Wednesday, 26 February 2014
Inland Waterways: Statements
I welcome the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, to the House. The statements on Ireland's inland waterways must conclude by 1.10 p.m. and the Minister may now make his contribution to the House.
I am delighted to take this opportunity to address the Seanad on the very important topic of our inland waterways and the very good work being undertaken by Waterways Ireland. I welcome the head of marketing for Waterways Ireland, Mr. Éanna Rowe, who is in the Gallery this morning. As Senators know, Waterways Ireland was established in 1999 under the British-Irish Agreement Act and is charged with the management, maintenance, development and restoration of Ireland's inland waterways, principally for recreation purposes. In total, Waterways Ireland manages some 1,000 km of waterway on both sides of the Border, including the Shannon navigation, the Erne system, the Lower Bann, the Royal and Grand canals, the Barrow navigation and the Shannon-Erne waterway, which this year celebrates 20 years since it was restored to navigation in 1994.
Since its establishment Waterways Ireland has restored the Royal Canal to navigation; opened up new cruising destinations such as Boyle and Ballinasloe; developed integrated recreational facilities at numerous locations such as Lough Key, Enniskillen, Clondra, Killaloe, Clashganny, Shannon Harbour, Enfield and Mullingar; doubled the mooring capacity on the waterways; developed a necklace of recreational services all along the waterways; placed the waterways at the centre of the tourism offering both nationally and internationally; and formulated and implemented numerous community and activity support programmes including its hugely successful sponsorship programme, its education outreach programme and its archive facility.
In fact, one of my first official engagements following my appointment as Minister was to officially open the wonderful new marina, service block and looped walk developed by Waterways Ireland in Killaloe. I witnessed at first hand that July morning in 2011 not only the fine facilities but the dynamic and active engagement between Waterways Ireland and the community of Killaloe-Ballina. I know that this deep and lasting partnership continues to flourish and was delighted to hear that Waterways Ireland is supporting and talking an active role in this year's millennium celebration of Brian Boru in Killaloe.
The benefits accruing from Ireland's inland waterways are many and varied. The waterways provide a direct as well as an indirect economic benefit. They sustain employment and they provide a social benefit as well as providing health and well-being benefits. The inland waterways support local communities, the growing recreation industry and the tourism sector as well as the local and national economies. In fact, many of the inland waterways travel through some of the most disadvantaged areas both rural and urban on the island of Ireland. The waterways are, in many instances, the only economic driver in those areas.
This year my Department will provide more than €24 million to Waterways Ireland and I know the economic benefit accruing from this investment is significant. Since its establishment in 1999, the number of boats registered with Waterways Ireland has increased by more than 50% to some 14,000 craft. Waterways Ireland, in research undertaken into the private boating sector, estimates that the sector is worth between €80 million and €100 million per annum to the national economy. In a separate study undertaken by Fáilte Ireland and Waterways Ireland into the cruise hire sector it is estimated that the sector contributes between €15 million and €20 million per annum. Waterways Ireland also supports myriad local, national and international events along the waterways and the 90 plus events supported in 2013 led to an economic boost of more than €8 million to the local economies. Waterways Ireland is planning further research later this year which will further quantify the economic and social dividend from the inland waterways.
There is no doubt also that the indirect benefits from waterway activity also contribute to the local fabric of the communities through which the waterways flow. In recent years there has been a significant growth in the number of activity centres, sail schools, canoe centres, walking and cycling offerings as well as angling hubs being established on the back of the capital and infrastructural development undertaken by Waterways Ireland. For example, following the development of an integrated harbour and service development in the small rural village of Clondra in County Longford on the Royal Canal by Waterways Ireland the village has witnessed the opening of a cruise hire base, a canoe school and a walking tour operator. Not alone that, but the community has witnessed and participates in these developments and has embraced the very positive change which the new harbour has brought to the village. This is evidenced through community engagement, voluntary participation and collective effort in all areas of the social fabric of Clondra.
Furthermore, while the waterways in question support a thriving boating and cruising sector, support and contribute to communities and contribute to the local and national economies in a significant way, the waterways also provide easily accessible, safe and welcoming leisure opportunities. The health and well-being benefits accruing to society from such leisure activities are many and varied, and the cycling and walking opportunities in particular and the general outdoor recreational environment provided by Waterways Ireland contribute in a very meaningful way to the welfare of society as a whole.
In order to maximise the economic and social benefits as described, Waterways Ireland continues to develop and promote the waterways and associated waterway activities. It continues to deepen and strengthen partnerships with other recreation and tourism agencies, its stakeholders and with the private sector. To that end Waterways Ireland continues to plan in a very strategic way the long-term development and promotion of the waterways in partnership with relevant local authorities, national tourism agencies, and the rural partnership companies as well as activity and accommodation providers through the formulation of product identification studies on the 1,000 km of waterways managed by Waterways Ireland.
Waterways Ireland has recently formulated a Draft Corporate Plan 2014-2016, which provides a strategic planning framework to guide Waterways Ireland's work programmes over the next three years. Waterways Ireland is carrying out a public consultation on its draft corporate plan until 31 March 2014. Central to its vision for the future is the development of recreational, heritage and environmental opportunities that link people, history and nature, providing both local communities and visitors with compelling reasons to spend more time in the waterways environment. It recognises that the inland waterways are an intrinsic part of our past and future. They are at the heart of community life, yet they also provide important regeneration opportunities to transform and create vibrant prosperous communities.
Waterways Ireland is the custodian of a valuable infrastructure built up over many years. One of its duties is to protect that infrastructure from risks that arise from time to time and in that context I would like to take this opportunity to address the issue of the Naomh Éanna. This vessel was purchased by the Irish Nautical Trust and moored at Grand Canal Dock in 1989, when it could no longer meet health and safety requirements to operate as a passenger-carrying vessel. Unfortunately, the ship has deteriorated substantially in the past 20 years and presents a real risk in the Grand Canal Basin in the heart of Dublin's docklands. In April 2013, a report commissioned by its owners on the hull condition of the vessel highlighted serious safety concerns. Based on the report's findings, the trust issued a notice to vacate to both of the businesses that had been operating from the vessel. Very significant investment would be required to preserve the already unstable hull of the vessel and to bring the vessel to the point where it would be safe and insurable. The ship's owners do not have access to finance on the scale required, nor is there any realistic prospect that such finance can be found. In the circumstances, Waterways Ireland offered to arrange for the removal and disposal of the ship on behalf of its owners.
