On 23rd June 2016 the UK voted by 51.9% to 48.1% to leave the European Union. Such a narrow victory – if such it was – has led to major upheavals in the British Political Establishment and throughout society in general.
Without any clear plan following the debates leading up to June 2016, the UK then triggered Article 50 on the 29th March 2017. Quite clearly Ireland and its interests were ignored in the debating, possibly with the unspoken idea that the Irish can be sorted whenever as so often happened in the past. Unfortunately for Britain, Ireland was not alone and, as a member of the EU, its interests and that of the EU were going to be protected. Once Britain becomes a Third Party Country then EU Customs Law applies to protect the Single Market and, while that was not highlighted in the early days, EU customs regulations will be a reality between the EU and UK. This is of vital import for Ireland because of Partition and the existence of a boundary line between the two jurisdictions. Very decidedly the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 had worked a minor miracle in making that border invisible and, as both Ireland and Britain were EU members, the free flow of goods and services was ensured.
What now with the British decision to leave? Well, it is impossible to guess what will happen on the Island of Ireland as Britain has not even agreed its terms of leaving, much less its future trading relationship. What we can do is look at the facts and wonder what lies ahead. Ireland’s position as an island on the very western fringe of Europe leaves it disadvantaged in gaining access to the Continent. Between us and the great land mass, with its huge integrated marketplace, is the island of Britain.
Ireland runs roughly SW towards NE so the ports in the North are closer to Britain while further south the distances are greater but so is the pattern of trade. Nowadays, with containers, the usable ports are fewer in Ireland as a normal Ireland/Continental box boat will be substantial – about 11,000 tons carrying up to a 1,000 TEU – while ro-ro traffic has even fewer options. The three ro-ro ports north of 54 degrees N are Warrenpoint, Belfast and Larne. All lie between 5.47 degrees W and 6.16 degrees W and currently all their ferry services are to Scotland, Lancashire and the Mersey. With a seamless border much traffic to and from the Republic uses these routes, not only for the British market but for the land bridge to Europe and trans-shipment to world-wide destinations.
The only two ro-ro ports on Ireland’s East Coast are Dublin, which is said to handle 85% of R of I business, and the smaller Rosslare Harbour. These ports are about 6.2 degrees W while the third ro-ro port is Cork at 8.15 degrees W, which is further west than Derry at 7.14 degrees W and almost the same as Killybegs at 8.18 degrees W. All Continental ro-ro freight and passenger services are from these three ports of Dublin, Rosslare and Cork. If customs apply to UK traffic then Dublin in particular will be severely impacted for space while Rosslare may also experience difficulty. Cork has services to France and Spain by Brittany Ferries and its western situation and smaller catchment area has seen it lose out to Rosslare and Dublin for UK traffic.
Since the foundation of the State the administration seems to have turned its back on the sea and what opportunities it can provide, and a lack of a pragmatic ports policy is just one feature of this malaise. What seems urgent now is a new efficient port built from scratch somewhere, possibly on the East Coast, to give the country the breathing space it needs. These notes have highlighted ro-ro traffic, most in the public eye, but urgent attention needs to be given to the bulk cargo trades, the bulk oil and gas trades while the large infrastructure necessary to back up the container trades seems never to have been addressed on a National level. As a pointer to the reality, the only dry dock built in the history of the State (opened by President Séan T O’Kelly in 1957) is now closed and there are no facilities to drydock Irish owned tonnage with even Irish Lights having to send GRANUAILE to Greenock for over-haul.
All Irish bulkers have to be repaired abroad in UK, Holland, Poland and as far as Turkey. But lest the reader thinks that we have a massive ship owning presence, there are only 399 bulk carriers. Most of these flying the Irish Flag are around 5,000 tonnes but under Dutch, Cypriot and Curacao colours without, of course, any Irish seafarers employed; it would seem enjoying the benefits of the Irish Tonnage Tax Scheme which, unbelievably is “flag blind”. There are no Irish tankers nor, indeed, any Irish Flag ships operating scheduled services to and from the country. Brexit apart, is it not time for a National review of the whole maritime sector as a trading nation?