Northern Ireland

Could the lights be about to go out on hundreds of years of history?

Lighthouse
Image caption St John's Point lighthouse in County Down could be one of those under threat

Some of the finest lighthouses in the world - and some of the oldest - stand guard around the rugged coast of Ireland.

They also mark the victory of rational thought over endless political shenanigans. But perhaps not for much longer.

Their future is now blighted by technology and finance.

The bean counters may have managed what bombs, bullets and bigotry failed to achieve.

In the past lighthouses around the coast of the UK and Ireland have been paid for from the General Lighthouse Fund (GLF).

The money for that is raised from light dues charged to ships that visit UK and Irish ports. It's a sort of tax on shipping and has been around for centuries.

The agreement for common funding has lasted through wars, political division and even the Partition of Ireland.

Now, in an attempt to save a few million pounds sterling, the UK government has decided to end an arrangement that spans three centuries.

Financially the Republic of Ireland has been set adrift and told to find its own lighthouse funding. From 2016 it won't get a share of the GLF but nor will it be expected to contribute to it. Hundreds of years of tradition and financial co-operation will come to an abrupt end.

Royal charter

Lighthouses around the Irish Sea are split between three authorities. Trinity House looks after England and Wales. The Northern Lighthouse Board looks after all the lights in Scotland and the Isle of Man. The Commissioners of Irish Lights (CIL) is in charge of all the lighthouses around Ireland, north and south.

All three go back a long way. Trinity House was set up with a royal charter in 1514. Northern Lighthouses and Irish Lights were set up by respective Acts of Parliament in 1786.

But it was almost a hundred years later before a proper funding agreement was reached when the General Lighthouse Fund evolved. Money collected from ships around the UK and Ireland was put in a kitty and then shared out pro rata.

Image caption Captain Kieran O'Higgins is worried about the funding of lighthouses across Ireland

That is the situation that still exists today. But the UK and Irish governments have now agreed that the funding arrangement will end in 2016. The UK say it's to bring to an end the subsidies for Irish lighthouses. The Irish authorities claim there are no subsidies.

"There's been no British taxpayers' money supporting the GLF or Irish lighthouses," says Captain Kieran O'Higgins, head of marine with the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

"But the Irish Exchequer does contribute a percentage of Irish tax receipts that contribute towards operating costs of Irish Lights in ROI."

The argument is that the money from the Irish government made up the shortfall in Irish light dues. And this is the point of division. Ships pay their light dues (currently 41 pence a ton) when they visit Irish or UK ports.

As there are more ships visiting UK ports than Irish ports, more funding is raised in the UK. So the Irish government agreed to make up what was seen as the difference. But the UK government isn't impressed.

Subsidy or not, Ireland has been metaphorically cut adrift and left to find its own funding after 2016. And there is a complication. Around a dozen lighthouses maintained by CIL are actually in Northern Ireland.

So the GLF must continue to cover the costs of running and looking after these. But who will do the work? The same people who always did it, the Commissioners of Irish Lights. It's sort of an "as you were" arrangement.

After 2016 there will be no difference to the mariner, advises Kieran O'Higgins of CIL: "Post-2016, there is no intention to have any change in the system per se. It will still be administered in the same way except that the funding for the Republic of Ireland operations has to be raised here."

Image caption Lighthouses, such as Haulbowline off Carlingford, have been a feature of the Irish coast for centuries

But the change comes at a very bad time for Ireland. Apart from its crippling fiscal situation, the Republic of Ireland also has to cope with the growing backlash from shipping owners who are challenging the need to pay light dues to any authority anywhere in the world.

Ship owners almost exclusively use satellite technology to find their way about today. Lighthouses and flashing buoys are no longer part of their navigation systems. It's claimed that massive light dues are driving bigger ships into foreign ports losing the UK (and Ireland) a sizeable sum each year.

And satellite technology is quickly appearing as a major hurdle for the future of lighthouses. It's one they may not be able to clear. In the future most commercial vessels will be expected to have all the equipment on board to make electronic navigation the standard method of getting about on the high seas. Its known as e-Navigation.

The cost of the equipment will add to the ship owner's annual bill. So why should they pay for lighthouses which are becoming little more than a curiosity for many seafarers? Others argue that the e-Navigation systems aren't sufficiently robust yet and lighthouses will still be needed as a backup for some time.

But some key lighthouses around the UK have already been earmarked for closure. It simply doesn't make sense to keep them lit or even maintain them. It may be the route that CIL will have to take in the near future.

There have been warning lights and beacons around the coast of Ireland for well over a millennium. Hook Head Lighthouse on the south coast of Ireland is one of the oldest lighthouses still working in Europe. It was built by the Normans in the 12th Century.

For 600 years before that local monks lit beacons on the site at night. There has been some form of warning light for mariners burning at Hook Head for over 1,500 years.

Politics and rebellion failed to extinguish it. Finance and technology may well succeed.