Waterways Ireland made this offer as the property owners of the Grand Canal Dock because of the continuing serious risk posed by the condition of the Naomh Éanna, the disruption and expense that would be involved were it to sink in the Grand Canal Dock and the absence of any firm indication that the very significant level of finance required to make it safe and insurable was potentially available. The Irish Nautical Trust accepted the offer and confirmed its approval to Waterways Ireland to dispose of the vessel on its behalf. The vessel's condition does not support its movement out of the dock. Accordingly, Waterways Ireland has recently moved the Naomh Éanna to an adjacent dry dock, under a short-term licence agreement with NAMA, from where it will be dismantled under contract. I am advised by Waterways Ireland that this is the only practical way of ensuring the vessel does not sink in the main dock, thereby giving rise to considerable additional expense. Let me assure this House that the decision has not been taken lightly. Rather, it is because of the continuing serious risk posed by the vessel, the disruption and expense that would be involved were it to sink in the Grand Canal Dock and the very considerable expense that would be involved in making it safe and insurable.
Waterways Ireland is also obliged to manage the canals and in that regard, it is preparing new by-laws for consideration. It recently concluded a public consultation on its proposed revision of the by-laws. I am aware there has been much debate and discussion around this topic. I would like to take this opportunity to clarify some issues around this subject. First, the proposed changes to the by-laws are required to allow Waterways Ireland to proactively manage the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal as well as the Barrow Navigation. With approximately 500 boats on the three systems, Waterways Ireland is seeking to encourage more visiting boats onto the three waterways. However, it is evident to Waterways Ireland that the movement of boats on the waterways in question is problematic under the existing by-law regime. Mooring spaces at many harbours are difficult to access due to continuous harbour hogging. Neither the Royal Canal nor the Grand Canal, nor indeed the Barrow Navigation, has private marinas and there has been a slow but steady increase of unregulated houseboats in certain locations on the waterways.
In an effort to bring additional visiting boats on to the systems, Waterways Ireland is proposing the introduction of a free 30 day visitor cruising permit; the introduction of a range of fees for fixed mooring permits - in the absence of private marinas; the regulation of houseboat moorings; and the introduction of a fixed payment notice for those boats in breach of the by-laws.
These new by-laws will enhance Waterways Ireland's ability to manage the canals and waterway amenities. The proposed changes will also support the investment already made in new infrastructure and facilities by Waterways Ireland and will help to develop the canals as a vibrant recreational waterway for all users.
It is almost a quarter of a century since the by-laws were updated and I am sure Members would all agree that much has changed in the past 25 years. The same is true for the three waterways in question. In that time they have witnessed considerable investment. The Royal Canal was restored to navigation, new and improved facilities have been provided all along the three waterways and service blocks with toilets, showers and laundries have been developed at strategic locations. In all, Waterways Ireland has invested on behalf of the taxpayer over €50 million in the infrastructure of the Royal and Grand Canals and Barrow Navigation.
At the same time, Waterways Ireland has continued to market and promote these beautiful waterways. It has supported numerous events and activities on and adjacent to the water and continues to work in partnership with local authorities, tourism agencies and activity and accommodation providers along the three waterways. For example, in 2013 Waterways Ireland supported TriAthy, Éigse Carlow, the all-Ireland coarse angling championships in Edenderry, Phizzfest in Phibsboro, the Docklands summer festival here in Dublin City and the canoe polo championships in Enfield to name but a few. In fact in conjunction with Ingenious Ireland, Waterways Ireland developed a mobile APP and audio guide to the Barrow and its corridor last year. At the same time, Waterways Ireland, in partnership with Westmeath County Council, has developed a greenway cycle route along the Royal Canal and continues to work and support the further development of that greenway in Dublin, Kildare, Meath and Longford. These are but some of the many initiatives, supports, developments and investments made by Waterways Ireland in the Royal Canal, Grand Canal and Barrow River.
I am sure Members will agree that our Inland Waterways are a wonderful, natural heritage, leisure, recreation, boating and tourism attraction. They provide an insight into times past, allow access to a rich and diverse natural heritage, sustain many local businesses and communities and support a myriad of leisure and tourism opportunities, both for the domestic and international tourist. I am sure they will also agree that Waterways Ireland has indeed achieved much in developing, promoting and managing the 1,000 km of waterways since it was established.
I wish to acknowledge that the organisation, like all public bodies, faces many challenges in the coming years, but I wish to reassure the House that Waterways Ireland, with my support and that of my Department, will continue to successfully develop and promote these magnificent natural assets on behalf of all the people of Ireland.
I welcome the Minister enthusiastically because I am aware of the energy and commitment he puts into these matters. Both he and Waterways Ireland must be congratulated on their work and it is appropriate to record achievements such as opening up the Grand and Royal Canals in the House. However, there is the issue of maintenance and I am not sure this is always properly done.
This House is charged with scrupulously examining proposals and many questions arise from the Minister's statement and from briefings I have had from various sources. I am glad the Minister raised the question of the Naomh Éanna. I am not sure he would have raised it spontaneously, but I raised this issue yesterday because I am concerned about it, particularly because they have already started removing the brass portholes from the boat. I understand the Minister may be concerned that we have other boats, like the Jeanie Johnston and the Dunbrody, but these were replicas and cost an enormous amount of money. The Naomh Éanna is not a replica. It is an historic boat about which a programme was broadcast on Radio 1 in the past couple of weeks. It is a fully riveted unique boat of Irish construction. I agree it would cost some money to restore it, but it might then generate money as a tourist attraction. For example, it might be brought back to Galway and made into an attraction there.
I appeal to the Minister to stop the dismantling taking place currently and to ensure, at the least, that it can be reversed. A group which has previously been successfully involved in restorations of this kind wants a six-month moratorium on this so that it can get the finance to carry out a restoration. Will the Minister please provide an opportunity for this historic boat to be restored? We do not have the full original Asgard. We have absolutely nothing fully original. The two 18th century sailing ships are very interesting and I have enjoyed being on both of them, but they are not originals.
I agree there must be some regulation of houseboats and people should pay for services if they get them. If they get bin collections, water and electricity, these should be paid for. However, how can they go from a minor charge or no charge to a charge of €3,500? That is madness, as with many of the new proposed regulations. I agree Waterways Ireland has done wonderful work. I am not sure who the gentleman is who is charge of this, but he is in the Visitors Gallery. Perhaps he is the man I am smiling at. Well done to him on the work, but he should beware of killing the golden goose. If these charges are raised suddenly to the extent proposed, they will frighten people off from using our waterways. The majority of people who use the canals and waterways are not wealthy people. They are not the kind of people who have yachts worth €1 billion in Monte Carlo and elsewhere. They are ordinary people and include former Members of this House. I know, for instance, that Joe O'Toole used to talk about buzzing up and down the Shannon on his little boat. He was probably one of the wealthier people with a boat, because he had a guaranteed income here. We need to be very careful and to give serious consideration to the situation.
I have received correspondence from boat owners and they make the point that the new levy of €3,500 will be prohibitive. Do we want to kill off our own people from using our waterways? The proposed cruising permit will require boaters to move their boats every five days. Why should people be asked to move along every five days? I am not good at arithmetic, but how many five-days are there in a year? It is in or about 60. Therefore people will have to move on 60 times or more in a year. We have Travellers on land, but now the Minister is trying to create Travellers on the canals as well. This is absolutely mad. If people do not move, they will be fined €150 or will have to pay a mooring fee of €2,500.
We do not have proper moorings in many places. I would like the Minister to send his inspectors to examine the places where these people are supposed to moor. They do not exist. The facilities are not provided in these places, so why should they pay this outrageous amount of money for being told they must move along every five days? They may have to move on to a place that is just a kind of gap in the bank. It is not a marina and no facilities are provided, so why should they be charged? There is no provision either for winter mooring. One only needs to go to Dún Laoghaire to see what should be available. There, many boats are laid up for the winter and the keels are scraped and the boats are repainted and so on. Why should people be charged for boats that are laid up for the winter and must they move what may be a half-painted boat every five days? These are significant issues.
I have a letter from the New Ross boat club in which it is stated that there are very few safe places to leave a boat, apart from St. Mullins, Graiguenamanagh and Vicarstown and that there are no private marinas on the Shannon. Therefore, the five-day rule will put genuine boating people off using the waterways. The canals were built for barges and have attracted heritage barges. A barge like that is great.
It is even lovely for those like me who may not be a waterways enthusiast. They will also be in trouble.
The maddest example of all concerns the two-week Dublin waterways rally. Under the proposed by-laws, many of the groups concerned which have voluntarily supported the work of Waterways Ireland will be charged €25 to pass under the lifting bridge on the North Strand and €25 each at the two locks into the River Liffey. They will be charged the same €75 on their return journey. They will, therefore, be charged €150 for supporting this organisation. They are not going to listen to Elvis Presley. I will send on the documentation I have received to the Department.
The cruising permit may actually be illegal because it violates navigational rights in existence for nearly 800 years since 1216. Yes, we must congratulate Waterways Ireland on the work it has done, but we must not let the measure go through the House without critical scrutiny. The Minister should take on board the points raised by me on behalf of people who genuinely love messing around in boats. They should be encouraged. I thank the Minister for giving support to a recent project in Killaloe. Lord Inchiquin, a descendant of Brian Boru, and others from Killaloe were grateful for the Minister’s support for the project there.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach.
Waterways Ireland, established in 1999 under the British-Irish Agreement Act, is charged with the management, maintenance, development and restoration of Ireland's inland waterways, principally for recreational purposes. In total, it manages some 1,000 km of waterway on both sides of the Border, including the Shannon navigation, the Lower Bann, the Barrow navigation, the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal and the Shannon-Erne waterway. Coming as I do from the Border county of Louth, I have always had an interest in the Ulster Canal which runs from Lough Erne in County Fermanagh to Clones in County Monaghan. However, the economic downturn has had a negative impact on plans to fund the restoration of this canal. Significant income was expected to be raised to cover the cost of the cross-Border route by selling Waterways Ireland assets, but the recession has set matters back. Planning permission to reopen the 14 km route from Lough Erne in County Fermanagh to Clones in County Monaghan has been granted by local authorities north and south of the Border. New towpaths and bridges will be created as part of the €35 million work which is expected to take three years to complete. The Ulster Canal is a disused waterway running through parts of counties Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan and Monaghan. It originally linked the Lough Erne river system with Lough Neagh, but it has not been used since 1929. The economic downturn has had a negative impact on proposed plans. Despite this, the Ulster Canal project is progressing incrementally. I look forward to the section of the canal from Lough Erne to Clones being completed in the next few years. It will add to the existing tourism potential of counties Cavan and Monaghan.
The headquarters of Waterways Ireland is located in Enniskillen, with regional offices located in Carrick-on-Shannon, Dublin and Scarriff, County Clare. Waterways Ireland reports to the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, in Northern Ireland. It is managed by a chief executive who reports to the North-South Ministerial Council and joint sponsor Departments. Some 85% of current expenditure is met by the Government in the Republic, with the remaining 15% being met by the Northern Ireland Government. Capital expenditure is funded solely by the Government in the jurisdiction in which work is being undertaken. This year the Minister will provide over €24 million for Waterways Ireland.
Since its establishment, Waterways Ireland has restored the Royal Canal to navigation, opened up new cruising destinations at Boyle and Ballinasloe, developed integrated recreational facilities at Lough Key, Enniskillen, Clondra, Killaloe, Clashganny, Shannon harbour, Enfield and Mullingar, doubled mooring capacity and developed a necklace of recreational services all along the waterways.
Over one quarter of Ireland's 1,000 km network is man-made, over 200 years old and still works in the way designed. This is remarkable and a credit not only to the original engineers but also the continuing maintenance work carried out by Waterways Ireland staff. From undertaking bank repairs or weed-cutting to managing canal side vegetation and keeping verges and towpaths accessible, day-to-day maintenance work is essential to the smooth running of the waterways.
