter 2014. Capital expenditure is focused on major infrastructure repairs, with replacement lock gates at Tarmonbarry on the Shannon. Bridge repairs on the grand canal are ongoing and new floating moorings are installed at Crom on Upper Lough Erne.

The 2014 sponsorship programme continued, with 105 events supported. There was 20·4 kilometres of towpath enhancement on the Royal canal and Grand canal through partnerships with local authorities to fund the developments. There was the development by Waterways Ireland of the Shannon blueway, Ireland's first blueway, which is a multi-activity trail running alongside the water between Drumshanbo and Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim in conjunction with the National Trails Office, Canoeing Ireland, Leitrim County Council and Leitrim Tourism. There was expansion of the schools education programme with the development of a schools walking tour exploring the history of the Grand canal dock. Two new community partnerships to care for the waterways continue to be developed with Mountjoy prison and Dublin Institute of Technology. There has been development of two new businesses along the waterways, with a new cruise hire business on the Shannon-Erne waterway and a new lunchtime food market licensed to use Charlemont Place in Dublin.

Ministers received a presentation on how Waterways Ireland is developing the blueway product and brand development to maximise the use of inland waterway property and infrastructure through the creation of multi-activity trails on and alongside the navigations. That included the potential economic and recreational benefits that long-distance routeways can provide.

Ministers agreed the 2013 indicative budget of €29·47 million, which is £24·17 million, as a baseline for 2014-16 draft budgets. They also noted Waterways Ireland's 2014 draft business plan and budget provision, 2015 draft business plan and budget provision, and the corporate plan for 2014-16. In noting the progress with the business plans, Ministers also approved a number of key priorities for Waterways Ireland for 2015 and noted that the draft business plans and budgets will be brought to a future NSMC meeting for approval.

At a subsequent NSMC language body meeting on 18 December 2014, the Waterways Ireland corporate plan 2014-16, business plan 2014 and business plan 2015 were taken as an additional paper. At that meeting, Ministers also approved the Waterways Ireland 2014 business plan and recommended budget provision of €28·04 million, which is £24·11 million, for 2014; the Waterways Ireland 2015 business plan and recommended budget/grant provision of €27·12 million, which is £21·96 million, for 2015; and the Waterways Ireland corporate plan 2014-16. It also noted the indicative draft budget/grant provision of €25·94 million, which is £22·31 million, for 2016, which will be subject to budgetary considerations in each jurisdiction.

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

Finally, it agreed to meet again in inland waterways sectoral format in spring 2015.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

The figures quoted in the statement are £24 million for 2014 and almost £22 million for 2015. Given what is being delivered, is it not the case that Northern Ireland is being short-changed? How much are we putting in, so as we can assess whether we are being short-changed?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Chair of the Committee for his question. I do not believe that we are being short-changed at all, but I am happy to provide him with a breakdown of the figures on spend in the North. I will also provide a breakdown of plans, which should be outlined in future budget bids for spend in the North, so that he can see that there is a start, and possibly a middle and an end, to some of the current spend and proposed future spend.

Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith again, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas seo ar maidin. I thank the Minister for her statement. She mentioned that Waterways Ireland plans to consult on the navigation by-laws for Lough Erne. Can she give us some indication of the current situation and the impact of any proposed amendments?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The consultation will open on, I think, 9 February and run until April. It concerns the by-laws on the Lough Erne stretch, which cover things such as marinas, parking, washing areas and speed limits, about which Waterways Ireland has received a number of complaints from people who want to use the water. The by-laws will help produce instructions and guidelines for larger boats that are using the Erne system, which is too small for current needs.

This is a welcome development from Waterways Ireland, and the CAL Committee and other Members will be notified when the consultation opens.

