It’s time for a big, brash North-South showcase project. We’ve had too many speeches abut North-South co-operation being the “quiet success story” of the Belfast Agreement; too many vague promises about the elusive ‘Common Chapter’; too many unspecific references about the potential benefits of the ‘island economy’ to Northern Ireland.
North-South co-operation has become boring and worthy, which is no bad thing given the political sensitivities surrounding it. We have come a very long way since John Taylor stormed out of the April 1998 talks four days before the Agreement saying that he would not touch the large number of North/South bodies then being proposed “with a barge pole.”
But politics, even the low-key politics of North-South co-operation, occasionally needs a bit of excitement too. Can you have uncontroversial political excitement in Northern Ireland? That consummate politician Bertie Ahern clearly thinks so. On 4 November, at the Fianna Fail ard fheis, he announced the go-ahead for the planning stage of the restoration of the Ulster Canal, linking the Shannon–Erne Waterway (itself the flagship cross-border project of the 1990s) and Lough Neagh, thus providing the island with a comprehensive system of inland waterways linking Coleraine to Limerick, Dublin and Waterford.
The DUP has no problem with this eminently practical and mutually beneficial infrastructure project, conscious that it will open up peripheral areas of Fermanagh, Tyrone, Armagh, Derry and Antrim to tourism and inward investment. At a public meeting in Armagh in late October, over 300 people of all political backgrounds were welcomed to the city by its DUP mayor and voiced unanimous support for the canal project.
The restoration of the Ulster Canal also makes good economic sense. Two studies earlier this year* estimated that it would cost £125 million, with the inward investment of its construction bringing substantial initial benefits to the border region. After that, it would earn the region an additional £3-4 million every year in tourism earnings alone. This would see the canal paying for itself in something over 30 years, a very short period in the life of a long-term investment like a canal.
And re-opened canals can do strange and wonderful things to places. Take Ballinamore in County Leitrim. Until the Shannon-Erne Waterway, its main claim to fame was as the rather desolate little town outside which the IRA held kidnapped supermarket chief Don Tidy in 1983. Now it is a booming urban and tourist centre with hundreds of new jobs generated by the opening of the waterway. Maybe re-opening the Ulster Canal could do something similar for Caledon, the pretty County Tyrone village remembered as the place where Austin Currie squatted in a council house in 1968 to protest against anti-Catholic discrimination in housing, an action which effectively marked the birth of the Civil Rights Movement and, a year later, the beginning of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’.
*Waterways Ireland, Socio-economic summary report for the North East and South West Sections of the Ulster Canal (February 2006); Blackwater Regional Partnership, Socio-Economic Study of the Ulster Canal (August 2006).