Waterways Ireland, in research undertaken into the private boating sector, estimates it is worth between €80 million and €100 million per annum to the national economy. In a separate study undertaken by Fáilte Ireland and Waterways Ireland of the cruise hire sector, it is estimated that it contributes between €15 and €20 million per annum. Waterways Ireland is planning further research later this year which will further quantify the economic and social dividend from inland waterways.
Waterways Ireland is also obliged to manage the canals and, in that regard, preparing new by-laws for consideration. It recently concluded a public consultation on its proposed revision of by-laws. Many who live on boats on waterways could see their waterways fees rise very considerably from €150 per annum to €3,500 under the new proposals. This is a significant increase, if true. Over 100 people live permanently on their boats on waterways. The new proposed charges would mean a fee hike from €152 to €1,250 to €3,500 for household moorings, depending on location, the services available and size of boat. Hundreds more boat owners would be affected by an increase in fees from €152 per annum to €1,600. Boat owners who moor in the same location for more than five days could face fines of up to €5,000.
The proposed charges are excessive and, if implemented, will damage the tourism potential of our waterways and cause us to lose significant business, while many small mooring locations may disappear. I urge the Minister to consider seriously the proposed charges and establish more reasonable ones for all boat owners.
I wish to share four minutes of my time with Senator Jim Walsh.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan. I am surprised that he is here because I heard on Radio Kerry this morning that he was making a return to the Kerry colours in the light of the depletion in numbers this year, with two of the big stars not turning out. He is probably training in the evenings and we wish him well. I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss this issue with him.
Our waterways, from the point of view of tourism, heritage and culture, are very important because anyone can avail of this magnificent resource. Much work has been done to progress them in the past 20 years, including the establishment of Waterways Ireland, one of the six North-South implementation bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement of 1999, which was a very welcome development. Some 85% of the funding comes from the Irish Government, with the remaining 15% coming from the Stormont Executive. Waterways Ireland has responsibility for managing, developing, restoring and navigating the waterways.
Other speakers, including Senator David Norris, have referred to concerns being expressed by boat owners about the new draft by-laws which are due to go for the Minister's consideration. The issues being raised with us regarding the revised by-laws are that if they were to be implemented, they could, according to the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, IWAI, result in a serious decline in boat traffic on the Grand Canal and the Royal Canal and the Barrow navigation. A spokesperson for the IWAI recently stated that if the proposals were to be approved by the Minister, more than 200 years of boating activity on the canal system could be killed off. I am not entirely sure that would be the case, but that is a concern being expressed. I am unsure as to what discussions have taken place between the IWAI and the Minister's office on its concerns. Perhaps it is early days yet and the discussions are ongoing. I suggest that, if one has not happened, a meeting with the IWAI take place to discuss some of its concerns before the Minister signs the draft by-laws.
Senator David Norris referred to the five-day moving period. The fine would be €150 if stationary within a 3 km distance within five days. The reason someone would hire a boat or bring his or her own boat onto a canal is for tourism purposes, for a holiday, but it is also therapeutic because one is moving very slowly down a river. I am not sure there are benefits to be gained in confining this. On the one hand, I can see the rationale behind charging because one needs some income, but, on the other, perhaps it requires further consideration by the Minister in consultation with the IWAI.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir Brian Ó Domhnaill as ucht ceithre nóiméad a thabhairt dom chun an t-ábhar seo a phlé. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire freisin go dtí an Teach.
Waterways Ireland is based close to the Erne and the Shannon. Our waterways are a major resource and amenity for the people and tourism. I am afraid the Government, like its predecessors, does not place much of the focus on the south east. We have very navigable and beautiful rivers within our jurisdiction. The Nore and the Barrow are very popular and scenic waterways. People involved in the boating business in the area have expressed some concerns to me. Waterways Ireland has committed to developing the canal system as a vibrant recreational waterway and enhancing our ability to manage the navigation in a more proactive way. However, I do not see much evidence of this on the Barrow. It has been mentioned that no changes have been made to the regime for 24 years and that is reflected in many of our waterways. I understand why the Government would consider applying charges of between €600 and €3,500 per year and charging for a mooring permit. However, it is important that the charges be pitched at levels conducive to encouraging people to use the waterways and to attract tourists. Not much of this has been happening.
For most of my career I worked in the port in New Ross. Invariably, German and Dutch seafarers, in particular, would remark on the great amenity the river was and how under-utilised it was, pointing out that in continental countries rivers were regarded and utilised as tremendous amenities. They said if the river were in their locations, it would be full of boats. It has also been brought to my attention that there is now a five-day mooring limitation being brought in. This fails to recognise the failure to provide mooring facilities along the river. There is a beautiful and popular five-mile walk from St. Mullins to Graiguenamanagh which is also a nice, navigable, scenic boating area. However, there are very few berths in St. Mullins and Graiguenamanagh and one has to go to Vicarstown above Athy to find the next safe mooring area. These issues must be tackled because imposing impositions such as this is a little bureaucratic. We need to be proactive in dealing with the practical issues connected with boating.
Waterways Ireland has failed, for example, to tackle the issue of unpaid fees. It has also failed to deal with the issue of abandoned craft along the river. These are issues which, presumably, have invited some of the measures about which I am talking.
I ask the Minister to examine the imposition of regulations which could impact negatively on the use of the river and try to facilitate the slow-moving heritage barges, some of which have been attracted to New Ross in the past few years because of the marina. They are very slow-moving and some of them will spend a number of days at their destination. I ask the Minister to re-examine that issue and ensure the policy will encourage greater use, which is needed, of such a valuable national amenity.
I thank the Acting Chairman for his forbearance.
I sincerely thank the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, for coming to the House for a good constructive debate on the proposed new by-laws for the canals and the proposed corporate development plan of Waterways Ireland. His attendance here is timely because it gives us an opportunity to contribute to the process, rather than discuss it when it is too late and after the horse as bolted, as it were. I commend the Minister on that as we have not been afforded that facility by every Minister.
