The Lagan Canal was considered the superhighway of the 19th century with thousands of tons of merchandise being hauled from the port of Belfast to industrial centres throughout Ireland.
But decades of neglect have let much of Lagan fall into disuse and disrepair, and huge stretches of water have been inaccessible since the 1950s.
Now ambitious new plans to re-open a section between Belfast Harbour and Edenderry could restore the river to its former glory.
The £8.62m Lagan Gateway initiative, which would see boats and barges back on the water for the first time in over 60 years, is among a number of priority projects which could benefit from Belfast City Council’s investment package next year.
Development of the North Foreshore, the Old Grove Leisure Centre and improving leisure |provision in east Belfast are also among the schemes competing for a cut of the multi-million pound stimulus package. Councillors will have to prioritise projects in terms of affordability, deliverability and return on investment when they meet again in the |New Year.
And Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O'Muilleoir is confident the Lagan proposal will get the go-ahead.
“I think we are on the cusp of re-opening the canal and restoring the river from the harbour to Edenderry,” Mr O’Muilleoir told the Belfast Telegraph.
“Despite the divisions in council, which we all have a responsibility for, there are many things that we have in common. There is nothing more iconic in Belfast than the River Lagan, yet our investment has been minimal.
“We believe the economic benefits would be many,” he added.
An economic appraisal carried out in 2009 identified the cost of full restoration of the Lagan navigation from Belfast Harbour to Edenderry as £8.62. The figure includes £2.3m for work at Queen’s Quay, £3.3m for the ‘Lagan gateway’ at Stranmillis, £2.01m for a second lock at Moreland’s Meadow and £1.01m for a river channel works, weir and canoe slalom upstream from the third lock at Newforge.
Mr O'Muilleoir said he believed the project had cross-party support at City Hall.
If the plans are given the green light, it is expected they would stimulate a wide range of sports and recreational pursuits, enhance the river’s attraction as an angling destination, improve access to the towpath and secure wildlife habitats. It is also hoped the restoration would create jobs through tourism, leisure and development related employment.
Meanwhile, the DUP’s Christopher Stalford, chairman of the council’s development committee, acknowledged the Lagan had been somewhat under-used.
He said: “In a number of cities around the world, rivers are used as a major tourism attraction and riverside communities have reaped the benefits from that.”
It is hoped the Lagan Gateway Project will eventually open the navigation to Lough Neagh. Currently an unattractive and inefficient pen weir exists at Stranmillis which controls water levels but restricts movement upstream and causes detrimental erosion of the river bed. The proposals envisage a gateway lock with cascade weir, pedestrian bridge, visitor centre, restaurant, moorings, slipways and jetties.