North/South Ministerial Council: Inland Waterways

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:45 am on 30 November 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 10:45, 30 November 2021

I have received notice from the Minister for Infrastructure that she wishes to make a statement.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

With your permission, Mr Speaker, in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make a statement regarding the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) inland waterways meeting that was held in the North/South Ministerial Council joint secretariat headquarters in Armagh, and by videoconference, on 3 November 2021.

The Executive were represented by me as Minister for Infrastructure and by the Health Minister, Robin Swann. The Irish Government were represented by Darragh O’Brien TD, Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and Malcolm Noonan TD, Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform. This statement has been agreed with Minister Swann, and I am making it on behalf of us both. Minister O’Brien chaired the meeting, and the following is a note of what was discussed.

We noted the progress achieved by Waterways Ireland (WI) since the last meeting of the Council in the inland waterways sector, including major projects in Northern Ireland such as the redevelopment of Bellanaleck quay and slipway; the refurbishment of Carnroe weir and Carnroe lock; the Lower Bann lock gate replacement programme; tender preparation work for dredging at Portna on the Lower Bann; refurbishment works at Enniskillen headquarters; and an accelerated asset inspection programme.

Major projects in the South include Barrow blueway construction; the Grand canal greenway construction; Shannon tourism master plan projects at Rooskey, Red Bridge and Athlone; work with our European partners on the GreenWIN project; embankment repairs and strengthening on the Royal and Grand canals; lock gate replacement programme across the Royal and Grand canals; fixed jetty refurbishment projects across the body’s navigations; the completion of the Ballyconnell to Bellaheady blueway trail on the Shannon-Erne; continuing restoration works on Fort Eliza at Banagher in County Offaly; the official reopening by Minister O’Brien and Minister of State Noonan of the Meelick weir and walkway on 24 September; ratification of the body’s first ever climate action plan, which stretches over 10 years and is ambitious in its scale and set of objectives; the launch of the WI digital archive by Minister of State Noonan in June 2021; and approval of the business case for the Lough Erne pilgrimage trail by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

We also noted the progress achieved in the restoration of the Ulster canal, including the ongoing work on phase 2 of the restoration from Clones to Clonfad, the plans for phase 3 of the restoration from Castle Saunderson to Clonfad, and the plans for the development of the Ulster canal greenway.

We noted the Waterways Ireland annual report and accounts 2019, which have been signed off by both Comptrollers and Auditors General and laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Assembly. We also noted that the Waterways Ireland annual report and accounts 2020 have been submitted to both Comptrollers and Auditors General. The Council noted that the Waterways Ireland business plan 2022 is being prepared.

We approved the making of the Lough Erne (Navigation) Order 2021 in accordance with paragraph 4(5) of schedule 4 to the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, and we noted the planned implementation of the said order in advance of the 2022 season. We also consented to a number of property disposals.

The North/South Ministerial Council agreed to hold its next inland waterways meeting in early 2022.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

I welcome the statement. The Minister knows that I have mentioned the Ulster canal greenway on a number of occasions, particularly the Monaghan to Middletown section. It is always good to see it on the clár at any meeting. Was the issue raised at the meeting? Can the Minister give assurances that the funding will be obtained to complete that section of the greenway?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. The Ulster canal greenway was discussed. Waterways Ireland, in collaboration with Monaghan County Council, Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council and East Border Region Ltd, took the lead, as the Member will know, in submitting an application for INTERREG funding for the project. The application was successful, and €4·95 million was allocated towards the cost of the greenway from Smithborough in County Monaghan to Middletown in County Armagh. My understanding is that increased construction costs have led to a shortfall in the funding for the project, but the Special EU Programmes Body is reviewing the project in light of that. We await the outcome of that review to see how the project will proceed.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her statement. I hear clearly her commitment to New Decade, New Approach (NDNA). What impact is Brexit having on Waterways Ireland?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

There was no outcome that impacted solely on Waterways Ireland. However, there are some that will impact on the organisation going forward. EU directives no longer apply to the UK. That may lead to an incremental divergence in legislation with the passage of time. The UK no longer has to comply with EU procurement directives. In the short term following the exit, UK rules are likely to remain the same. However, they may change in the medium term. The additional procurement regime will bring additional administration. Waterways Ireland has considered the implication of the need to migrate to a new tender advertising portal and platform.

