It was once possible to navigate by water from Belfast docks to Lough Neagh — and those days could come again.
An ambitious £80m plan has been unveiled that would see the 27-mile Lagan Navigation re-opened to boat traffic plying its way from Belfast up the River Lagan to Lisburn, then continuing to Lough Neagh by still water canal.
The Lagan Canal Trust yesterday launched a public consultation on its proposals, publishing new engineering and strategic environmental reports on the impact they would have on the River Lagan and other aquatic habitats.
The plans would see the continuation of works that have already started on the downstream section of the Lagan, where a number of old locks have been refurbished, and the restoration of the final stage of the canal from Moira to Lough Neagh.
However, the middle section from Sprucefield to Moira cannot be restored as the M1 motorway was built along the canal route — instead the navigation will continue from Sprucefield along a six-mile stretch of the River Lagan, moving into a new stretch of canal before it joins the final stage.
Meanwhile, the trust announced plans to build a new cut that would extend the waterway to the Maze site, including a 20-30 berth marina and boat trailer park.
It is also proposing another 20-30 berth marina upstream at the start of the navigation, at Ellis’s Gut on the shore of Lough Neagh.
John Armstrong, of Belfast consultants URS, who drew up the engineering report, explained that one-third of the navigation runs along the River Lagan and the remaining two-thirds on still water canal.
All of the original 27 locks remain intact, except the now infilled Cutter’s Wharf lock, although some are in a state of disrepair. Lock 12 at the civic centre in Lisburn and Lock 3 at Newforge have recently been restored.
All 22 of the original road bridges remain intact and only two of the nine weirs have been removed since the canal was abandoned in the 1950s.
Judith Annett, presenting the strategic environmental report, said the plan would deliver jobs, recreation and economic benefits.
However, she warned that unless environmental mitigation is carried out, it could impact on aquatic wildlife, spread invasive species and could affect the River Lagan’s ability to meet the conditions of the European Water Framework Directive.
Mitigation measures would include a conservation plan for built, cultural and natural heritage, an aquatic habitat enhancement plan for the upper Lagan catchment and an invasive species plan.
Other options could be to restore only some sections of the navigation or to the towpaths rather than the navigation, she added.
Lagan Canal Trust chairman Erskine Holmes said the plan is now at a crucial stage with a document in place that is needed to secure local government, central government and external funding.
“Lisburn has been landlocked for a long time with the lock outside their council offices but they had faith that one day the system would be linked up again,” he said.
“An interesting point will be whether the Heritage Lottery Fund see the restoration of a working system as the heritage rather than just the preservation of the stones.”
The trust is asking members of the public to give their feedback on the plans by visiting the website at www.lagancanaltrust.com.
... but critics say work could threaten wildlife and lead to fines
Plans to reopen the Lagan Canal could leave Northern Ireland open to fines from Europe if aquatic habitats aren’t protected.
That’s the warning from environmentalists concerned over the threat to salmon and other species living in the River Lagan from a proposed major modification of the watercourse.
The plans propose restoring navigation on the lower reaches of the River Lagan and the disused Lagan Canal between Moira and Lough Neagh.
But as the M1 motorway has been built along the stretch of canal that once lay between Sprucefield and Moira, it would mean dredging a six-mile stretch of the Lagan, plus a new cut connecting that stretch to the canal at Moira.
Anglers expressed concerns that the Lagan between Lisburn and Moira could be destroyed to create a new canal section and said the overall plan could mean new barriers to migratory fish that are already at risk.
Meanwhile, there were concerns that the Lagan’s potential to reach Good Ecological Status could be compromised.
WWF freshwater spokesperson Claire Cockerill said: “We would have concerns about the river’s ability to meet the Water Framework Directive legislation, risking infractions from Europe. Whilst mitigation measures have been proposed, we have concerns about how they are going to be funded.
“It’s great that there is the potential to get people down on the river, but not at the expense of the freshwater habitats and environment we ask people to enjoy.”