Belfast port reports surge in trade due to fewer post-Brexit checks

Belfast Harbour and Stena Line figures show more traders using North to transit goods

Traders are diverting more goods through Northern Ireland's ports to avail of looser post-Brexit checks, new freight figures from Belfast Harbour and Irish Sea shipping line Stena show.

Belfast Harbour reported a record year for trade in 2021, with 25.6 million tonnes handled by the port, an increase of 9 per cent on the previous year. Lorry freight or roll-on, roll-off (ro-ro) volumes rose 12 per cent to almost 600,000 freight units, while container traffic increased 15 per cent to 132,000 units, the highest level since 2008.

Michael Robinson, Belfast Harbour's port director, said there had been changes in ro-ro traffic volumes on routes between Ireland and Britain following the UK's exit from the EU.

All Northern Irish ports, including Belfast, have experienced “improved trade volumes whilst grace periods continue to apply”, he said on the release of the port’s 2021 trade figures.

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The level of checks being carried out on goods traded between Ireland and Britain at Belfast and other Northern Irish ports is significantly lower than those applied on goods moving between Ireland and Britain that are passing through Dublin and Rosslare ports.

Stena Line, the biggest ferry operator on the Irish Sea, saw significant declines on its Dublin-Holyhead and Rosslare-Fishguard routes last year but significant increases on its Belfast-Liverpool (up 16.5 per cent) and Belfast-Cairnryan (up 7.5 per cent) routes, showing the diversion in trade.

Hauliers

Northern Irish hauliers who previously used Dublin Port to transport goods to and from Britain and across Britain over the so-called landbridge have diverted trade through Northern Ireland ports to avoid the greater post-Brexit border controls through ports in the Republic.

A spokesman for Stena Line said that it was operating freight capacity at its highest-ever level on the company's Belfast to Liverpool Birkenhead service with 40 per cent more capacity.

“We are breaking records on the route,” he said.

Northern Ireland ports have become more popular for the movement of food products of animal origin because of the more rigorous sanitary and health checks applied at Republic ports.

As a consequence, Irish Sea traffic on routes between the English and Welsh ports and the Republic of Ireland has fallen dramatically since Brexit came into effect on January 1st last year.

EU officials said in a draft report published last week that the post-Brexit checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland were “not fit for purpose”.

Audit

They found, following a European Commission audit last summer, that the UK government had "failed to ensure that sufficient resources – human and structural – have been made available to the responsible competent authorities in Northern Ireland".

The report found that the implementation of checks “does not comply with EU rules and cannot provide sufficient assurances that only compliant animals and goods are permitted to enter the SPS [sanitary and phytosanitary] area through the designated border control posts in Northern Ireland.”

Although freight volumes are down significantly on Stena’s Irish Sea route through Dublin Port and Holyhead, the company is still moving more than 300,000 freight units on the route, making the north Wales port second only to Dover for ro-ro lorry traffic.

The EU and the UK are involved in discussions to resolve a dispute on the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol with the aim of reducing the level of checks carried out under the post-Brexit trade rules applying on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent