The Government is committed to maintaining and expanding the Irish registered merchant fleet in order to maximise the job opportunities in the shipping sector, to improve services available to customers and to ensure the highest standards of safety.
In line with that commitment, an overall review of shipping policy has been initiated with a view to identifying the strategies necessary to achieve improved competitiveness, operating standards and modernisation of the Irish merchant fleet. Consideration is being given in particular to ways in which the regulatory and fiscal climate for the shipping sector can be enhanced in order to support those objectives. The review is being undertaken in close consultation with the industry. In that context, the Department is currently examining a number of proposals put forward recently by the Irish Chamber of Shipping for fiscal and operational incentives to support the sector's continued development. Further discussions will take place with the Irish Chamber of Shipping shortly with a view to developing the substantive case for such support.
The review is also being conducted in the context of efforts at Community level to identify positive measures which would enable Community fleets to compete more effectively while at the same time ensuring against distortions of competition between member states. We will continue to support efforts to arrest the decline in Community fleets through the introduction of harmonised support measures on a Community-wide basis, while maintaining high standards of quality, reliability and safety.
I am determined to ensure the continued viability and growth of the Irish shipping industry to service the needs of Irish importers and exporters as well as a revenue earner in its own right. The fact that, as the Deputy points out, 20 per cent only of Irish trade is carried in Irish ships serves to underline the potential which exists for Irish-based shipping activity. Additional Irish ships operating competitively in the short sea routes to mainland Europe could pick up a significant proportion of that business, with consequent benefits in terms of balance of payments and seagoing employment.
The provision of high quality access transport services to and from Ireland is, of course, critical if we are to overcome the competitive disadvantages resulting from our island status and peripheral location. The case for redressing this imbalance through the provision of EC funding for access transport has been vigorously pursued with the Commission. The Commission's continued difficulties with the Irish case for assistance for mobile assets is, frankly, quite disappointing. But the Government remains satisfied that the case is fully justified for practical measures to offset the unique disadvantages faced by this country. Accordingly, we will continue to press for EC support for access transport services.
As I have indicated, the present review of shipping policy is examining the case for fiscal and other incentives to assist the industry including the specific measures referred to by the Deputy. Decisions as to the nature and scope of changes which might be sought under the Finance Act will depend on the outcome of that review process.