BOATING enthusiasts will be able to navigate Ireland's 700 km of inland waterways north and south of the border under an ambitious plan to be unveiled today.
Rural Affairs Minister Eamon O'Cuiv and his northern counterpart, Edwin Poots, will announce that planning can begin on restoring the Ulster Canal, which would give mariners unfettered access to all the country's canals.
For the first time, boaters will be able to travel from Coleraine in the north to Limerick and New Ross without leaving their barges. Enthusiasts say it's the realisation of a 300-year-old dream, and the first time that both canal systems will be connected.
Colin Becker, from the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, said a 'slight' re-routing of both ends of the canal was likely to avoid road crossings and motorway bridges.
"It's the missing link. It connects the two networks at Lough Neath and the Shannon. They never operated contemporaneously so it will be the realisation of a 300-year-old dream.
"The locks on the Ulster Canal were built to a narrower width, which meant it wasn't commercially viable.
"Depending on how you count it, there is over 700 km of waterway.
"Travelling from Limerick to Coleraine would take about 10 days."
Once complete, boaters could leave Coleraine and travel to Lough Neagh through the Lower Bann river. From there, through the redeveloped Ulster Canal (via the River Blackwater) and Lough Erne, through the Shannon Erne Waterway before joining the River Shannon at Leitrim and continuing onto the sea at Limerick.
And alternative route -- which will be available from 2009 -- would allow boaters to use the Ulster Canal and join the Shannon system, before heading to Tarmonbarry in Longford and travelling the Royal Canal in Dublin.
An announcement that preliminary engineering and design work on re-opening the 46-mile Ulster Canal is expected to be made at a press conference. The cost is likely to run into tens of millions of euro -- the only estimates to date for restoring 20 miles of the canal put it at over €50m.