Photo of Karen McKevitt Karen McKevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

What impact, if any, will the weakness of the euro at the moment have on the work of Waterways Ireland here?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for her question, which is an important one, given that most of the budget allocations are very prescriptive. The fluctuation in exchange rates will have a bearing, but Waterways Ireland's staff and its governance arrangements are excellent, and I think that it has allowed for that. I will investigate the Member's queries, not only to see whether what I have said is correct but to determine whether there is any other information, which, if there is, I will happily forward to her.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I thank the Minister for the update. I notice that there is a gradually reducing budget for Waterways Ireland. Has that been ongoing for a number of years? Can she provide at some stage the Waterways Ireland budget figures for the past 10 years to establish whether its budget has been constantly reducing?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. I am sure that he appreciates that I do not have those figures here with me, but I am happy to get him the figures for 10 years ago. He can compare them with the latest statement, and I anticipate a raft of questions based on the evidence that I will forward to him.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

The Minister mentioned EU funding opportunities. Will she elaborate further on the possibilities of North/South proposals for funding?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

As the Member is aware, North/South institutions are all-Ireland in nature. If Waterways Ireland sees an opportunity to put in for European funding, as it did for INTERREG IV, it will certainly do so. It is looking at opportunities, particularly to open up blueways, which is the use of waterways along towpaths to create tourist opportunities with local councils. Waterways Ireland is also investigating the possibility of receiving some European funding for the restoration of the Ulster canal.

I know that it is also looking at potential sources of funding that will not only help with the maintenance and upkeep of the waterways but develop other opportunities, particularly with local and county councils, to increase investment in those areas, because, as the Member will know, on a lot of occasions, these areas do not see the investment that they feel that they are entitled to. So, yes, Waterways Ireland is actively engaged in pursuing all opportunities for European funding.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP 12:15 pm, 2nd February 2015

I thank the Minister for her statement. Can the Minister explain why the indicative budget for the 2013 draft business plan was agreed? Does it show the system to be dysfunctional?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I do not quite understand the Member's question. During responses to a statement that I made on a sectoral meeting, he asks why a budget was agreed. The budget was agreed because the right efficiency savings were met. The budget was agreed because, in order to receive the next year's budget, the previous year's budget needs to be agreed.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

It was for 2013.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

For 2013, and 2014 and, hopefully, 2015 will ensue. I am happy that I achieved the level of efficiency savings that was previously agreed.

Photo of Rosaleen McCorley Rosaleen McCorley Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire, agus cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire. I thank and welcome the Minister's statement. An dtig leis an Aire sonraí a thabhairt dúinn faoi na buntáistí a bhaineann leis na hócáidí urraithe seo sa Tuaisceart? Can the Minister give some detail on what benefits the sponsored events will have in the North?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for her question. I am happy to write to her in more detail, but I know that the Waterways Ireland Riverfest, which took place at Christie Park in Coleraine on 9 and 10 of August last year, saw over 100 participants and almost 7,000 visitors. In the past, areas along the waterways, particularly Coleraine, have hosted events with Waterways Ireland. Even areas in the city of Derry, and others along the waterways, in conjunction and in partnership with groups like Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland the Tourist Board, and others, have seen an increase in events. I am happy to try to get a breakdown for the Member and to forward those details.

Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP

I welcome the statement this afternoon. I am looking at the blueway product and the development of that. Can the Minister give us any more information on that? Will there be any benefit here in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. The presentation that we received at the last sectoral meeting in November was very impressive. I know that, in conjunction with some of the local and county councils, they are trying to maximise the tourist potential and are using their local landscape, in this case the local waterways, and looking at events. An example in Dublin is that they are using some of the space to hold a food market. They are getting a licence to do that and to try to encourage more people. I will get the Member a breakdown of all the events that have happened so far. Indeed, I will try to get a breakdown of some of the proposed events for, certainly, this year and, possibly, next year.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas seo ar maidin. The Minister mentioned the Ulster canal in response to an earlier question. Can she outline what progress has been made on the Clones to Upper Lough Erne section of the canal?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. As I said in the statement, it is a standing item on the agenda of the ministerial Council meeting in waterways sectoral format; the Council constantly receives progress reports on the restoration work to the Clones to Upper Lough Erne section of the Ulster canal. At this stage, it is noted that Cavan County Council, Clones Town council and Monaghan County Council have granted planning permission, and approval has been granted by DOE's Planning Service here. I know that the sponsor Departments are reviewing and updating the business case for the restoration of the canal, in light of the change of financial environments, particularly in the South. Waterways Ireland has developed a draft programme of work which takes into account the likes of planning, obviously, environmental impact, land acquisition and the tender and letting of a contract for construction. So, it has been engaged in some preliminary work, despite the fact that we still have not received, and the Irish Government, whose responsibility it is to start the first phase of construction, have not received, the appropriate finance from their government. Certainly, all the work that we need to do in anticipation of that funding being realised, is well under way, and good progress has been made.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh mile maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas fosta leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis inniu. Anuraidh, thug an tAire cuairt ar Iúr Cinn Trá, agus chonaic sí an obair mhaith atá ar siúl ansin ag cumainn éagsúla. Ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí den Aire an dtáinig forbairtí ar bith as sin? The Minister very kindly visited the Newry canal last year and saw the excellent work being carried out there by the Portadown and Newry branch of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. She also visited the Albert Basin and saw some of the work of the Newry Maritime Association. Were there any developments from that visit and those meetings?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. As he will appreciate, the Newry canal is not part of the business of the North/South sectoral meeting, although that is probably part of the Member's frustration. I will talk to officials and get an update. Needless to say, I was very impressed with the trust — a group of volunteers — who put an awful lot of work in. I could see the amount of support that they had from across the whole community in getting the Newry canal opened up. I anticipate that officials from DCAL, Waterways Ireland and Newry and Mourne District Council will, at some stage, have a joint meeting to see what, if anything, can be done. I will keep the Member updated.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