EU funding will no longer be available in the North, with the exception of PEACE PLUS, which the EU has committed to continue allocating. Waterways Ireland has, historically, been the beneficiary of EU funding and anticipates that future EU funding opportunities to develop infrastructure and to promote recreational use in the North may either become limited or cease. Whilst any loss of funding could, potentially, be replaced, at least in part, by the UK Government or other EU funding streams, such as PEACE PLUS, challenges will still remain with regard to funding for the future development of infrastructural projects.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Minister, in your statement, you mentioned the Lough Erne (Navigation) Order 2021. As you know, it involves reducing water levels in Lough Erne. Over a number of years, farmland and even access roads that are adjacent to Lough Erne have suffered with winter flooding. Can you advise how much the level of Lower Lough Erne has been lowered, how the new reduced level was determined, and whether you are confident that local farms will now be protected from the risk of flooding?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I do not have that detailed information at hand on the water levels. However, I am happy to respond to the Member in writing.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for her statement. Our waterways are a valuable and crucial part of our green recovery. However, it could be said that, historically, they have been undervalued, underutilised and very much under-promoted. I know that because I worked in that area before I came to this place. Was there any discussion at the meeting on how the tourism bodies could properly reflect and promote our excellent waterways as part of our tourism product?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

There was no specific discussion on that. However, from my ongoing engagement with Waterways Ireland, I know that it is aware of the need to have partnership working and is engaged in that.

As the Member rightly identified, our blueways are one of our sets of outstanding natural assets. We should maximise their promotion for the benefit of not only our visitors but locals. Members will know from previous statements that I have made in the House after NSMC meetings that we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people staying at home to holiday and going out to enjoy the recreational activities around our blueways. We have seen that increase sustained, and it is expected to be sustained right into next year, so it is only right that we work with partners right across the board to maximise the opportunities from our blueways for the tourism industry and local communities alike.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statement. I welcome the draft climate action plan that Waterways Ireland has launched. We need to see an increase in the environmental protections for our waterways. However, Minister, I am sure you are aware that sewage is being pumped into our rivers and waterways. What work is under way to address the pollution of our waterways with sewage?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

That was not discussed at the NSMC, but I will talk briefly about the climate action plan, and then I will address the second part of the Member's question.

The climate action plan is really ambitious. I pay tribute to Waterways Ireland for showing such leadership in it. The plan has seven key objectives, and it is out for public consultation. I take the opportunity to encourage Members and their parties to respond to that consultation.

The Department works with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) on matters to do with the sewage situation, but I am happy to provide specific responses for any particular concerns that the Member might have.

Photo of Pádraig Delargy Pádraig Delargy Sinn Féin

Minister, thank you for your answers so far. You have partly answered my question, which is about Lough Neagh. Obviously, we are all aware that Lough Neagh is the largest lough in Ireland. The Lough Neagh Partnership is keen to be brought under the integrated strategic management of the Assembly. Have you considered that? Secondly, was that raised at the meeting?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

It was not raised at the meeting. Waterways Ireland has a specific remit for a set number of our navigations, and Lough Neagh is not one of those. Separate from that, I have been engaging with the Minister responsible for the environment because I have received correspondence from elected members about the Lough Neagh Partnership. That correspondence is ongoing.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister for her remarks so far. Minister, you talked about refurbishing Enniskillen's HQ and how some property was being sold off. What property has been sold off? What investment is happening in the Enniskillen headquarters? Why is the asset inspection being accelerated? Is that a precursor to further sell-offs?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

In short, no. Under the legislation governing Waterways Ireland and the NSMC, any disposal has to come to the Council for approval. I am happy to provide the Member with an extensive list of what was agreed at that particular meeting.