The Minister, Deputy Deenihan, has shown he is a listening Minister who responds and engages. The vexed issue of turf cutting throughout the country is a good example or template. There were problems and issues, but the Minister met people half way. I appeal to him to do the same today. I welcome the representatives of Waterways Ireland. They are well intentioned and I know their hearts are in the right place. They have done great work with the canals. The canals have been reclaimed from a disastrous situation where many of them were dumping grounds. I also welcome the representatives of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, led by its president, Carmel Meegan. What I am attempting to do today is to get both sides to meet somewhere in the middle of the water and to parley.
Laws, regulations and rules that are, and are seen to be, unfair, unjust, draconian and harsh will not work. They will not have any public acceptance. I ask the Minister to make a policy intervention and to leave a legacy that he and the Government can be proud of in respect of the management and use of our canals and inland waterways. The inland waterways, and particularly the canals, have been the poor relation in our history with waterways. In 1958, the CIE Act caused devastating damage to the canal system, from which it has never really recovered. It resulted in the tearing up and filling in of the canal network. Imagine the barbarity and vandalism of filling in canals. We will never be able to recover or replace them. The canal spur from the town in which I grew up, Monasterevin, to Portarlington and Mountmellick is filled in and gone forever. All that remains are the ruins of the bridges and the ruins of the warehouses in the harbour in Mountmellick.
These proposed by-laws have the capacity to do the same damage to the canal system, if we do not move away from them. The decision of 1958 did untold damage and resulted in the loss for this country, its heritage and tourism industry of an amenity that can never be recovered, even if we set about trying to create it today. I am not appealing to the Minister solely on behalf of the approximately 100 people who live on their boats, the approximately 700 boat users who navigate the Grand Canal, Royal Canal and Barrow Way or the 2,100 individual submissions made to Waterways Ireland in the short three week time period that was given, but on behalf of the 70 communities across the midlands that rely on and require a vibrant canal network to flourish, so boats can continue to use the canal.
The proposed by-laws will drive boats off the canal. They will deter tourists and others from hiring boats and will deter people from investing in hire companies. They will deter the small businesses that spring up around the canals. In 70 towns and communities across rural Ireland, people are crying out to build and develop a fledgling tourism industry. Where I come from is not as popular as the Minister's native County Kerry in terms of attracting tourists. The area is grasping at the straws of small amenities and facilities to draw people to towns such as Tullamore, Edenderry, Vicarstown, Athy and Monasterevin. I grew up on the canal, with the River Barrow and the famous aquaduct. This issue is near and dear to my heart because I enjoyed many a great day fishing and swimming in the canal and waiting for the barges to arrive down to Moore's Lock.
We must encourage access, not deter it. I accept that the by-laws have not been changed since 1986, but that is not the fault of the boat users or of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, the people who are keeping the canal alive and flourishing in concert with Waterways Ireland. We should all sing from the same hymn sheet instead of being at odds about this. Is there any walk of life, business or leisure activity that could bear a tenfold increase in charges? Nobody could bear it.
My colleague, Senator John Kelly who, along with me, called for this debate, will deal with the issue of people living on the boats. However, the irony is that in a week that the Government published a plan to tackle homelessness, this policy will put people on the side of the road. One cannot, in one action, catch up with the by-laws after 25 years and at the same time increase charges, levies and fees tenfold. Nobody in their right mind would use the canal. This does not just apply to the navigation but also to the mooring charges, the houseboats and even to the dry dock. If one wishes to take one's barge out to repair and maintain it, the charges that would be accrued over the few months that it would take to repair the boat would, in some instances, cost more that the boat itself is worth. How can that be in the interest of development?
This is not simply a parochial issue, although I have been inundated with representations from Sallins, Robertstown, Tullamore and many other places. As Mr. Gerry Feery of the Ballycommon Canal Renewal Group said in a communication to me, it is not equitable to penalise users of the canals with high charges when they do not exist on other waterways. This is the problem - it will drive people off the canals. One of the submissions received by Waterways Ireland was from the Dutch Barge Association, which states that this policy will restrict access and make the canals less appealing to visitors from Europe. In fact, I believe this would not happen in the UK, Holland or Poland. Those countries would encourage people to use the canals, not deter them by levying fees that are unbearable.
As Senator Norris correctly pointed out, we are not dealing with Monte Carlo. We are dealing with Monasterevin, so let us get grounded on this issue. The people who use the canals are people of frugal means and the services and facilities in many places are Spartan, to say the least.
I commend Waterways Ireland on the work and investment. I genuinely thank the Minister for coming to the House before he signs these draconian proposed by-laws into law. There is still time for common sense to prevail so we can work together to ensure the canals can flourish and thrive into the future. Otherwise, we will do untold damage and that will be to nobody's benefit.
I welcome the Minister. Much of what I intended to say today has already been said by other Senators, so I will try not to cover the same ground again.
First, I reiterate the importance of Ireland's tourism industry. There was a small downturn in the industry for a number of years, but it is set to grow again. It is a vital part of our economy. In 2011, Ireland was voted the favourite holiday destination in the world by the readers of Farmers Guide, and it is undeniable that a contributing part of that would be our rivers and waterways. They are not just important for the tourism industry but are also navigational and economic arteries. They bring boat traffic for the tourism business and have significant amenity value to local communities. Boats are the lifeblood of communities along the waterways and we should encourage them to visit the canal navigations and waterways.
Like other Senators, I take this opportunity to commend the work done by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. Later I will raise issues relating to the by-laws and mooring fees. Being from Cavan, I note that the Ulster Canal has been mentioned. Can the Minister give an update on the progress of the canal?
Will the Minister update Members on the incremental progress being made by the inter-agency group on possible funding options? Has a feasibility study or any other study been conducted on the viability of the proposal to extend the Erne navigation from Belturbet to Killykeen and Killeshandra? I believe there were issues with regard to the environmental designations of the lakes. I would appreciate if the Minister would comment on this or revert to me at a later stage.
