The propose of this Bill is to update the powers of the Commissioners of Public Works in relation to the Shannon Navigation and to provide the necessary powers for the restoration and taking into care of the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell navigation.
The river Shannon is one of the greatest natural assets which this country possesses, particularly at the present time when the need for leisure and recreational facilities is widely appreciated. It is possible now for boats to navigate from the estuary at Limerick to Acres Lake near Drumshanbo in County Leitrim and by way of the Boyle water into Lough Key, near Boyle in County Roscommon, but this was not always the case. Prior to the middle of the 18th Century only intermittent stretches of the river were navigable.
The establishment of Commissioners of Inland Navigation in 1751 marked the beginning of a serious effort to establish a through navigation. By 1787, when those commissioners were dissolved, navigation was possible between Killaloe and Carrick-on-Shannon. Control later passed to the Directors General of Inland Navigation and, following the construction of 11 locks and significant stretches of canal to by-pass serious obstacles in the river, the entire navigation from the estuary to Lough Allen was opened up by 1814.
Completion of the Grand and Royal Canals in the early 1800s provided links with Dublin and regular cargo and passenger services operated between there and Limerick. Many defects, however, manifested themselves in the Shannon navigation and, after an examination of the position by a commission of inquiry, Shannon Commissioners were appointed in 1835 to prepare detailed plans for its improvement. The 1839 Act for the Improvement of the Navigaton of the River Shannon, which the Bill before the House is intended to extend, provided for major improvement of the navigation and vested the care and conservancy of it in the Shannon Commissioners. That Act also provided the framework for regulations and by-laws and defined the limits of jurisdiction of the Commissioners. An extensive scheme of works, carried out between 1839 and 1846 and involving deepening of significant stretches, construction of huge weirs and locks and rebuilding of many bridges, transformed the waterway.
In 1846, the powers and duties of the Shannon Commissioners were transferred by statute to the Commissioners of Public Works, with whom they have since remained.
Despite the creation of a high quality navigable route and despite the link to Dublin and the east of the country, the volume of traffic was disappointing. The relatively sparse population distribution, lack of industrial activity and absence of bulky materials such as ore, which were the mainstay of waterways in other countries all contributed to low traffic levels. The coming of the railways from the mid-19th Century and further depopulation of the western part of the country led to a serious decline in both goods and passenger traffic. Surprisingly, despite the ominous trends, a successful summertime passenger steamer service operated between Killaloe and Carrick-on-Shannon for several years at the turn of this century.
The decline in traffic continued and the condition of the navigation began to deteriorate. However, CIE operated summer passenger cruises from the mid-1950s and although the navigation was originally intended for commercial traffic, slowly with the improving economic climate pleasure boat traffic began to emerge and by the early 1960s boats were available for hire. The Office of Public Works restored the operating condition of the waterway and traffic grew steadily.
Over the last 25 years there has been a major transformation of the river. The Office of Public Works has expended very significant sums of money on the provision of quays and harbours at many locations and several others are planned for the next few years. Among the centres where major new facilities have been provided are Lough Key, Drumsna, Dromod, Lecarrow, Hodson's Bay, Clonmacnoise, Portumna and Dromineer, while further works are in progress or planned for Roosky, Portrunny and along the river Suck. It is intended to open the Suck navigational link with Ballinasloe. The budget for 1990 for the Shannon is almost £1 million.
In addition to the provision of these berthing facilities there is, of course, an ongoing programme of maintenance of the waterway. These works, which include dredging, hydrographic surveying, the provision of water and other services and the marking of hazards and navigation routes, are vital to preserve the navigation in a safe and pleasant condition.
The powers of the Commissioners of Public Works in relation to Shannon Navigation, which derived initiallty from the 1839 and 1846 Acts have been obscured by various enactments since that time. In effect, the only statutory power which the Commissioners of Public Works now clearly hold is that related to the maintenance of the navigation and to raise very minimal tolls and charges.
Under the terms of section 39 of the 1839 Act the boundaries of the Shannon Navigation were defined. Additional property has, in the interim, been acquired as worthwhile additions to the navigation facilities but these fall to be administered as State property under the State Property Act of 1954. It is highly desirable that these properties, together with any subsequent acquisitions and any extensions to the navigable waterway, should be within the ambit of the Shannon Navigation legislation. The only satisfactory method of resolving the matter is by the introduction of new legislation.
The Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Canal is the name given to the junction navigation that once linked the Shannon and Erne navigations. It was 39 miles long and it consisted of a still-water canal from the River Shannon near Leitrim village to Lough Scur, a distance of 5.3 miles, and the canalised Woodford River from Lough Scur to Upper Lough Erne at a point about 4.5 miles north of Belturbet in County Cavan, a distance of 33.6 miles. The canal rose about 80 feet through eight locks from the Shannon to Lough Scur. From Lough Scur it fell about 70 feet, also through eight locks, and passed through the towns of Ballinamore in County Leitrim and Ballyconnell in County Cavan on its way to the Erne.
The proposal to link the Erne and Shannon systems was first mooted some two centuries ago but, while some work was done at that time including partial construction of a lock at Corraquill, or Caroul, between Lough Erne and Ballyconnell, it came to a halt in 1792 and was not resumed for over half a century.
Two events in 1842 gave an impetus to a resumption of the project. The first was the completion of the Ulster Canal which linked the Erne with the other navigations in eastern Ulster and the desire at the time to extend the connection westward to the Shannon. The second was the passing of the Arterial Drainage Act of that year which made provision for the carrying out of river works "to promote the drainage of lands and improvement of navigation and water power in connection with such drainage". There was confidence at that time that a link between the two major navigation systems would generate through traffic between them and that industry and agriculture in the area would generate local traffic and would derive benefit from the facility.