I thank the Minister for her report, which was very interesting. She referred to a number of key priorities for 2015 being approved; perhaps she could share some detail of that with us.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Member can see from the statement that, for example, the percentage of the navigation system that is open is increasing year-on-year, which is to be welcomed. The key priority is to settle down and get a better sustainability of budget, if not increase the budget. We also need to look at ways in which we can enhance the tourist product. Waterways Ireland, in conjunction with partners the length and breadth of the island, needs to look at the role we can play because we believe that tourism and the waterways have a good product to offer, particularly to local people and local businesses.

We also want to look at ways in which we can receive and secure additional funding but also target and secure European funding, particularly for the areas that I outlined to Anna Lo such as the restoration of the Ulster canal and the Blueways and the tourist product. Massive work is under way to look at bylaws, and a consultation on the Erne system will happen fairly soon. That will help us to get a better understanding of the guidelines and rules and regulations for our waterways and help people who want to enjoy them. It will also help people who live and work in the area to understand what impact, if any, it will have on their businesses and their community life. A lot of work is under way, and I congratulate Waterways Ireland, not only for meeting the priorities that is has been set but for exceeding them.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I welcome the statement and the progress on the maintenance of the Erne system. I appreciate that tourism is not in her portfolio, but to what extent is there a joined-up approach between councils in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic, and between DETI and its equivalent in the Irish Republic, on the promotion of the Erne system as a tourist destination, nationally and internationally?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. I will take his last point first; I accompany his colleague Minister Foster to the tourism sectoral meetings and, as he would expect, she is very robust in ensuring that the Erne system is part of an overall tourist product. At those meetings, and certainly at the meetings that I attend as one of the lead Ministers involving Waterways Ireland, there is a constant correlation and partnership between Fáilte Ireland, the Tourist Board and Waterways Ireland. To go back to the Member's first point, I am unsure exactly what the relationship and the connections are between the councils or how often meetings take place between them, but I am happy to find that out.

Needless to say, at all the meetings I attend, as a senior Minister or an accompanying Minister, on the issue of the Erne and the waterways around it — the Ulster canal is an example — all colleagues sing from the one hymn sheet.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Looking through the list of capital projects, I see lock gates on the Shannon, bridge repairs on the Grand canal, enhancements of the Grand canal towpath, the Shannon Blueway and the multi-activity trail at Carrick-on-Shannon. Nearly every one of these projects is in the Irish Republic. Does the Minister see her role as fighting for projects in Northern Ireland or simply sitting there, handing over our money for projects in the Irish Republic?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. I would like additional money to be spent in the North. There has been spending on Camagh Bay and Crom in Lough Erne, and the jetties at Knockninny, Gallon and Carrybridge have been upgraded. One of the bigger capital projects will mean spending on the North, namely the restoration of the Ulster canal. I appreciate the Member's frustration that a lot of money is being spent on developing works in the South.

The Member should know that I do not go to meetings just to nod my head. I will make sure that investment in the North is at the level that it should be, if not exceeded. As the Member will also know from his previous walk of life, when it came to making sure that the Irish Budget and the impact of that on the North that was proposed by the Irish Government, I stood my ground to make sure that the North was not affected. It is a pity that some others did not do the same.