By David Young, PA
Northern Ireland ports have experienced a steady flow of trade under new Irish Sea shipping processes with some recording an increase in freight volumes, MLAs have been told.
Senior figures from the region’s four main ports told a Stormont Assembly committee the requirements of the Northern Ireland Protocol had not prompted the drop in trade that some had predicted.
Representatives from Belfast, Larne, Foyle and Warrenpoint ports acknowledged it was too early to provide a definitive view of the impact of the protocol, with some noting that grace periods limiting bureaucracy were in operation.
However, they said the early indications were largely positive, with trade volumes similar or up on previous years.
Several attributed this to the problems Brexit was causing on Republic of Ireland/Great Britain shipping routes, with trade being redirected through Northern Ireland ports as a result.
Maurice Bullick, the finance and compliance director with Belfast Harbour Commissioners, told members of the Infrastructure Committee: “The operating model of the port in the early part of this year 2021 has remained fairly stable overall.
“So far it seems to be operating broadly in a steady state.
“But of course we all know that position is assisted by the presence of the various easements (grace periods) that are in place currently.”
He added: “You’re going to get short term fluctuations in volume but in terms of the roll on/roll off traffic, which is the critical part, I would suggest we’re slightly up.”
Mr Bullick acknowledged the port authorities were one or two steps removed from the added bureaucracy required of hauliers and trades.
Ricardo Tonelli, the general manager and director of the Port of Larne, said he was proud it had not experienced a “single day with a queue” since the Brexit transition period ended.
He cited the displacement effect in relation to Dublin shipping routes.
“Our volumes are published, our freight volumes published, we are there or thereabouts on the past two years, but this is also because the volumes into the Republic have completely tanked,” he said.
“And this is just freight and they have tanked due to EU rules.”
He said there were only a “handful” of checks currently happening at Larne and noted the potential for disruption when processes intensified at the end of the grace periods.
Mr Tonelli said Larne Port wanted to be at the “forefront” of the conversation around what the final checking model would look like when the grace periods end.
David Holmes, the chief executive of Warrenpoint Port, said volumes were up 5%.
“We are encouraged that we didn’t fall over the proverbial cliff edge that we were all somewhat terrified of given the uncertainty around EU exit,” he said.
He added: “We’re up year on year, but we’re only up 5% for example on 2019 volumes, so I think it’s just too soon to call.
“But we have not fallen off a cliff that’s for sure and that’s a huge relief.”
Mr Holmes also highlighted the issues with Dublin routes.
“The hauliers are exposed to a different level of pain because our understanding of it is that volumes through Dublin port have collapsed by half, which is profound,” he said.
Mr Holmes added: “It’s easier to come in through Northern Ireland, and it’s easier to exit through Northern Ireland to GB, so that’s what’s happening.
“Whether that stays like that, we don’t know.”
Brian McGrath, chief executive of Londonderry Port and Harbour, highlighted that his port mainly dealt with bulk cargo and commodities and not the roll on/roll off trade of the ports on the east coast of Northern Ireland.
But he said the protocol was working well for his operations.
“I’m pleased to say that we have had no impact in terms of our trade flows,” he said.
“I truly mean business as usual here, largely due to the preparations which we did in advance.”
Mr McGrath added: “So whilst I know it’s particularly controversial and it is more impacting on the west/east, east/west trade, the protocol in terms of Foyle port actually works extremely well for us.
“But it’s because of the nature of the commodities that we’re dealing in and the nature of our cross border trades.”