Wednesday 17 January 2018

Northern port is in the eye of Brexit border storm

Chief executive Brian McGrath says of Foyle Port: ‘It is so intertwined. It’s like bringing something into your front garden and then going into you back garden which is in another country
Chief executive Brian McGrath says of Foyle Port: ‘It is so intertwined. It’s like bringing something into your front garden and then going into you back garden which is in another country
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

Foyle Port is a classic Brexit case study, says its chief executive, Brian McGrath. The port, located in the suburbs of Derry city, operates cross border, with its jurisdiction stretching from the city's Craigavon Bridge to Greencastle in Donegal and across Lough Foyle to Magilligan in north west Co Derry.

Although the port operation is in Northern Ireland, its pilot station is in Greencastle and both the Irish and UK governments recognise that Foyle Port is the competent harbour authority for the area, Mr McGrath says.

The port, in effect, doesn't recognise the border, and neither does the trade traffic that it attracts.

Almost a third of the port's 90 directly employed staff are from Donegal.

Half of the freight arriving by sea into Derry comes from the European Union, with about 30pc from the United Kingdom and the remainder from the rest of the world. Of that total, about 40pc is then re-exported to the Republic by road, and at times may criss-cross the border, Mr McGrath says.

"It is so intertwined. It's like bringing something into your front garden and then going into you back garden which is in another country," he tells the Irish Independent.

"We're bringing international trade into Derry, and 40pc of it will find its way across the border into Donegal and beyond.

"If there was a hard border and a hard Brexit, it would be catastrophic for the work that we do as it would effectively make us the most isolated UK port."

The port is a bulk cargo operation dealing in commodities rather than roll on/roll off.

It deals in agricultural products, including feed and fertiliser, and handles imports of oil and coal for the region. They're worth about £1.5bn every year, Mr McGrath says, with about 40pc of that going straight back over the border.

"Animal feeds are coming in here to be sent to mills in Lifford that are being processed, and then part of that product is going to come back across [the border]," Mr McGrath says.

"The oil and petrol that is being delivered into the Donegal region is going into cars that are scooting about all over the place. It is very integrated. We're bringing in the commodities, biomass, animal feed, oil.

"All of that is playing into an agricultural region. The containers and the RoRo services that are doing the trade between east and west, we're not doing that, we're a bulk port dealing in those commodities. What we're concerned about is that some of the political narrative is focused on the east/west transaction between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

"Some people would say that's the predominant trade and therefore it doesn't matter about a hard Brexit.

"What we're saying is we need go have an open border here because the land transactions north and south are vital to us."

Foyle Port regards itself as the Atlantic gateway for the North-West City region, encompassing Derry and Donegal.

Earlier this year Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council published a joint report examining the impact of Brexit on the region, highlighting its complex cross-border linkages. It estimated that 326,577 journeys are made per week across the three major border crossings in the area, as people move back and forward for work, business, study and play.

Lough Foyle itself straddles the Northern Ireland and Republic's coastlines, with the historic row over the Lough's ownership reignited late last year when Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire reasserted London's claim over the entire lough.

In response, the Government issued a fresh declaration saying it did not accept the claim, although both governments stressed the issue was not part of the Brexit process.

The row is, for the most part, a dormant one, but it again illustrates the relationship the region has with the border.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will travel to Derry tomorrow to speak at the local Chamber of Commerce dinner, with which Foyle Port will be involved.

The Government has stressed the importance of the UK, or at least the North, remaining in a customs union with the EU.

"We've gone down to Dublin and met with various ministers, Simon Coveney was involved with that, and we've had very fruitful conversations with Joe McHugh," Mr McGrath says.

"The fact that we are keen to develop our footprint in the Republic side of our operation is attractive to people, because the port is successful and a regional player. We think we need to develop on both sides of the Foyle."

The port said it has just had its best ever corporate performance, delivering a fifth consecutive year of growth, and a 23pc increase in turnover year-on-year to £8.6m.

Mr McGrath is positive that a solution can be found to the border issue, noting that no party wants to see a hard border return. But he sees a potential safety net for the harbour in the surrounding land base if a deal can't be done.

"We have a lot of access to a significant acreage for development. So if it was the case that we needed to build bonded warehouses, or stores or facilities for border transactional things, we have absolutely no contraints in that regard," he says.

"It's not something we want to do. It would be very sad if that was needed. But we do have the contingency to draw upon the resources to try and accommodate that."

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