Nobody would have expected a set of virtual traffic lights at Tuskar Rock, the outcrop 11km off the southeast coast of Wexford, but in a no-deal Brexit it seems anything is possible.
Glenn Carr, general manager of Rosslare Europort, is standing in the control tower in the State's second-busiest port. He is looking out to sea towards the rock, looking for the port's next arrival, the Stena Europe, the 4.25pm ferry coming from Fishguard in Wales.
“He’s obviously delayed because of the weather,” says Carr, scanning a blurry horizon.
A grey mist has fallen over Rosslare, not unlike the cloud that has descended over the UK’s departure from the EU. In such poor visibility, Carr – along with Government departments and State agencies preparing for a crash-out Brexit – has to chart a course regardless: hence the need for traffic lights.
To smooth the transit of road freight into the port and out the road on the other side, the Revenue Commissioners has designed an app for lorry and van drivers to manage customs checks at this and other Irish ports in a no-deal Brexit.
Should the UK crash out of the EU without a deal on March 29th – an increasingly likely prospect given the political divisions over the EU-UK divorce deal – the app will operate like a traffic light system.
Prior to boarding a ferry at Fishguard or Pembroke Dock in Wales, lorry drivers will upload details of the goods they are carrying on the customs declarations to be submitted in advance. When the ferry reaches Tuskar Rock, the app will tell them if they have been routed through a red, orange or green channel.
Green means they can leave the port on arrival. Orange means their paperwork is not complete and they have to drop into a new “trade facilitation” counter opened in the public area of the port’s terminal building to clear this up.
A red light means they must proceed to the “central control compound” – a block of checks. Here, the load could be taken out and inspected by Revenue customs officials or Department of Agriculture veterinary inspectors. (Revenue is putting 30 of the extra 600 officials it is hiring for Brexit into Rosslare.)
The traffic light system might also come in to effect after the Brexit transition period if there is a deal, one in which the EU and UK do not agree a very close customs-trading relationship.
There’s one problem: the control compound has not been built yet and will not be completed, Carr says, for up to three more years – at a cost to the State of about €30 million.
The port has earmarked a four-acre site on the western side of its 48 acres for it at a new entry-exit point it is creating. The compound will include 13 inspection bays for trucks, 35 truck parking spots and a dedicated border control post for live animals.
It's all part of the Government's plan to designate Rosslare as another of the State's border inspection posts, along with Dublin Port.
In the interim, with just 49 days until "Brexit Day", the State is having to buy a temporary site: a former car import centre once owned by Bill Cullen's Glencullen Group 2km outside the port. This is where, on a temporary basis, checks and inspections will be carried out on the "red-routed" vehicles.
The port intends to carry out “a dummy run” before the end of March to see how traffic might flow to this site in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“Our focus is on how can we get everything in and out quickly,” Carr tells The Irish Times. “The key for us: are there quicker ways to turn a ship around? Can we knock 10 minutes off a turnaround?”
Below Carr in the tower, in just 20 minutes, Stena Europe has shed its cargo of 26 lorries and unaccompanied trailers, hauled out of the ship by fast-moving freight “tugs”. Trucks are already beginning to queue for the ferry’s 6.10pm departure for Fishguard, its second journey across the Irish Sea that day.
After Dublin, Rosslare is the second-busiest Irish port for “roll-on, roll-off” (“ro-ro”) lorry traffic. Rosslare handles 130,000 road freight units a year, the bulk of that – about 100,000 units – going in and out of Britain. Carr acknowledges that, due to Brexit, there will inevitably be delays from March 30th.
“It will be a small bit of chaos but we will handle it,” he said.
He estimates that 70 per cent of freight coming into Rosslare is carrying some kind of food or agricultural product. In a hard Brexit, this would have to be checked under strict EU animal and food safety rules. These are the “sanitary and phytosanitary” regulations that complicate post-Brexit trade the most.
“Nothing gets checked today unless it is something that has been profiled and targeted. Technically, everything could be checked after Brexit,” he said.
Representing the port's owner, Irish Rail, Carr is unusually upbeat about Brexit, despite the potential disruption and congestion it could bring. He sees Rosslare's future growth coming from being "a natural release valve" for Dublin Port, which handles almost 90 per cent of all road freight on the island.
“We can take in double the number of ships here tomorrow without any real change of hardship on us; we have the capacity,” he said, noting that the port’s four berths are only in use 38 per cent of the time.
‘Gateway into Europe’
Carr sees Rosslare becoming Ireland’s “gateway into Europe” for direct services given that it is the closest Irish port to mainland Europe. There will be greater demand for these sailings if the “landbridge” in Britain is shut off post-Brexit.
“That’s what the hauliers are asking for,” he said.
“We estimate that there are about 150,000 trailers using the landbridge going on to Europe. A sizable percentage of them, we believe, may have to change if the ports and the landbridge becomes onerous on them. We believe Rosslare is ideally positioned to take advantage of that.”
The Co Wexford port manages four sailings to and from Wales daily, two in the morning and two in the evening, and three direct sailings a week to Cherbourg in France. Irish Ferries and Stena are the port's two main customers.
