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A 'behind closed doors' item on the agenda at last Monday night's meeting of Newry, Mourne and Down Council's Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism Committee, if passed, could well result in far reaching consequences for Newry Ship Canal, far beyond what could ever have been envisaged from the item's seemingly mundane title - 'Presentation on Economic Assessment of Water Based Activities'.

A rough idea of what a proposed fixed bridge would look like. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
A rough idea of what a proposed fixed bridge would look like on Newry Ship Canal. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

The 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)" meaning that the public and press were excluded.

Although Item number 4 on the Agenda was entitled  'Presentation on Economic Assessment of Water Based Activities' according to some reports it was actually an economic assessment on an opening bridge over Newry Ship Canal as part of the Southern Relief Road project.

12M Fixed Bridge

At present the "preferred option" for the  Department for Infrastructure is for a 12M fixed bridge!

Already a war of words has broke out with one Councillor accusing the Co Chair of the Newry City Centre Regeneration project of proposing a fixed bridge at the meeting - which the Councillor has refuted!

A fixed bridge would mean that Newry Ship Canal would be cut off from the outside world. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
A fixed bridge over Newry Ship Canal would mean Victoria Lock would be 'surplus to requirement' . Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie



Fixed Bridge

At a Newry 2020 meeting last Wednesday night on the Newry City Centre Regeneration Project, Panelist Councillor Patrick Brown in reply to another Panelist Cllr Declan Murphy's vocal support for an opening bridge, claimed that Cllr Murphy's party colleague Cllr Roisin Mulgrew had "proposed that we go with a fixed bridge" at Monday's meeting. Cllr Murphy had said "It is our position, it's very very clear that it's our position that we are for a lifting bridge."

Cllr Patrick Brown

Speaking on Monday night's meeting Cllr Brown commented "it was Declan's party colleague Roisin Mulgrew who is the Co-Chair of the Newry City Centre Regeneration Project who proposed that we go with a fixed bridge. Thankfully because Alliance, SDLP and other Councillors worked together, we can get another shot of that down the line but that does not seem to be Sinn Féin's public position as expressed in Council meetings."

"Totally Refute this Allegation"

In reply Cllr Mulgrew said “Sinn Féin totally refute this allegation, it is untrue and disappointing that once again the truth is being distorted for a political point scoring agenda”.

The Newry City Councillor added "At the Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism Committee meeting on Monday 12th of April members were presented with a detailed presentation and papers from an independent economist and the recommendation was to forward this appraisal to the Department for Infrastructure officials for decision and hopefully get the project started."

Cllr Mulgrew added "A permanent structure across the canal/river would seal the fate and hamper any chance of future development of the hugely significant and historic Newry Canal and restrict visiting vessels coming into the Albert Basin, thus eradicating the hope of many that the Albert Basin will become a visitor destination not just for residents but for tourists also”.

Cllr Roisin Mulgrew

The Newry Councillor said "In this instance the Council are not the decision makers merely a consultee and full Council have made our views clear, that is, nothing should be in place that will permanently stop any future development of our waterways.

"Sinn Féin supported the recommendation to move the project paper on to the Ministers desk, as it is key that Minister Mallon makes clear her intentions in relation to this matter. Unfortunately other Councillors asked to defer this decision for a month, we asked for the reasoning behind this request and received none at the meeting or since."

Keep all options open

Cllr Mulgrew says she has stressed to the DFI Minister the need to keep all options open "We have been part of several committees and groups who have had direct meetings with Department for Infrastructure Minister (DfI) Minister Nicola Mallon to discuss the project at which we stressed the need to keep all options, including the key one of the erection of an opening Bridge open to allow for future development of the Canal and Albert Basin in particular."

How do you put a price on Heritage

Stressing how essential an opening bridge over Newry Canal is Peter Maxwell from IWAI Newry and Portadown Branch said "A few years ago when the consultation first started about the building of the Southern Relief Road, we were adamant that it had to have an opening section and when they got down to the final design, they still hadn't said that there would be an opening section and we queried this and they suggested that the IWAI organise a Cost Benefit Analysis to show the feasibility of an opening bridge. We refused to do this because we were not in a proper position to do that - but how do you put a price on heritage. They couldn't tell us how you put a price on heritage yet they are prepared to accept somebody else's figure which I don't even know if it takes into account heritage.

Peter Maxwell, IWAI, Newry and Portadown Branch at Victoria Lock. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
Peter Maxwell, IWAI, Newry and Portadown Branch at Victoria Lock. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie



"We have Heritage and we have future use. We have shown them several times that if you look at a flight of locks in England called Caenflight, 26 locks in a row. They were derelict in the 1950's and imagine you'd said, oh we can build a road over these no problem. Now in the past 20 years, they have been restored, they are a great tourist attraction and there are three new marinas built within one mile of this - so how can we forecast what's going to happen at the Albert Basin!"

Mr Maxwell continued "Once the bridge is put in fixed we're finished because it's not just tall ships, it's most of the yachts in the Albert Basin at this time will not be able to get in and there's no point as some people have said that tall ships can go to Warrenpoint. That's not the way it works. A town asks for tall ships to come to it. They ask them to come because of the benefit it is to the town, bringing the tourism in, the ambience of the area and that's just wasted in Warrenpoint, unless you live in Omeath because you couldn't be able to see them.

"If we could have some tall ships up into Newry, once a year, twice a year the benefit would be huge. But the important bit is that this bridge would affect a lot more than tall ships, it would actually affect most of the yachts that are currently in the basin."

Urgent public debate needed

Brian Cleland from Newry 2020 added "If reports are correct that the council were on the verge of making a recommendation to the Department that there should be a fixed bridge over Newry Ship Canal, permanently closing the canal and ending 250 years of maritime Heritage, there needs to be an urgent public debate about the Council's position.

"The public need to know what exactly those recommendations entail and what steps can be taken by councillors to protect our Ship Canal. The conflicting reports of what happened at the meeting are extremely concerning, and can only be resolved by publishing the recommendations in full. Why would anyone be opposed to the public knowing the truth?"

Deferred

Ultimately due to intervention at the meeting a proposal from Cllr Gary Stokes and Cllr Glyn Hanna and supported by a majority of the ERT Committee saw the decision on the item deferred until the next ERT meeting in May.

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