Dublin Port trade rebounds but 2019 growth levels a year or two away

State’s busiest port still recovering from post-Brexit decline in freight volumes

Dublin Port reported an increase of almost 14 per cent in freight volumes in the first quarter, but does not expect to return to pre-Brexit levels for another year or two.

Freight moving through the State's busiest port rebounded strongly in the first three months of the year after a sharp decline in trade during the first quarter of 2021 due to new border controls on goods moving from Britain to Ireland following the UK's exit from the EU in January 2021.

The 13.7 per cent growth in volumes to 8.9 million tonnes in the first quarter of this year compared with a 15.2 per cent drop to 7.8 million tonnes in the corresponding quarter last year. The freight volumes for the three-month period are still down 8 per cent on the first quarter of 2019, a record year, as the port continues to recover from Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The increase in this year's figures was driven by a 23 per cent jump to 192,000 freight units on ferry services with Holyhead, Liverpool and Heysham.

Irish Sea trade volumes still remain 18 per cent below their pre-Brexit levels.

Eamonn O'Reilly, chief executive of Dublin Port, said he did not expect to see a return to 2019 levels of growth until 2023 or 2024 as traders pivot away from post-Brexit Britain towards Europe.

“What the future holds is Ireland growing its trade with continental Europe and not growing Britain in the way that it was in the past,” he said.

Dublin Port accounts for four-fifths of all trailers and containers handled in ports in Ireland, and in the first quarter of this year unitised trade volumes grew by 13 per cent to 363,000.

Passenger numbers on ferries rose by more than 150 per cent to 209,000, while tourist vehicles more than doubled to 58,000.

Bulk liquid imports of fuel products returned to pre-pandemic record levels of 2019, with a 20 per cent growth to 1.1 million tonnes.

Lorry “roll-on, roll-off” volumes grew by 23 per cent to 250,000, while there was a decrease of 3.5 per cent to 112,000 units on “lift-on, lift-off” container volumes at the port.

Both types of freight volumes increased by 1.8 per cent to 152,000 units on ferries travelling to and from continental European ports from Cherbourg to Rotterdam in the first quarter.

Mr O’Reilly said that CLDN, the direct shipping line operating between Ireland and continental Europe, had shown “extraordinary” growth, becoming the port’s busiest shipping line.

He said the projected return to pre-Covid growth put pressure on the port to continue with an investment programme of €1.6 billion under its Masterplan 2040 project. “This will not be easy against the background of high inflation which is particularly evident in the construction sector,” he said.

Mr O'Reilly said the State's projected population growth to six million by 2040 meant that the port's return to 2019 growth levels was "just a question of time" and that the impacts of Brexit, Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine "would probably be blips on that great trajectory of growth".

He again rejected the idea of moving the port to allow the city to develop eastwards, saying it was “too expensive” a project for the State to undertake, costing €8.3 billion at 2020 prices.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

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