Fierce controversy in Dun Laoghaire as cruise ship plan sails into a storm
Dún Laoghaire supporters of a new terminal say it would breathe life back into the suburban seaside resort, while opponents fear it would destroy the town's heritage.
On a crisp autumn afternoon, the scene in Dún Laoghaire Harbour is idyllic. Yachts of all sizes line the marinas, sails flutter in the breeze and walkers stroll along the pier in the sunshine, gazing out to Howth Head.
If the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company has its way, this vista will be transformed as the harbour is turned into a vast cruise ship terminal, attracting enormous ocean-going liners from all over the world.
Boats as high as Liberty Hall will cruise into the harbour disgorging thousands of passengers along a 450 metre pier. Some of the ships are floating mini-cities with up to 6,000 people.
Supporters of the plan to revamp the harbour hope that it will also revive the town, which has seen business drain away as shoppers are drawn to malls such as Dundrum Town Centre. Dún Laoghaire is also no longer a ferry port after the withdrawal of Stena's Holyhead service earlier this year.
It may be seen as a panacea in some quarters, but the ambitious plan for a cruise berth, currently before An Bord Pleanála, has met with fierce opposition from an unlikely alliance of sailing interests, local residents, environmentalists and the local left-wing TD, Richard Boyd Barrett. The sailing clubs include the prestigious Royal St George Yacht Club and the National Yacht Club.
Last weekend, the sailors formed a flotilla in the harbour lining up alongside marchers from Richard Boyd Barrett's Save Our Seafront group.
The concerned commodore of the National Yacht Club, Larry Power, told Review this week: "The main problem with the cruise ship plan is that it would destroy sailing in the harbour by dividing it in two.
"These are massive ships that would be coming in and it just would not be sustainable, not just for sailing reasons, but also for the heritage of the harbour and the environment."
The harbour is used to train children in sailing and other watersports, and also attracts international regattas.
Michael Healy, another local sailor from the Royal St George Yacht Club, says: "What Croke Park is to the GAA, Dún Laoghaire is to sailing. The international events would have to cease if these ships come in.
"The sheer scale of these cruise liners means there is no wind on one side of them, and there is complete disruption to the airflow, which is the essence of sailing."
The opposition to the cruise berth is well organised and vocal. There are thousands of sailors who use the harbour, and they may be a factor in the next general election.
While there may be resistance to the plan, it is not hard to see why it also has some support. Its supporters argue that it will not only bring the harbour much-needed revenue after the loss of the Stena ferries. They also hope that it will bring tourists to the area.
Fáilte Ireland is keen to promote cruise tourism, and has enjoyed some success over the past five years in attracting visitors. The tourism body estimates that 250,000 cruise passengers stepped ashore in Ireland last year, and the numbers are growing.
Alex Connolly of Fáilte Ireland says: "In 2014 the global cruise tourism market represented 22 million cruise passengers.
"The economic impact of cruise tourism to Ireland is estimated to be over €50m a year currently, almost half coming from passenger and crew spending. The remainder is made up of port charges, crew wages to Irish citizen, cruise lines' purchases of fuel, food and repairs, and ship outfitting."
The potential scale of cruise tourism in Ireland was seen in Dublin Port this summer when 13,000 passengers and crew arrived on four cruise liners in a single day.
Passengers on one these vessels, the 300-metre Royal Princess, disembarked to be greeted by two crew members, one dressed as a leprechaun and another as a pint of Guinness. There were traditional musicians and drummers on hand.
Dún Laoghaire has already attracted cruise ships, but the problem is that they cannot moor in the harbour. Instead, they have to stop in Dublin Bay, and passengers are ferried in on smaller boats.
Cruise passengers arriving at Dublin Port can go directly ashore, but the entry to the port, past cranes, oil terminals and silos is hardly on a par with the Statue of Liberty, or gliding past St Mark's Square in Venice.
Don McManus, who supports the Dún Laoghaire cruise ship plan as chairman of the local Business Improvement District, says: "One of the advantages of Dún Laoghaire is that the vista is better. The appearance of the port is very important."
There is some debate locally about whether a berth for cruise ships really would revitalise the town.
Local Green Party councillor Ossian Smyth says: "The passengers have free food on board so they don't eat out in the town's restaurants. In fact, many don't bother disembarking at all.
"Of those who do come ashore, most board a tour bus immediately to visit the major national attractions like the Book of Kells, Glendalough, the Guinness Brewery."
Councillor Smyth is also sceptical about whether the plan for Dún Laoghaire will work from a financial point of view. It will face tough competition from Dublin Port, which has recently got permission for a double dock for cruise ships next to the Point Depot. Don McManus, who runs a local jewellery shop, is more confident that the building of a cruise berth in the harbour can help to revive the town.
He says it is wrong to suggest that passengers would not shop in the town. "The cruise ships that have moored off Dún Laoghaire have brought benefits and a whole retail quarter could develop around the cruise ships if they came into the harbour.
"We have met with people down in Cobh, where cruise ships dock - retailers, publicans and people doing walking tours - and they told us of the benefits.
"You shouldn't forget also that the crew will come ashore in Dún Laoghaire if the cruise liners come into the harbour. It is true that many of the passengers may go on tours, but the crew don't do that. The research has shown that they spend an average of €48 on their visits."
The plan is likely to be the subject of hot debate in Dún Laoghaire for the foreseeable future. Up to 150 submissions were made to An Bord Pleanála before this week's hearing. Many of the complaints have focused on environmental concerns including the effects of dredging the harbour.
Councillor Ossian Smyth says the large cruise liners use vast quantities of diesel - up to 27,000 litres per hour. "Even when idling one of these ships is equivalent to a 100MW diesel power plant," he says.
It remains to be seen if the cruise ship terminal ever gets built and the scheme now looks doubtful given the level of local opposition and the competition from Dublin Port.