The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, IWAI, has expressed serious concerns about the proposed by-laws. At a meeting on Monday, 10 February, it was reiterated that the proposed by-laws do not put user requirements, tourism development and local communities at the centre of the regulations. Does the Minister agree that user requirements, tourism development and the local communities are in fact at the heart of the by-laws? The by-laws will impact on the communities along the waterways. As part of the consultation process the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, IWAI, arranged public meeting, met elected representatives, business associations and consulted with communities. A vast array of knowledge and experience was brought to bear on the consultation process and I think the Minister needs to consider the findings of IWAI. I will not develop that point further due to time constraints. My colleague Deputy Sandra McLellan tabled a question to the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht on the negative effects that increased mooring fees, annual cruising permits and annual houseboat mooring fees will have for the public. In the course of his reply the Minister said: "These seven waterways make a vital contribution to tourism". I do not think these proposals will help tourism. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that his response is balanced and takes account of the genuine concerns expressed by the IWAI, the communities they represent and all those who have been consulted on the matter.
I too thank the Minister for taking this debate, which Senator Whelan and I had called for. I do not think the Minister gets enough praise for the fact that he is prepared to come to this Chamber to listen to Members who express the fears that those in the Visitors' Gallery, among others, have about future mooring charges. Consultation takes place in Government but Ministers do not usually come to the House until the decisions have been taken. I appeal to him to take on board the views expressed in the House today.
In his speech, the Minister mentioned a place in my neck of the woods, Lough Key in Boyle, County Roscommon, as well as Ballinasloe and Leitrim. The Minister acknowledged that the sector is worth between €80 and €100 million per annum. He also recognises the benefits, both direct and indirect, that the waterways bring to the economy. They sustain employment as well as having health and well-being benefits. Central to the vision of the corporate plan of Waterways Ireland is the development of recreational, heritage and environmental opportunities that link people, history and nature, providing both communities and visitors with compelling reasons to spend more time on the waterways. In his concluding remarks the Minister states that mooring spaces are difficult to access due to "continuous harbour hogging." I reject that assertion. That remark is counterproductive. The Minister made no mention of the proposed charges, which are the key to the problem.
Many hundreds of people will be affected by the proposed charges. Hundreds of these people have no other homes; they live on their boats. The proposed charges, which were not mentioned in the Minister's speech, are such that if those people had a property on which they were paying property tax, the value of the property would have to be in the millions to equate to the proposed charge of around €3,500 per year.
I listened to my colleague Senator John Whelan on "Today with Sean O'Rourke" debating the matter with Waterways Ireland. The Waterways Ireland representation was trying to suggest that the proposed charge might only be an increase of €4 per year, when the reality is that we are discussing charges that could be as high as €3,500. I know from listening to that programme that many of those who reside on the waterways have retired from the United Kingdom on very small pensions. Some of them might not have an income of €3,500 per year from their pension. As a result of the imposition of these charges, many will end up homeless. That will put more pressure on the housing lists. They will eventually have to be housed. The Simon Community in the midlands has no money to help the homeless.
This is a way of life. As Senator Whelan said - he stole my thunder - turf-cutting was also a way of life. We saw the trouble caused by those who did not want changes to turf-cutting. I appreciate the efforts the Minister has made to address that situation. I am aware that this EU directive was signed into law by the then Minister ten or 12 years ago. The Minister has had to take the consequences on his neck. Now, before any decisions on the waterways are taken, the Minister has to opportunity to listen to the people. I agree with Senator Ó Domhnaill's suggestion that he should engage with the IWAI and listen to its views, and I am sure an accommodation could be found. I have spoken to some of those who use the waterways who say they have no problem paying an increased charge if they get the services that they are not getting currently - Senator Norris made that point - but they do not have the means to pay the charges that are being proposed at present. These proposed charges could be viewed as a threat to rural Ireland. I would not risk the waterways by implementing draconian charges.
The Minister is very welcome. I will not refer to the fees other than to say that Members, namely, Senators Whelan, Norris and Kelly, have spoken very clearly on them. Fundamentally, the increase in fees will certainly reduce the usage of the waterways.
The major problem in the country is that there is no small ships register, so it is impossible to trace the ownership of most private boats unless they have a current licence for the Shannon. The move to charge vessel owners seems extremely strange without this basic item being in place. Will the Minister elaborate on how he will charge vessel owners without having any register? The Minister should be establishing the basics in terms of boating and the waterways before he puts more fees on boat owners. Why does the Minister not ensure that all boats are insured? Insurance is mandatory for a car but not for a boat at present. Why is that not the case for boats? Does he have any plans to change that system? It should be laid down in legislation that boats should have a minimum amount of safety equipment. We desperately need to get this right. As the Minister plans to put more fees on residential boats, we need to have some basics in place - for example, it should be mandatory for such boats to have an effluent holding tank. Those providing moorings, including local authorities, should have to provide basic sanitation onshore.
As many of the facilities at marinas are often accessed with a swipecard for security reasons, vandalism is not an issue. One of the major problems with the proposed charges is that the boat owner will receive absolutely nothing in return in terms of facilities. It is well known that most houseboat dwellers whose boats are not moored at fee paying marinas have a low level of income. We have heard about their situation. Is there a class issue in this regard? What will be said when boating is only available to those who are well-off?
I may be a little cynical, but it is likely that is too late to adopt the UK model, whereby every boat that uses waterways requires a boat safety certificate. The checks include gas and fuel lines, etc. The new scheme here will only provide loads of cash for inspectors. As a business person, I have major concerns about a move to have more barriers in respect of waterways which are a vital cog for the tourism sector. We have also heard plenty about this matter today.
Many other massive issues need to be tackled such as boat insurance, mandatory use of safety devices and certificates before we can impose fees on boat owners. We must have a situation where the customer - the boat owner - gets something back if he or she must pay fees. I do not think he or she will get anything back for the extra fees, which are substantial. To be successful in business, one must get the fundamentals right, but this plan does not deal with any of them.
I would be pleased if the Minister were to address my specific concerns, even though we are tight on time and others want to contribute. He is welcome. The fact that he has come here is greatly appreciated. Senator John Whelan has expressed our appreciation, but we must use the time available to influence him in some way.
I welcome the Minister. When I came into the House today, I had not intended to speak. However, having listened to the impassioned speech made by Senator John Whelan, I decided to make some notes and a contribution to the debate.
