#inland waterways – John Martin, Chief Executive of Waterways Ireland, was due to retire in March 2013, but is staying on until his successor arrives. This is an opportune moment to look at his achievements.
The definition of Irish waterways has been altered several times since the end of commercial carrying about fifty years ago. They ceased to be part of a transport system but the structures still needed to be maintained, so waterways became an engineering activity, with a side order of tourism. Then Michael D Higgins seized both the initiative and the waterways, shifting them to the Heritage Service.
But the prospect of Peace In Our Time brought about a further redefinition in 1999. The assignment of waterways to a new Cross-Border Implementation Body, under the Good Friday Agreement, could be seen as anything from a step towards a united Ireland (to be welcomed or resisted depending on your politics) to a "sensible rationalisation of a waterways network" [Coakley et al 2006]. That network was now explicitly stated to be primarily for recreational purposes, and it was to be managed by a new cross-border "body".
Setting up a new organisation is not an easy task at any time. It's much harder when the context is so new, and the politics so delicate, that the organisation can't be described as anything more specific than a "body"; when you have to merge staff from large and small organisations; when you're operating across national boundaries with two legal systems, two currencies and two sets of employment law; when you have to add new functions like accounting and marketing.
Waterways Ireland has done all of that, and done it against an intensely political background, where the organisation's very existence is a political statement. It has reported to ministers in two jurisdictions, ministers whose positions may vary with the political affiliation of the incumbent. That is in addition to the usual pressures from politicians anxious to promote their own pet projects (or those of their supporters) and to the possible problems of operating in constituencies with very different political complexions.
Main image: Waterways Ireland HQ at Enniskillen (courtesy Waterways Ireland), From left: New moorings and walkway at Killaloe, Inis Cealtra with buoys in Tarmonbarry, Service block at Enfield on the Royal Canal.
There have been some problems, but fewer than might have been predicted. In a context where mere survival might have been an achievement, Waterways Ireland has gone well beyond that. It was, admittedly, lucky in being able to take advantage of the late Celtic Tiger, but it made good use of the funding. The waterways are probably better equipped now than at any time since the Shannon Commissioners ceased their work, with excellent infrastructure, user facilities and capital equipment — as well as a splendid headquarters building in Enniskillen.
Perhaps more importantly, WI has brought about its own redefinition of the waterways. It has widened the range of recreational activities and drawn attention to that range. It has succeeded in attaching its own identity to the waterways, making it clear that they are managed entities, and it is now exerting control over certain areas where laxity has been the norm.
All of this adds up to a tremendous achievement. It has required work from the civil servants in the two Government departments, north and south, and the staff of the North-South Ministerial Council, as well as from politicians in both jurisdictions, but above all it reflects the hard work of the staff of Waterways Ireland, the senior management and, in particular, the retiring Chief Executive, John Martin. He has had the thanks and good wishes of politicians on all sides in the Northern Ireland Assembly and he deserves the same from all waterways users.