BELFAST CITY Council is expected to green-light the first phase of its ambitious restoration of the Lagan Canal at tonight’s monthly meeting.

The £8.62m Lagan Gateway initiative will see public access walkways restored, the installation of a new bridge and hopefully the eventual return of boats and barges to the water for the first time in over 60 years.

The project is expected to boost tourism and recreational activities along the water way while conserving the important heritage area.

The canal was once crucial to the North’s economy, transporting thousands of tons of goods from the port of Belfast to its industrial centres.

However with the development of motorway infrastructure by the middle of the 20th century the canal fell into disuse and disrepair.

The first stage of the restoration process, costing £4m, is set to be approved by Belfast City Council and will open the river navigation from Titanic Belfast to Stranmillis where a new bridge will give the public access to towpaths on both sides of the river.

The upgrade work is part of a longer term project aimed at opening the entire canal from Belfast Harbour to Lough Neagh.

Sinn Féin MLA and former Balmoral Councillor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said: “As peoples across the world have discovered, rivers and canals give life to our cities and to the communities on their banks. A vibrant city river and bustling canal bring vitality and energy to any metropolis.

“We have a long way to go yet before we can realise the dream of opening the entire canal to Lough Neagh – opening up the possibility of travelling by boat or barge to Shannon or Coleraine – but this inspirational Lagan Gateway plan means we are now firmly in the swim of things.”