Wednesday, 23 May 2018
The development of the Shannon-Erne waterway has been one of the unsung benefits of the Good Friday Agreement. It is a flagship cross-Border project which involved the major reconstruction of many canal structures to make them suitable for modern cruisers. The canal was opened to traffic on 23 May 1994 on time and within budget. Since that time, the link has opened thousands of miles of navigable waterways in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. It links the two great waterways on our island, namely, the Erne system and the Shannon navigation. As Waterways Ireland states on its website, the waterway has opened up countryside which few had ever seen.
Over the past few decades, this tranquil stretch of water has grown in popularity, in particular in the towns and villages along its length. One can travel by boat now from Limerick to Enniskillen. The beauty of this waterway system is incredible and must be seen to be believed. Unsurprisingly, it has become a major attraction for both domestic tourists and visitors from all corners of the world. It has also been of significant benefit to local economies along the route as tourists stop off at towns and villages while cruising the waterways. A number of boat hire companies have also been created over the years offering barges and cruisers for weekend trips or week-long journeys. Walking and bike trails have also been developed along the route of the waterways.
There has been some concern in recent times at the introduction of restricted lock opening times on the Shannon-Erne canal system. Since the canal system was reopened in 1994, the automated locks have been operational between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. from April to the end of October. This year, however, Waterways Ireland restricted the operating times from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. until 16 May. A number of local people have contacted my office to tell me this restriction will also apply from mid-September to the end of October. Of course, any restrictions will have a knock-on effect on the towns and villages which benefit from the waterways. Waterways Ireland must do all it can to ensure the waterways system is marketed to the fullest extent to ensure these towns and villages have the opportunity to maximise its benefits. This includes ensuring maximum access to the water for tourists and boating enthusiasts to maximise traffic potential. I am also interested to know what Waterways Ireland’s targets are in this regard.
Waterways Ireland has informed the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Josepha Madigan, that the Shannon-Erne waterway locks will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. as of 17 May 2018 onwards throughout the summer season. Operational hours will continue to be subject to ongoing review to ensure Waterways Ireland delivers a high quality service to waterway users in the most efficient and effective manner.
Waterways Ireland measures boat traffic by the number of lock passages. There were 1,600 lock passages at lock 1 on the Shannon-Erne waterway in 2017 and 1,439 passages at lock 16. It is expected that the 1,600 lock passages recorded will be exceeded in 2018. According to visitor monitoring devices, there were 155,273 user incidents, which is a mix of walkers and cyclists, in 2017. Waterways Ireland expects in excess of 160,000 locals and visitors to experience walking and cycling along the Shannon-Erne in 2018. One of Waterways Ireland's main goals, with the support of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, is to inspire more people to discover and enjoy recreational activities on inland waterways and to explore the rich environment and heritage attractions along the 1,000 km of navigation in its care.
The Shannon-Erne waterway runs between Leitrim village and just north of Belturbet and comprises 63 km of river, lake and still-water canal which links the two great waterways on the island, the Erne system and the Shannon navigation. Over the past two decades, this tranquil stretch of water has grown in popularity, particularly in the towns and villages along its length. Cruisers and barges move freely along its waters, mooring up in some of the six fully serviced public marinas found along its length.
There are 16 locks which are managed electro-hydraulically by a smart card which helps ease passage through the locks while a number of boat hire companies offer barges and cruisers for hire. Waterways Ireland currently avails of a number of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to promote the use of the Shannon-Erne waterway as well as through its own publications and website. Waterways Ireland highlights the tranquility that can be found at the heart of the Shannon-Erne waterway as well as the opportunities for walking and cycling adjacent to the waterway. Waterways Ireland highlights in particular for visitors the Ballyconnell canal walk, Ballinamore canal bank walk and cycle route, the Leitrim village to Kilclare walk and the Kingfisher cycle trail, which has its starting point in Ballinamore. Waterways Ireland also draws attention to the local mountains for the more adventurous among visitors and the myriad of wildlife that can be observed along the route. Anglers are assured of finding a paradise of fishing and several golf courses in the area are also highlighted for potential enthusiasts.
The Minister informs me that Waterways Ireland has targeted a growth rate of 5% overall and aims to achieve it through a strategic marketing plan. "Head into the Blue" and "Blueway do it your way" are the taglines used to promote the Shannon-Erne blueway which showcases a staggering 70 km of paddling trails from Leitrim village to Belturbet while connecting with the Erne system at Crom Estate. Along with its partners, Fáilte Ireland, the Irish Sports Council, the National Trails Office and Canoeing Ireland, Waterways Ireland markets 15 individual paddling journeys on lakes, rivers and canals. Trail heads, access points and services are all shown on downloadable maps available on the Waterways Ireland website. The paddling trails are complemented by 30 km of walking loops and linear trails along with 12.5 km of superb cycling options around Ballinamore. In addition to the marketing of the Shannon-Erne waterway itself, Waterways Ireland also promotes accommodation and culinary options in the surrounding areas.
The spring campaign to market the Shannon-Erne blueway for 2018 ran across national radio, national and regional press, both print and online, as well as across social networks and Waterways Ireland's website. It included familiarisation trips for journalists to the Shannon and Erne systems. Waterways Ireland's extensive events programme delivers new events on the Shannon-Erne waterway, encouraging greater spectator and participants to the waterways.
The development of the brochure "The Life Aquatic" focused on the Shannon-Erne system and the delivery of business to activity and hospitality providers along its length. The brochure also had an online persona and was shared and promoted across social media networks, providing people with lots of reasons to stop, stay and explore.
In line with Project Ireland 2040, the Minister, Deputy Madigan, and staff of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht are striving to protect the natural heritage which provides the setting and inspiration for our island's creative output. Critical investment in our inland navigable waterways will benefit both rural communities and our national tourism. Deputy Madigan's Department will continue to facilitate, support and assist the work of Waterways Ireland in this endeavour.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response and note again that the Shannon-Erne waterway is a truly wonderful asset which has seen many spin-offs.As the Minister of State noted, one of them is the Shannon-Erne blueway which features 70 km of paddling trails from Leitrim village to Belturbet. The trail is complemented by more than 30 km of beautiful walking and cycling trails around the town of Ballinamore. Needless to say in the context of this discussion, other towns such as Keshcarrigan, Ballinamore and Newtowngore need to have the greatest possible access to tourists who use the Shannon-Erne canal system in order that they can avail of the benefits of tourism.
I live in Boyle which is close to Lough Key forest park and residents of the town also have access to the River Shannon. We can do much more with this natural resource, especially given that the weather changes little throughout the year. We should further develop this cross-Border project that has provided great joy for many people on the island and further afield since 1994 and before the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
I do not believe the Senator and I could do any more to promote the Shannon-Erne waterway through Waterways Ireland than we have in our contributions. As someone from west Cork, I have a strong sense of my county's natural assets and the need to promote them. Therefore, it goes a little against the grain to promote the Senator's local area, but I do not resent doing so. I congratulate him and hope he will continue to promote it.