This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Tuesday April 24th
Up to last Friday it was difficult to find a good visual representation for Brexit in Ireland.
Yes, there were maps showing the six counties in one colour and the 26 in another, but apart from those or some grainy photos of border posts and black coated customs men standing behind old tin signs emblazoned “Stad”, there were few clear, defining symbols for Brexit in an Irish context.
That all changed last Friday.
The change came in the form of a ship. But not just any ship. This one, christened the MV Celine by the Taoiseach and assorted other lesser celebrities, is the world’s largest short sea, roll-on roll-off cargo vessel. It will directly connect Ireland to the European continent via Rotterdam and Zeebrugge, by-passing the UK entirely.
As images go, it is an impressive one. But the image-makers real triumph lay in finding an appropriate nickname for the newly named ship. While “Celine” may be the official name that adorns the ship’s champagne drenched hull, the spinners on the quayside were intent that the media – and by extension we – call it by their chosen soubriquet: “the Brexit Buster”.
What a coupling, a damned big ship with an on-message nickname. It is a neat piece of messaging, conveying the impression that Ireland is ready and prepared for the worst that Brexit can throw at us.
The MV Celine’s statistics are striking. At 234m in length, the Celine is, in terms of capacity, twice the size of any other ferry currently operating out of Dublin Port. It can hold 580 standard truck trailers along 8km of parking lanes.
But size isn’t everything. The real significance of the MV Celine is that it points to our post Brexit trading future. A future where Ireland’s EU27 imports and exports no longer must go via the UK and suffer the hassle, time delay and cost of having to going through not one, but two, sets of customs and border patrols as they enter and then exit the UK.
This is important as around 80% of Irish road freight, destined for the rest of the EU, goes across the UK. This is what some call our land bridge to EU, though it is hardly much of a land bridge when you must take a ferry at each end.
If you want a sense of the scale and extent of the delay and inconvenience we will may face in the worst post Brexit scenarios, then consider this simple fact: goods going through Dover from outside the EU take 15 times longer to process compared to those coming from within the EU (45 minutes from outside versus 3 minutes from inside).
Can you imagine the accumulated tail backs there will be at British ports? Now, multiply all those delays by two as Irish goods going to or from the EU across the UK will have to face those potential delays twice: once as they enter the UK and once as they leave it.
In the absence of some alternative direct routes, the UK’s national customs computer system will be handling both the inward declarations of Irish exports to the UK and the transit of Irish goods travelling through the UK and on to mainland Europe.
But, the UK’s national customs computer system is due to be replaced, with the new Customs Declaration Service (CDS) system due to launch in January 2019, two months before the UK brexits. As if that were not worrying enough, a UK National Audit Office 2017 review of the UK customs computer system’s readiness for Brexit found that
“…there is still a significant amount of work to complete, and there is a risk that HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) will not have the full functionality and scope of CDS in place by March 2019…”
So, assuming the British government does what it currently says it will and exits both the Customs Union and the Single Market as well as the EU, then it is essential that Ireland to look for better routes to send our good to and from the rest of Europe.
These routes are vital for us as an island nation as seaborne freight accounts for 84% of Ireland’s trade in terms of volume and 62% in terms of its value. It is also highly focused on one location with 46% of all seaborne trade (by volume) passing through Dublin Port.
But, impressive as the MV Celine may be, one ship is not going to be the solution to our problems. Neither will two or three such vessels.
The real value and importance of the MV Celine right now is not the number of trucks she can carry every 38 hours to Belgium or Holland, but rather in the policy course she sets. Should we now be looking at developing new direct shipping routes with mainland Europe, particularly with France, Belgium and the Netherlands?
But that question begets another one, are we right to assume that all these new routes should have Dublin port as their Irish hub? Should we not now be seriously evaluating our infrastructure capacity and looking to develop other Irish ports to serve these new shipping routes?
Some 60% of the trade at Dublin Port involves the UK – would it not make more sense, especially as they are investing in new customs and border facilities at the port, to make Dublin the key point of entry for our UK only good traffic, along with Drogheda and some other ports along the eastern seaboard?
Might this be a way of freeing up some extremely valuable land in and around Dublin Port for much needed high-density development in the centre of the city? Might Brexit planning provide an opportunity for dusting off the PD’s 2006 New Quarter proposal, though this time with a more sensible and scaled down version that does not see the whole of Dublin Port shut down and shipped Northwards.
We should be considering expanding Rosslare and/or developing a new purpose-built port along the South East or Southern coasts to serve the new fast EU shipping routes?
One of the potential attraction of Rosslare, as Irish Rail was keen to tell the Seanad Special Select Committee on Brexit, is that Irish Rail is the port authority for Rosslare-Europort and so investment plans could be put in place that do not impact on the debt levels of Irish semi-state-owned ports. Not only that but including Irish ports in the trans-European transport policy (TEN-T) could mean EU infrastructural funding for the “necessary modifications to Irish ports”.
Modification is an understatement. Increased direct shipping volumes with mainland Europe would require major infrastructural investment to provide modern facilities that provide for the speedy and high-tech loading of these faster roll-on/roll off vessels.
Perhaps the image of the ship is all the government wants just for now and so it sees its job as done, for now.
Hopefully this is not the case, though it often seems to be this government’s modus operandi. Hopefully there are contingency plans sitting on a desk somewhere while Ministers and officials wait to see if Theresa May eventually opts, when all other avenues are hopefully closed off, to take the avenue of keeping the UK in either “a” or “the” Customs Union and “a” or “the” Single Market.
If she doesn’t, then we will have very little time to act. So, now is a good time to start the feasibility planning and commence talking to a variety of international experts who know how to build, equip and run these modern ports?
Maybe that way we can turn the floating impression that Ireland is ready and prepared for Brexit into a more anchored reality.