As the cuts begin to bite, it may be time to look at the British direction for our waterways, writes Brian J GogginForeign weather
The other night, I went to the inaugural meeting of a new lobby group called the Campaign for Real Irish Weather (CRIW). The group's aims are to secure a restoration of traditional Irish weather patterns, and it intends to lobby both local authorities (like the Irish Government) and central government (the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF).
As the new organisation's president, Francis Beaufort, put it forcefully: "For the last few years, foreign weather has been dumped in Ireland. Sunshine in May is all very well, but it's not very useful at that time of the year. And the price we pay is ice and snow in winter, which we definitely don't want. What we need is nice gentle rain all year round, giving just the right amount of water in the rivers, with neither drought nor flood."
I could see what he meant. In October we went up the Shannon and along the Shannon Erne Waterway (SEW) to Ballinamore: it was very cold and our newly-installed heating was essential. But there was even colder weather ahead: throughout the winter, owners had to worry about the effects of ice; several boats sank and no doubt there will be others with damaged engines. Bring back rain.Rain returns
There was plenty of rain on the first weekend of February, when IWAI Lough Derg Branch members and people from the O'Briensbridge Community Group turned out to remove timber from the upper end of the Plassey–Errina Canal.
This was the old route between Limerick and Lough Derg. When Ardnacrusha was built in the 1920s, the headrace weir at Parteen Villa blocked the river, preventing boats from reaching O'Briensbridge and Castleconnell. The old weir at World's End, Castleconnell, still keeps up the level, so there is plenty of depth, but nowadays (with one exception) only small boats — mostly angling boats and rowing skiffs — use this stretch of river.
However, the Community Group has developed looped walks along the towing-path. The British Inland Waterways Protection Society visited in October, walking from the Limerick canal harbour to O'Briensbridge, and described the canal as a "national treasure". It has a wealth of artefacts, including seven milestones along the 12-mile route.
The group and the IWAI are now clearing the top section of the canal, so that small boats can travel from the river as far as the first lock at Errina. A small but select group turned out, with two boats, and has now reopened the navigation as far as the farm-house at Drummeen. Another couple of weekends are planned to complete the work, although silt inflow below a drain may pose a problem.Tightening the belts
Other IWAI branches are active too: Dublin working on the Grand Canal graving docks, Newry & Portadown on the Newry Canal. And so are other groups: Drimnagh Friends of the Grand Canal in their area of Dublin, Breffnie O'Kelly and others further east in the city.
The question now is whether Waterways Ireland should start thinking about some more formal arrangement with groups of volunteers, to build them into its plans and its structures.
The Sunday Tribune of 9 January 2011 said that Waterways Ireland's staff increased from 355 last year to 367 this year. It said that the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs (to which Waterways Ireland reports in the southern state), or rather its minister, was "among the worst offenders when it comes to increasing staff numbers in the agencies under his remit".Waterways Ireland did well from Fianna Fáil's budgets: it has many new vessels in its fleet, new offices and new and improved systems and procedures. But the days of high spending may be over. The budget, in December, showed that the Department's current expenditure allocation to Waterways Ireland in 2011 would be down from e25,585,000 to e24,335,000 (a cut of just under 5%) while capital expenditure would be down from e8,000,000 to e6,000,000 (25%).
Admittedly, Waterways Ireland is now starting from a high base, but remember that we are facing several years of further cuts to get government expenditure back somewhere close to revenue. As it is, the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs has been trying to get Waterways Ireland to pay for the Ulster Canal by selling surplus property, but it has missed the boat (or rather the boom).British move to trust
Changes are under way in Britain. British Waterways pulled out of the Cotswold Canals Partnership in 2008, a decision that seemed to signal the end of the era of big restoration projects.
Furthermore, BW needs more money than it has been getting. As WATERWAYS WORLD puts it, "Its commercial activities are flat-lining at best, the growth in boat numbers has slowed, and the Government grant is heading downhill fast."
Her Majesty's Government doesn't want to be bothered with all this when it's carrying out a cull of quangos, so it intends to transform BW into a charitable trust by 2012. Charitable status would allow BW to raise money from other sources (e.g. funding trusts, individual donations, legacies). It would have some tax advantages and it would also allow BW to borrow.
One major component of the plans is that BW would use the services of volunteers more. Some would work as individuals but in other cases voluntary bodies would work with BW. There is a sort of pilot scheme on the Kennet & Avon, where BW and the Canal Trust have formed a Waterway Partnership.Needs must?
Now, I don't expect the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs to greet with glad cries this — or any other — suggestion for change. Waterways Ireland was set up with no board, no formal involvement of any outside persons or bodies, just a chief executive reporting directly to the two government departments, north and south, and their ministers. It's hardly likely, therefore, that proposals for popular involvement will be welcomed.
But if the British solution works, and if financial cuts continue north and south, the powers that be may have to consider a new business model.
Published in Afloat March//April 2011