British troops famously left through Dunkirk in wartime but the French port is to become a valuable entry point for Ireland into mainland Europe in the wake of Britain's departure from the EU.
Danish shipping line DFDS announced on Friday that a new daily service between Rosslare Europort and Dunkirk that will bypass Britain and serve as another transit route to Europe for Irish importers and exporters.
It will alow them to avoid expected Brexit-related border delays on the UK "landbridge" route and shave hours off the journey for lorries landing at Cherbourg destined for important export markets for Irish companies in the Benelux countries, Germany and beyond.
Certainty of travel
The direct ferry, taking between 22 and 24 hours, will not be quicker than the landbridge, which can take 13 hours, but the certainty of travel will help traders plan the transport of time-sensitive goods and avoid unpredictable delays due to the need for EU-UK border checks from January 1st.
Arriving directly from Ireland into Dunkirk, which is some 15km from the Belgian border, the service will give Irish traders and transport companies access to major European motorway networks.
The Danish shipping company announced the new roll-on, roll-off service for road freight and passengers this morning in a statement to the Copenhagen stock exchange.
The company said that the new ferry route, bypassing the UK after Brexit, would offer trucks and their drivers "direct and paperless transport between EU countries."
The company said that the port of Dunkirk "is a gateway to Ireland's top export markets - France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands - and a host of secondary markets."
Additional capacity has been chartered to deploy three freight and passenger ferries on the route that will be “a cost-efficient alternative to driving through the UK,” DFDS said.
“We are extremely pleased to offer Irish and other European businesses a cost-efficient way of trading directly with each other,” said Torben Carlson, chief executive of DFDS.
“There will be no customs formalities or possible waiting times that the Brexit transition potentially may bring about for trucks passing through the UK.”
The three ferries will ensure that there will be six departures over the course of the week in each direction. Each ferry can carry up to 125 trucks and drivers in single cabins to protect against Covid-19. The company estimates that the crossing time will be 24 hours.
“Upon arrival in Dunkirk or Rosslare, truck drivers will be fully rested and immediately able to reach many major destinations within the legal driving limit,” the company said.
The route is expected to generate revenues of €40 million in 2022 and is joined owned by Irish interests with the company overseeing the route led by managing director Aidan Coffey.
Responding to news of the route Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said: “We’re working hard to minimise disruption and delays for hauliers using the Britain landbridge to get to the continent next year. But alternatives like this new direct connection by sea will help.”
Separately, European shipping line CLdN, which already operates services between Ireland and continental Europe, is adding a second weekly service between Cork and Zeebrugge in Belgium, one of Europe’s busiest sea ports, in light of Brexit coming into effect in January.
The company has been increasing its services and capacity on routes between Ireland and Europe in anticipation of potential traffic constraints on ferries serving the landbridge route and greater demand from Irish companies seeking to transport directly to mainland Europe.
CLdN will offer eight direct sailings per week in each direction between Ireland and the ports of Zeebrugge and Rotterdam on mainland Europe with capacity to carry more than a quarter of a million cargo units annually, including on its so-called “Brexit buster” ferry MV Celine.
“As we have shown and continue to deliver, we will deploy larger vessels or add more frequency to match demand to and from Ireland and will react immediately the market signals a requirement, as we see the Irish market as a core route in our portfolio,” said a spokesman.
The company’s ships are largely for container and unaccompanied lorry trailer traffic with the capacity to transport a small number of driver-accompanied freight trailers.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin urged businesses this week to “trial” direct routes to Europe to transport goods in case there are delays on the landbridge after Brexit comes into effect next year. The UK government has warned about the potential for lengthy delays and kilometres-long queues of lorries heading into the English Channel ports as a result of post-Brexit checks.
Cherbourg, which will be served by daily ferries from Dublin and Rosslare from January, currently provides the closest direct sea route to these areas but the port is five hours further west. This distance limits onward lorry journeys due to highly regulated limits on driver hours.
The length of the journey means drivers will, unlike on the landbridge, not have used up any of their daily driving hours by the time they arrive in France.
"Dunkirk will mean that we can go into a far bigger market close to big cities," said Eugene Drennan, president of the Irish Road Haulage Association, who said the route would provide "surety" to the sector.
The move sees DFDS, a major shipping line operating 55 ferries on 24 routes, return to the market having sold its Irish Sea routes to Stena Line in 2010.