Carr admits that the pre-Christmas announcement by Irish Ferries that it was “unlikely” to operate a ferry service between Rosslare and France this summer was “disappointing”.
“That’s 10 per cent of our business gone; €1.2 million off our bottom line,” said the manager. “They are still a very important customer for us but we have got to go out and find a customer to service that route. The hauliers don’t want to go up to Dublin. They are frustrated by having to go up to Dublin.”
The port is in talks with shipping lines on possible new direct routes from Rosslare to France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain. Carr suggests the State or the EU should even provide financial support to help shipping companies through the initial 18- to 24-month teething period on new direct sailings.
“We are talking to a couple of companies. There is a little bit of a gap commercially for them and the risk might be too big of an ask initially. However, with some support, they may be willing,” he said.
Cherbourg is 18 hours on a ferry from Rosslare and while the landbridge would, even with delays of eight hours at UK ports, still be quicker, the certainty of an alternative route to the rest of the EU, free of congestion and customs checks and inspections, will become more attractive for hauliers and traders.
Carr sees potential for link-ups with other ports in Normandy and established global shipping routes through ports such as Le Havre, and for freight travelling on rail out of Cherbourg and onto Paris three hours later.
“Brexit, for me, is about how can we maximise the opportunity,” said Carr.
In Rosslare’s passenger terminal, Carr points out a corner spot where the port might open a duty-free shop, believing Brexit could bring new travellers – duty-free shoppers – through the port.
But Carr’s attention is very much on his main customers: the shipping lines and hauliers. Local freight firms believe Rosslare has lost out to Dublin over the years on increased ferry connections to Britain and beyond.
Kevin Nolan, of New Ross-based Nolan Transport, says Rosslare is attractive because it is the best located port for serving Britain south of Birmingham and does not have Dublin's traffic. It will also become even closer to Irish markets with road upgrades on the N11 from Dublin and the N25 to Cork via Waterford. Road access to Fishguard and Pembroke is also a lot less congested than English ports served from Dublin, he says.
"Brexit just might be good for Rosslare, as it has the space and capacity to increase; it just needs investment," said Nolan, whose firm is the largest Irish-owned freight company operating in the "ro-ro" market between Ireland, Britain and Europe.
Carr says the investment is coming; regardless of Brexit, there were plans to invest €25 million in the port. The plans include building a longer berth for much bigger ships and more than doubling the number of spaces (to 800) for unaccompanied trailers once the existing customs checkpoints, which date back to the 1980s and are a sign of the underinvestment in the port, are moved.
Unaccompanied transport could be a greater presence in Irish ports, given the worldwide shortage of lorry drivers and increased Brexit-induced pressure on driver-accompanied loads navigating the UK landbridge.
"Brexit is going to have to lead to a big shift in the thinking of customers and hauliers," said Chris Smith, commercial director of Wexford-based Perennial Freight, which only handles unaccompanied trailers.
Smith, whose firm moves 35,000 loads a year in and out of Ireland, says that, post-Brexit, more supplies of fruit will have to come direct from Europe, meaning longer transit times, maybe by a day or two.
“The days of going via the UK with driver-accompanied are numbered. There will have to be a sea change,” he said.
Businesses near the port see the potential for a lift from the UK leaving the EU. Rosslare Harbour has struggled to recover from the recession. Shuttered hotels and businesses dominate the surrounding streets.
"It is a massive opportunity for the area, for the port especially," said Alan Murphy, owner of the nearby SuperValu, who rosters extra staff for the additional customers buying lunches before boarding France-bound ferries.
“Being the closest port to mainland Europe for trucks, especially to avoid the UK landbridge, Rosslare is the obvious place to go from. It seems to be obvious to everybody but Irish Ferries.”
Carr concedes that the port’s target growth of at least 20 per cent over the coming years is “more challenging” after Irish Ferries moved the direct sailing to France to Dublin.
The four hours saved on a shorter sea journey from Rosslare could be made up on the road; most Irish cities can be reached in that time, he says. At certain times of the day, it can be take longer to drive from Swords to Bray than from Bray to Rosslare, says Carr, who, as a resident of Rathcoole in west Dublin, knows all about the congestion on Dublin's M50.
“You can’t just keep shovelling everything into Dublin,” he said.
His elevator pitch for growing Rosslare’s business is: “We are easy to get to, easy to get into and easy to get out of.”
Standing high above the port on the walkway around “The Tower”, Carr sees a “whole new world post-Brexit” on the horizon. “A whole new world of opportunities, hopefully,” he adds.
Brexit and Rosslare in numbers . . .
77 – staff employed at Rosslare Europort
€10.6 million – port’s annual turnover
€1.2 million – impact on turnover from Irish Ferries pulling its Rosslare-France ferry this year
100,000 – freight unit traffic between Rosslare and Welsh ports every year
70% – estimated percentage of freight coming into Rosslare carrying food or agricultural product to be checked in a hard Brexit
30 – additional customs officials being assigned to Rosslare for Brexit-related checks