The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland is a strong and vibrant body, writes Paul Garland, in response to the article by our correspondent in the last issue of Afloat...Having read with interest Brian Goggin's assessment of how he perceives "The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland is having a mid life crisis and shooting itself in the foot", I would like to thank the editor for this right of reply.
I have no intention of dissecting the article line by line. I would rather explain our origins through to our future plans.
The Association was founded in 1954 to fight the threatened closure of the Shannon Navigation, by placing low fixed bridges at Athlone, Lanesborough and Roosky. Its first ten years were tumultuous, fighting the government to be as far sighted as our founding members. Not all the battles were won and even the bridges over the Shannon were a compromise as the local authority felt that 'yachts were owned by the privileged few' but probably the single most important achievement of the IWAI was preventing the erection of these low bridges.
The Sixties and Seventies saw off threats to both canals in Dublin. The Eighties and Nineties saw the association starting to receive help from the OPW in developing the inland waterways network. Prior to this, much of the laying of marks and dredging was carried out by local branches of the association.
Lobbying for improvements has always driven the association and right from its foundation it has found like-minded politicians and indeed ministers with some insight into the potential of the waterway network.The present Minister, Eamonn O'Cuiv, is a good friend to the association and its goals and shares our dream of taking a boat from Belfast to Limerick via the Ulster Canal.
It was in April 2000 that the IWAI delivered. None of the members realised what an important day that was. Most thought that establishing Waterways Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement was going to give them more byelaws and lead to a lot of confusion over the name, as the observant reader may have noticed even in your last issue this was the case.
What no-one clearly saw was that this was the dream of the association; a well-funded, well-staffed department whose only remit was to improve the waterways of the island of Ireland and hence the headline 'The IWAI has delivered'.
Of course, there were initial teething problems but I can assure you that Waterways Ireland and the IWAI have entered a period of mutual co-operation that our founders could not have envisaged. Where there are issues like the Grand Canal Dock and the Royal Canal opening, we are working closely to resolve them.
All through the period of growth for the waterways, complimentary organisations were being established, in many cases taking on roles that this association's volunteers had carried out. The Heritage Council, the EPA, Birdwatch Ireland, Duchas, Forest and Wildlife, An Taisce have all by and large helped.
So what future has this association when it has won the battle for the finest waterways in the world? Obviously there are still threats out there and lobbying to be done. Water abstraction from the Shannon for Dublin City Council has to be fought and, as in the past, a solution will be found that satisfies the majority, like we did 55 years ago.
As I see it, our future lobbying role may well be on behalf of our boaters in the EU. We have already entered this arena with Diesel Derogation, Boat Registration, E Borders, the Recreational Craft, and the Water Framework Directives.
It's no mystery that we are in constant contact with the ISA and have had a strong relationship since we jointly developed an Inland Waterways Training Scheme in 1997.
By 2002 we had formalised a joint Mutual Recognition Accord. The real growth of our association is to provide a service to anyone who wants to put a boat on any inland waterway on this island. At present can we provide members with over 200 activities, from boat rallies to training days. They can download Waterways charts, access our website iwai.ie for a wealth of information, read four quality magazines each year, access our online shop, and avail of discounts on goods and services. There's also a very active chat line. However, the real strength of the association is sitting on a boat, chatting with friends who just happen to be members as well.
I have great hopes for the future of the IWAI. In addition to our lobbying, heritage and other roles, few people realise that we are the biggest single entity boat club on the island with 4,500 members and attracting several hundred new members each year.
Our events grow year on year. We now have 20 branches. Yes, there people who – heaven forbid – have sports boats and possibly a few with gold medallions, but they are welcomed with open arms. Let more of them come aboard; if we get enough, we'll form a Sports Boat Branch.
Most of our barge-owning members are also in the HBA (Heritage Boat Association) and we fully support them sharing events. Again, we would like them to come aboard as a Branch. We are going to the membership looking for ways to make the association even better in a series of focus groups. But it will be our members who will shape the IWAI's future and certainly not a journalist looking backward.
This year will see us in Galway for the Volvo Ocean Race, Athy for the Ploughing Championships and Belfast for the Tall Ships, with a new corporate event trailer. Please come and have a cup of tea with us. Perhaps Brian G will even drop in for the interview that we have offered him!
Paul Garland is President of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland