Saturday 14 December 2019

'It's essential ferries continue to discharge quickly - any delays would be a disaster' - Dublin Port Company chief

Dublin Port Company chief tells Paul Melia the return of custom controls could cause problems, and he does not predict a drop-off in business

Chief executive Eamonn O’Reilly at the Dublin Port Company’s headquarters in Dublin Port. Photo: Frank McGrath
Chief executive Eamonn O’Reilly at the Dublin Port Company’s headquarters in Dublin Port. Photo: Frank McGrath
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Chief executive of the Dublin Port Company Eamonn O'Reilly is planning for the worst.

If Brexit is as 'hard' as many fear, full border and customs controls may return, which will present an enormous headache for the port authority.

The numbers are staggering. Around 250,000 tourist cars coming into the country every year - almost 700 a day - could be subject to screening. Another 204,000 goods containers will also undertake some form of checks. Currently, these cars and containers come straight off ships and drive on to the road network.

Mr O'Reilly reckons that if his worst fears are realised, this traffic will need to undergo customs checks in the port on a site encompassing some three hectares. This will restrict development and utilisation of land for more productive uses.

"None of this is good," he says. "It's back to the situation in place in the early 1990s (prior to the abolition of internal EU borders in January, 1993).

"The absolutely essential thing is the ferries continue to discharge quickly. It would be a disaster for the port and country if they are delayed.

"If all that stuff has to discharge into a yard, that yard has to be around three hectares. That's a big chunk of land. The port is already under pressure which is why we're redeveloping. That wouldn't be a good outcome, and is something we hope can be avoided."

Business is growing, but it's a continuation of a long-term trend since the 1950s.

"It's a long-run characteristic of the port," he says. "You have growth, on growth, on growth. From 1993 to 2007, every single year was a record year without exception. In the last four years, we've seen the re-emergence of a long-term trend.

"I was born in 1959, when the population of Ireland hit its lowest, around 2.9 million. Today it's 4.7 million. People drive economies. If you have more people, you have a lot more economic activity. More people means more stuff."

Some 26 million tonnes of goods passed through the port past year, along with 500,000 tourist vehicles. In the last four years, volumes have grown by 25pc, but Mr O'Reilly doesn't expect Brexit to impact on business.

"When the Brexit vote happened everyone here would have been surprised and as disappointed as most people in the [UK]. The first thing we would have thought about in relation to Dublin Port was there could be a negative effect on economic growth.

"But we've come through the worst recession in the history of the country, we've survived this enormous economic catastrophe. From 2007, we dropped for a couple of years but we're four million tonnes above where we were in 2007. It's hard to envisage Brexit having a bigger impact, given there's a couple of years before it happens and there's time to change and adapt.

"I'm not trying to diminish the impact it will have on key sectors like agriculture and the other industries which depend on the UK markets. I wouldn't be overly concerned we're going to see an enormous drop-off in the business of Dublin Port."

But customs checks will result in major disruption.

Every year, 1.318 million units - containers and trailers - go through Dublin Port. Of this, 503,000 units come from continental Europe, of which 190,000 tonnes originate from outside the EU, and clear customs in the container terminals in the port.

The remaining 1.128 million units pass through the port unhindered, of which 815,000 is UK business.

But after a hard Brexit, the figures change.

In the future, only the 313,000 units of goods arriving from continental Europe will not be subject to customs. The remaining 1,005 million - from the UK and outside the EU - will require some form of checks.

In the case of the UK traffic, some 408,000 units of unaccompanied freight will have to be processed in container terminals, which will be "relatively straightforward", he says, but warns of an administrative cost and possible delays.

The 'real' challenge is the 408,000 units of accompanied freight which arrive on trucks. Some 204,000 units coming into the country every year will have to be checked, along with 250,000 tourist cars.

The "ideal" is that if these units and cars have to clear a new customs control, it happens before they board the ship in Holyhead. Traffic to the UK could clear customs in Dublin. This means that checks could occur in the waiting area prior to boarding, meaning no delays on either side.

"These things will queue to get onto the ship anyway. It would be great for the port because you won't need to lose a chunk of land, and great for trade because it continues to move quickly.

"There are models for this - in Dover-Calais, French security checks occur in Dover and UK security checks occur in Calais.

"Everything suggests we're moving for a hard Brexit which could result in custom controls being reintroduced. We would hope such an arrangement is possible, but these are complex areas. From our perspective, this is what good would look like."

There aren't a lot of opportunities for the port due to Brexit, because ships destined for the UK will still have to land there.

The ports under most pressure will be Dublin and Rosslare, because so much of their trade is with the UK.

"We are going to plan on the basis of what we consider is the worst-case scenario," he adds.

"That is, there has to be customs in Dublin Port. In terms of preparedness we're in the best position we can be.

"All we can do is create a worst-case scenario in our minds, and work out how to deal with that. But I'd be delighted if I went to a meeting and somebody said 'don't worry about that, it'll be much simpler'."

Irish Independent

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