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Newry.ie contacted Councillors on the Enterprise Regeneration and Tourism Committee of Newry, Mourne and Down Council to ask their thoughts on the non-descriptive agenda item titled "Presentation on Economic Assessment of Water Based Activities" discussed in private at last Monday's ERT Meeting.

Sailing down Newry Ship Canal as part of the annual Iúr Cinn Fleadh. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
Sailing down Newry Ship Canal as part of the annual Iúr Cinn Fleadh. This couldn't happen if a fixed bridge was put in place as part of the Southern Relief Road Project. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

We asked Councillors on the ERT Committee for their thoughts on the Item, in particular our understanding that the item related to options regarding the type of bridge over Newry Canal, options which if they had been endorsed on Monday night we believed could have give Council permission to pursue a fixed bridge option across the canal. We also asked Councillor's opinion on the item's name on the agenda and if they thought it was right for for such a massive decision to be discussed in secret - A decision which could see an end to centuries of ship navigation on Newry Ship Canal. Finally we said that surely preserving and protecting the historical monument that is Newry Ship Canal and keeping it navigable should at least be as important as economics?

La Malouine sailing up Newry Ship Canal. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
La Malouine sailing up Newry Ship Canal. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

We also asked Council officials several questions on the Agenda item including what the "Economic Assessment of Water Based Activities" presentation concerned. We asked who presented the Report and we asked who compiled the Report but they declined to answer saying "This Agenda item was restricted "by virtue of Paragraph 3 of Schedule 6 of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014 - information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person (including the Council holding that information)" 

The Department for Infrastructure are presently progressing the project with their "preferred option" of a fixed bridge, which if built would mean the end of the line for ships and yachts coming into the Albert Basin through Victoria Lock like they presently do.

Misleading

Explaining that he felt the item title was misleading and he nearly missed its importance Newry City Councillor, Cllr Gary Stokes, a member of the committee said "Even though I'd read it the night before, I was going, oh that again. It's almost written up as if it's about paddle boats on the basin... The document caught me on the hop because of that title"

On the night Councillor Stokes proposed that consideration of the document should be postponed for a month as it was such a huge decision.

Cllr Gary Stokes



Cllr Stokes said "The point was made that ultimately this would be a decision for the DFI Minister, but the civil servants will look at this document, if it comes through from the Council. It will be taken as the Councils view, like it or not.

"Lets take a moment and before we take a huge decision like this, can we stand back and give it proper consideration."

After the Councillors came out of closed session on Item 4, Conor Mallon, Director of ERT said "On the proposal of Councillor Stokes, seconded by Councillor Hanna it was agreed to defer consideration of the report regarding the Economic assessment of water based activities to the ERT Committee in May 2021"

Taint views of Decision makers

In reply to our questions Crotlieve Councillor, Cllr Declan McAteer said "This item emanated out of a meeting Council had with the Minister for Infrastructure Nichola Mallon, who’s Department wanted to determine our Council’s view on the Southern Relief Road and by linkage the issue of whether there should be an opening bridge going over the river and canal. Obviously the construction costs were going to be quite different if a lifting bridge was part of the scheme.

Cllr Declan McAteer

"A decision was taken at the meeting with Ms Mallon to progress an economic case for providing a lifting bridge in the context of current and future plans for the Albert Basin and Canal. This is quite a normal procedure in any project, where public expenditure has to be justified."

Cllr McAteer questioned the accuracy of an element of the report shown to them "I am not alleging there is anything untoward or deliberate in the report’s compilation. However, if the report was accepted in its current form it may taint the views of those making the ultimate decision on this. We wanted to interrogate the veracity of this finding and how this particular view was arrived at. That is why we put forward a vote to defer until the next meeting."

Stating that he thought our suggestion that a decision at the meeting would have given Council permission to pursue a fixed bridge wasn't accurate Cllr McAteer said "It is not accurate to state that approval of the report would give Council approval to pursue a fixed bridge, this report would simply inform the Minister and her Department in their decision making process."

Standard procedure

Slieve Croob Councillor, Cllr Andrew McMurray,, Chairperson of the Committee replied to our queries saying "The Agenda Item in question was number 4 on that evening’s papers. This was deemed to be taken in committee as it included matters of a financial nature which, at times, are not related directly to NMDDC. In my experience, this is a standard statutory procedure within Council. However, it would not be appropriate to comment extensively on some of the details as presented."

Cllr Andrew McMurray

Cllr McMurray said a lifting bridge was referenced in the first two sentences of an associated report. "The Agenda Item ‘Economic Assessment of Water Based Activities - Presentation' encompassed a presentation detailing some of the economic implications regarding various options relating to the development of waterways in the Newry locality, as well as how these are utilised and accessed. As to whether or not the item’s title would have resulted in Councillors missing the relevance of the item in relation to a lifting bridge, I cannot say. However, it was referenced within the first two sentences of the associated report contained within the agenda circulated to all Councillors prior to the meeting. Therefore, speaking for myself, I was under no confusion as to what the matter to be discussed was about. The committee decided to defer decision until next month’s meeting so as the detail of the presentation could be reflected upon."

The Slieve Croob Councillor added "The historical legacy of the ability for vessels to navigate the Canal between Newry and Lough Neagh is not lost on me. It contributed greatly to the industrial development of the region of which its legacy is still being felt today, despite the canal's decline in commercial use. With that in mind, my Alliance colleagues Patrick Brown and Helena Young have been engaging with local groups on the potential implications the design of bridge will have in this regard. I am also aware of pubic panel events which have taken place which have had this topic discussed.

"Whatever final decision is reached, it will be made by the Minister for the Department of Infrastructure as it will be an infrastructure project delivered as part of the Southern Relief Road."

Raise the Town Bridges

Cllr Henry Reilly

The Mournes Councillor, Cllr Henry Reilly in his reply thought it would be better spending money for a lifting bridge on raising the other Newry bridges. The Mournes Councillor said "The proposed bridge will give a 12 metre clearance which will allow 99% of vessels to get to the basin - it is only some of the biggest tall ships that would be restricted. It would be better to spend the £18 million needed to put in a lift bridge on raising the town centre bridges to let pleasure vessels navigate the canal from Newry to Lough Neagh." (It should be noted that Cllr Reilly's figure of 99% of vessels being able to access the basin  is disputed with an IWAI spokesman explaining the opposite - that 90% of vessels WOULDN'T be able to get to the Albert Basin.)

Ironic

The report will once again be considered in May at the Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism Meeting. It would be extremely ironic if a decision taken at a meeting so named stopped enterprising tall ship and yacht owners contributing towards regenerating the entire area and greatly enhancing Newry's tourism offering.

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