The work at the headquarters was to address health and safety concerns. Work has been accelerated. In order to be compliant with COVID regulations and public health advice, staff are working from home where possible, so that has vacated the building to allow the required works to be taken forward. That is the explanation for the accelerated works. I reassure people that the work that is ongoing at the HQ is to address health and safety issues.

Photo of Áine Murphy Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. The Ulster canal project can provide vital regeneration for rural border towns in south Fermanagh by boosting tourism and the local economy. Can I get an update on the plans to restore the section of the Ulster canal from Clones to Lough Neagh via Lough Erne, as well as an approximate time frame for the completion of phase 3, which the Minister mentioned?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Phase 1 of the Ulster canal is complete and now open for navigation. The phase 2 restoration of the stretch from Clones to Clonfad is under way. The creative design is complete, and there are plans to develop a vision for the canal in Clones, including an architectural feature that links the canal to the cultural history of the town. For phase 3, preliminary work on the restoration of the stretch from Castle Saunderson to Clonfad will commence before phase 2 is complete. Of course, all three phases of the project have been funded by the Irish Government.

Waterways Ireland has NSMC approval to explore the potential restoration of the stretch of the Ulster canal from Clones to Lough Neagh.

It remains a clear commitment in the Stormont House Agreement, the Fresh Start Agreement and in New Decade, New Approach. I am very keen, funding permitting, to see that progressed.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance 11:15, 30 November 2021

I apologise to the House for being late for the statement; the Minister is moving too fast. The statement outlined information on approval for the business case for the Lough Erne pilgrimage trail, which, I understand, will link up to a wider heritage trail that will run all the way to the great town of Bangor. Will the Minister provide an update on the Lough Erne aspect of that?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

There are 36 sites of spiritual and ecclesiastical significance on and along Lough Erne. Those sites were nominated for UNESCO world heritage site designation in 1987. Waterways Ireland is working with Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and the Lough Erne Landscape Partnership to develop a pilgrimage trail, which will initially involve 10 sites. As the Member points out, funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund has been secured for that, and the aim of the project is to increase accessibility to the sites; increase awareness and understanding of the history and heritage of the great island monasteries; create visitor experiences and journeys along the trail; increase community engagement and volunteering activities associated with the sites of the trail; and promote awareness and use of the trail as a recreational and cultural tourism destination. The project will deliver multiple benefits, and I am delighted to see it progress.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Minister, your statement indicates that you have ratified Waterways Ireland's:

"first ever Climate Action Plan, which stretches over 10 years".

Both Ministers — you and your opposite number in the Republic — have signed off on and given their commitment to reaching a net zero carbon target by 2050. It is described as:

"ambitious in its scale and set of objectives".

What are the resource and capital implications of the 10-year plan when it comes to your budget, and, more importantly, what would be the additional cost, if the plan, which is described as "ambitious", were accelerated even further to be achieved by 2045?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The action plan is a demonstration of the recognition of the importance of the issue and how seriously it is taken by Waterways Ireland. It needs credit for that. It is also critical when it comes to managing water levels where there is no natural water resource. That has proved to be challenging at times. As a result of climate action, particular challenges are being experienced on our blueways, and we absolutely need to rise to the challenge of that.

The climate action plan has not been set. It has not been completed; it is out for consultation. That consultation process will inform the plan, and, when it comes back and is brought forward to the NSMC, we will expect to see details of the funding requirements that need to be assigned accordingly. Of course it will be challenging. On a weekly basis in the House, we debate with unanimity the importance of tackling the climate emergency. That will require resources and difficult decisions. This is where the rubber hits the road. If we are serious about doing that, we will need to provide the necessary funding to organisations to drive that agenda forward.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Minister will be aware that the meeting was one of the North/South meetings that hitherto the DUP said would not be happening because of its protest against the trashing of east-west links, yet it took place. Will the Minister confirm that that was possible only because the DUP First Minister sanctioned it through approving the agenda and that that protest now seems to be diminished to acting through the surrogacy of Mr Swann and the pretty pitiful absence this morning in order to try to pretend that there still is a protest?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I confirm that the meeting proceeded because the papers and agenda were signed off by both the First Minister and the deputy First Minister.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two while we move to the next item of business.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)