We are aware of the historical and cultural significance of inland waterways. The great Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote about canals. I also recall that the Dubliners sang the words, "the ould triangle went jingle jangle along the banks of the Royal Canal". I also know, through my work with Bord Fáilte for many years, how important promoting the wonderful waterways of Ireland has been in attracting tourists. The last cargo traversed the waterways in 1960, but the Dublin-Shannon connector, the Grand Canal, dates all the way back to 1715 when it was first proposed.
My appreciation of the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal stems from the days when I ran along their banks. Waterways Ireland has done a tremendous job, not just in cleaning up the waterways but also in providing bike paths, walkways and runways which are greatly used for recreational purposes. In general, however, the people of Ireland do not appreciate the wonderful waterways that are available. They might gaze at the canal as they ride along in the Luas or they might drive along the canals in their cars, but our waterways are not greatly used to the extent that they deserve to be used.
The reason I have decided to speak is I am appalled by the proposal to increase charges from €150 to €3,500 for use of the waterways. As Senator David Norris indicated, one must move one's barge or boat every five days in order not to be charged the fees that will be introduced. If there was a proposal to increase toll charges on motorways by many hundreds of percentage points, there would be uproar and motorists would be driven onto rural roads. Let us look at the amount that we are now being charged in property tax. It does not make sense that people must pay these charges at a time when we are encouraging them to use the waterways, from a domestic and international tourism perspective. People using waterways should be charged. If services are included, then well and good, but they are not and the charges should not be set at the rates proposed. I, therefore, encourage the Minister to look seriously look at how he proposes to implement the new charges.
Like all of my colleagues, I welcome the Minister, particularly in advance of his signing-off on these draconian laws, a term used by Senator John Whelan.
I commend the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, of which my late father was an early and lifelong member. He proudly wore the inland waterways pin on his lapel throughout his life, mainly because he came from County Leitrim and was involved in the promotion of providing access to the Shannon waterway, which is not included in this proposal. If it were, I would have received many representations.
I cannot help but reflect on the fact that there was a time when people said the job of Minister for Defence was relatively easy, that the folio was non-contentious and that it was unlikely that he or she would have to declare that Ireland should go to war. One always assumed that the same applied to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, that it was also a good news Department in which there would be no controversy. However, the Minister is in the eye of the storm in this instance. I cannot remember any issue that led to the receipt of over 2,000 submissions from such an important niche market as the tourism sector. Over 2,000 submissions have been received and I am sure the Minister's officials are having difficulty in working their way through so many. Perhaps the work has generated extra employment in his Department, which would be welcome.
I commend Senators John Whelan and John Kelly for initiating the debate. I know that Senator John Whelan injected a certain degree of righteous anger, rather than passion, when he spoke about what would result from these proposals. He said Waterways Ireland had to be sent back to the drawing board. He also made the following point - I quote from his statement of 3 February: "I cannot fathom how anyone could have contrived the draconian, punitive and prohibitive regime of charges, rules and fines for users of the Grand and Royal Canals."
Another Government backbencher, Deputy Anthony Lawlor, wrote to the Minister to say he personally believed the proposed changes to the by-laws would have a significant negative impact on the tourism industry. Even within the Government parties there is severe discontent and concern about the proposals made.
I wish to quote from a submission made by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland about what it called the genuine letters of support and concern from communities submitted during the consultation process. It stated:
Navigation on the Grand Canal, the Royal Canal and the River Barrow will be drastically curtailed by the proposals of Waterways Ireland. The IWAI can confidently state that the proposed bye-laws do not put user requirements, tourism development and local communities at the centre of the regulations. The bye-laws proposed by Waterways Ireland are in fact a major threat to the community economic gain of boat travel on the Grand Canal, the Royal Canal and the River Barrow.The association also quoted the mission statement of the Department of the Transport, Tourism and Sport, which states: "To ensure that the transport, tourism and sport sectors make the greatest possible contribution to economic recovery, fiscal consolidation, job creation and social development". That Department is similar to that of the Minister, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, because it is involved in the promotion of tourism. The association also wants the Government to ensure "Tourism is a big picture topic". It continued: "Through these bye-laws, loss of boat traffic will result in the loss of socio-economic, heritage, cultural and tourism benefits". It conceded that "The boating community is not averse to appropriate management, facility provision, and access to waterways. But boats are key attractions, as the lifeblood of the navigations, and need to be welcomed".
As Senator John Whelan said - he quoted a number of international sources which had made submissions - Inland Waterways International which is based in Ottawa, Ontario made the following point in a detailed letter to Waterways Ireland:
It appears that there is a cumulative effect with the large increases across the board. Boaters will not only see increase in the cost of their fee to navigate and use the locks, but also an increase in fees for the mooring of their vessels. With no private or alternative options, users will either have to pay the increases, move their vessels off the canals or decrease their use of these impacted canals. It is our observation that in such a scenario, use decreases.
There is also concern about the cost for the dry dock use. It does deter those with heritage vessels from using the facility, because their repairs usually take more time.
The association also made the point that:
It states finally:
The ongoing difference in treatment of land-based visitors versus boaters is accentuated with these latest changes. However, the other users also represent a cost to the canal, albeit somewhat less than boaters, e.g. fishers, kayakers, canoeists, walkers and cyclists. How to collect from these users is always the key issue. Towpath permits, fishing licences, parking fees are some of the ideas that have been tried elsewhere. The point is that canals and canal authorities need to be mindful of the division that takes place when one group appears to pay for services and the other more or less ‘gets a free ride’. Boaters are easy targets because they are a captured users group, but canal operators need to put some time, effort and resources into collecting from the other users of these canals and these changes being proposed highlight the need to do this sooner than later.
It goes without saying and our observation, as we noted earlier, these changes will certainly have a dampening effect on use. The concern always is that over time there will be less use, then less maintenance because the traffic does not support the expenditures and again less use and the cycle slowly descends into an abandoned canal.I am sure the last legacy the Minister wants coming out of his Department and he moves on and upwards in the scheme of things is that during his time canals were abandoned and ended up derelict after all the investment that has been put into them. I plead with him, as all sides of the House have done, to revise these charges and go back to the drawing board, as Senator John Whelan has said, and look at them because they are detrimental and negative and without any justification.