A combined drainage and navigation scheme was drawn up by the Commissioners of Public Works and drainage works were commenced in mid-1846. Work on the navigation started 18 months later. The navigation design called for a depth of six feet of water over lock cills and in channels and for locks 82 feet long by 16 feet 6 inches wide. However, as an economy measure during construction, depths were reduced to 4 feet 6 inches over considerable stretches of channel and in some places they were subsequently found not to exceed 3 feet 6 inches.
Under a further Act of 1856 the operation and maintenance of the completed drainage and navigation works were handed over to separate boards of trustees. In the case of the navigation this took effect on July 1860.
In October 1860 an engineer, appointed by the navigation trustees to direct and supervise the maintenance work, carried out a survey of the works as completed and listed many faults. These included inadequate depth over considerable lengths, rock and silt in lakes, bank slips and badly constructed locks and fittings. He reported that effectively only small steamers could use the navigation.
It is not possible to say if these criticisms at the time were valid or exaggerated. However, neither through nor local traffic materialised. Lack of traffic meant lack of revenue which in turn led to poor maintenance. Conditions got worse and passage through the canal got more difficult. A report in 1875 indicated that the navigation was even at that time sinking into a derelict state.
The navigation trustees, however, continued in existence with two interruptions until 1948 but, although they have not met since then, and no elections have been held, there has been no formal move to wind them up or to transfer their duties and responsibilies to any other body.
The navigation has been unusable as such for well over 100 years. During the most of that period it has been permitted to decay with only piecemeal attempts at maintenance. However, apart from unauthorised interference with a number of the weirs there has been very little deliberate demolition and substantial parts of the works have survived remarkably well. The visible evidence of these works, notably some of the locks on the western leg that appear to be in very good condition, has continued to fuel a desire to see the navigation restored. The revival in recent decades of the Shannon and Erne navigation systems for pleasure cruising and other recreational uses has given impetus to the project.
The area served by the canal has relatively little manufacturing industry and comparatively poor agricultural land and, in the circumstances, tourism represents the major element in any future plans for the development of the area. The restoration of the navigation is a significant move in this direction. Much has already been said about both the history and current status of the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell canal. I refer in particular to the lengthy debate on the Second Stage in the Dáil on 8 May 1990 and during the Committee Stage on 5 July 1990.
It is appropriate that the statutory powers necessary for the restoration of the link between the Shannon and Erne navigations should be incorporated in the Shannon Navigation Bill. The Bill provides that the restoration may be undertaken by the Commissioners of Public Works or by such other person or persons to whom those powers may be delegated by order by the Minister for Finance.
The Bill will also allow the commissioners to maintain and operate navigation facilities on the River Erne in the State, including Lough Oughter, which is connected to the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell navigation and for which there is no navigation authority at present.
The Bill will also have the effect of applying the Arterial Drainage Act, 1945, to the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell drainage district as is the case with all other drainage districts within the State. Hitherto, statutory responsibility for maintenance of these drainage works has been vested in Drainage Trustees, the cost being borne ultimately by the local authorities. Henceforth, responsibility for maintenance of these works will lie directly with the local authorities. This particular aspect of the Bill was the subject as well of a lengthy debate during the Committee Stage in the Dáil, but I am satisfied that the course which has been followed in this Bill is the proper one.
The Bill is a comprehensive one which overcomes the deficiencies of the old enactments and will enable the commissioners to properly undertake the care, management, control, improvement and development of the Shannon navigation, including the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell navigation and the section of the River Erne Navigation within the State. As I have stated during previous debates, potential for joint ventures with public and private interests will be fully explored and the whole development programme offers excellent opportunities for further development along the whole system.
It will empower the commissioners to make charges for the use of the navigation facilities provided by them, to make by-laws for the control of the users of those facilities, to acquire and dispose of property, to enter on adjoining lands for the purpose of inspecting, surveying and carrying out works to the navigation and to extend the limits of the navigation. The Bill, of course, also contains adequate safeguards for the rights of existing landowners.
The Bill empowers the commissioners to control pollution from boats using the navigation. However, the general question of pollution of rivers is the responsibility of local authorities under the Water Pollution Act. It would not be appropriate for the commissioners to duplicate the efforts of the local authorities in this regard.
In this time of greatly increased interest in our waterways systems by both home and international users I am confident that this House will agree that the Commissioners of Public Works should be given the necessary statutory powers for the control and management of the Shannon Navigation as a single entity to assure its vital role as the major asset that it is. I am similarly convinced that the management and development of the navigation should be directed towards maximising its contribution to tourism revenues and charges fixed accordingly.
The tourist potential of the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell link is uppermost in my mind. The significance of this North-South link in bringing tourists from the South into the Northern waterways and those from Northern Ireland into our own waterways will have many benefits. The advantages to the small towns and villages along the route of the canal with tourism revenues from North and South is an important feature of the project. The authorities in Northern Ireland are fully supportive of the venture and I see it as an important initiative adding to our North-South links.
In the development of our waterways currently under the direction of the Commissioners of Public Works and its further extension proposed in this Bill the extensive waterways will match those available in any other countries, such as the United Kingdom and France. These waterways are increasingly seen as essential ingredients in the tourism attractions available to visitors.
The Shannon Navigations Bill provides the necessary means whereby the future of these waterways will be assured. I had the opportunity recently in a helicopter to view and examine the whole area with the aid of my professional and technical advisers. It will be possible in a few years to take a boat from the new marina which is at present under construction in Kilrush in the Lower Shannon, move through the navigation in Limerick into Lough Derg and into the Shannon catchment, and right up through the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal. In the near future it will be possible to link Limerick with Derry.
I commend the Bill to the House.