I welcome Ms Carmel Meegan and the representatives from the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. I understand Waterways Ireland has discussed the by-laws with the IWAI and that IWAI works closely with Waterways Ireland in the development of many of the facilities we enjoy around the country. Having opened some of them, such as the new cruising destination at Boyle and the new marina at Ballina-Killaloe, they have changed both villages, and people such as Keith Wood would accept that his restaurant business has improved considerably since the new moorings were put in place. All those developments which have been provided in collaboration between IWAI, other organisations and Waterways Ireland are welcome.
Waterways Ireland is one of the most progressive and successful cross-Border bodies. It manages 1,000 km of waterway on both sides of the Border, most of which is in the Republic. That connectivity is very important. I work closely with my counterpart in Northern Ireland, Carál Ní Chuilín, on the Irish language and on waterways. I get great satisfaction out of this element of my Ministry as I see a positive future for the waterways in Ireland and, perhaps, extending them in the future. Senator Jim Walsh mentioned the possibility of extending to the Nore which is not part of it but, perhaps, extending it to other waterways in the future.
I acknowledge the work of the IWAI and its president and its commitment to the waterways and also in finding the right solutions. Certainly Members made very important contributions on the by-laws and other issues to which I will refer. I thank all the Senators who participated, especially Senator John Whelan and Senator John Kelly who asked for the debate. Of all the debates I have come to listen to and address, this one is opportune and it certainly informs Waterways Ireland and myself on what the by-laws are all about and the fact that they must be considered very carefully before a final decision is arrived at. I acknowledge the contributions of Senators David Norris, Terry Brennan, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Jim Walsh, John Whelan, John Kelly, Kathryn Reilly, Feargal Quinn, Paul Coghlan and Paschal Mooney, all of which were practical and helpful. I will mention a few of the issues raised.
Senator David Norris was very exercised about the Naomh Éanna.I remind the House that neither the Department nor Waterways Ireland own the Naomh Éanna. It is owned by Irish Nautical Trust and has been parked in the canal since 1989. People took an interest in it when they discovered for health and safety reasons that it had to be taken out of the canal because if it sunk it would have major environmental repercussions and also there is a good deal of asbestos on the vessel itself, which gives rise to health concerns. In view of the fact that Senator Norris appears to have some concrete proposals on this, I am prepared to extend the period within which people can come up with a proposal. As one who is interested in heritage and preservation, I will extend the time to 31 March. If any one has a concrete and realistic proposal and can show where he or she can get the money - which would be about €6 million - we can look at it. I am prepared do extend it to 31 March to see whether any concrete business plan emerges, including the source of funding, to restore the vessel and to keep it.
In the past Senator Norris made a point about the Jeanie Johnston and the Dunbrody. Preserving or restoring a vessel of this nature costs a great deal of money. Various issues were raised about the Jeanie Johnston at the time which cost in the region of €15 million. It is parked in the docklands and it attracts some interest but people have always questioned the amount invested in the Jeanie Johnston and its value. To restore and to ensure the re-use of vessels of this nature costs money. If I get a business plan, with Waterways Ireland and the other interested parties, namely, the Irish Nautical Trust, the owner of the vessel, I will certainly consider it.
As regards the by-laws, people were concerned about the length of the consultation period. That is set down in law in the Canals Act. Certainly, when 2,100 people made observations it meant it was sufficiently long. If it had been for six weeks maybe we would have got 4,000 observations. Obviously, the consultation was very successful given that it attracted so many submissions. Waterways Ireland is the body responsible for the by-laws. I have to sign off on them for the South, my counterpart has to sign-off on by-laws for the North. No doubt it will consider very carefully the submissions made but also the contributions made by the Senators today which are important. The Senators have a passion for the waterways and have a connection with them and speak with authority on them. When I get the proposals I will come back with the interested Deputies and Senators to discuss them. It is important that we have by-laws and regulations.
The regulations should enhance our waterways rather than discouraging the public from using them or even depending on them for a home. The IWAI plays an important role in that too.
A subject I am interested in is the Ulster Canal. In 2007, it was agreed by the North-South Ministerial Council that the Ulster Canal would go ahead and it was to be funded by the Republic from the sale of property in the docklands. At that stage, I suppose we were still experiencing high property values here in Dublin, the crash had not come and there was a realistic chance of getting €35 million. However, the crash then came and the funding was not available. Property prices are rising again and there may be an opportunity to commence the project. Certainly, that would be my intention. We had to go through a process of planning permission and that has now been completed. The next phase will be land acquisition. Generally speaking, people on both sides of the Border are co-operative in that sense. Land acquisition will be followed by the start of work. Waterways Ireland and my Department are exercised about this. It is something I would be delighted to be involved with during my ministry and, if it were possible, I would like to get something going. It will have my full attention in that respect.
It has. We all see the importance of it, from the symbolism of North-South co-operation alone to its importance in tourism promotion and North-South recreational use. We all join here in recognising the value and potential of the Ulster Canal and its potential link with Lough Neagh. It would form a spectacular network of waterways in this country that would be unequalled anywhere.
Senator Quinn raised some further issues that may not be covered in the by-laws, such as safety, registration, licensing and insurance. I will ask Waterways Ireland to consider those relevant issues.
I thank the Senators for inviting me here today. This was a useful debate that I am sure can make a difference. From that point of view, it is opportune.
I reiterate that one of the most successful initiatives, apart from the peace we enjoy, that came out of the Good Friday Agreement was this body, Waterways Ireland. It is important that we work closely with Waterways Ireland, at both Department and community level, towards ensuring that we maximise the vast potential of the waterways. As I stated in my contribution, many of these waterways go through some of the most deprived and isolated parts of the country, and this gives us a great opportunity to rebalance economic activity to give assistance and hope to those living in isolated rural areas. In a way, part of the magic of the inland waterways is that one can go through landscapes that are relatively untouched and serene to find solace in these places, but at the same time they are in some of the most deprived parts of the country. There is a great opportunity here to do something progressive and positive for all of those communities touched by the 1,000 km of waterways.