I thank Deputy Butler for taking this question on behalf of Deputy Browne, who constantly asks me about this issue and pursues it with a welcome vigour.
Rosslare Europort is unique among the State-owned ports as it is not a commercial company operating under the Harbours Acts, but is instead operated on a commercial basis as a division of Iarnród Éireann. Technically, the port forms part of the Fishguard and Rosslare Railways and Harbours Company, which is a 19th century joint venture company, consisting today of Iarnród Éireann on the Irish side and Stena Line on the Welsh side at Fishguard.
The status of the port, and whether its current status potentially inhibits its development, was considered in a strategic review commissioned by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and carried out by Indecon Economic Consultants. The report concluded that the creation of an independent port authority would be extremely difficult, given the port's complex legal structure. Instead, it was recommended that the port remain in public ownership and that the possibilities for increased private sector involvement be investigated. In order to assist Iarnród Éireann's overall consideration of how best to move forward, the company then engaged consultants to assess market interest. The assessment was largely positive in terms of the potential for increased private sector investment in the port. However, it did identify possible implementation issues due to the complicated legislative basis of the port. Following that assessment, the Department sought and received detailed advice from the Office of the Attorney General on the matter. That advice identified a number of legal issues with any such proposal and those issues are under careful consideration by my Department. If there are any new developments, I will consider them.
I have met my former UK counterpart, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. Chris Grayling, to discuss Brexit matters on three occasions since mid-2017. Our discussions fully respected the mandate of the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Mr. Grayling outlined key areas of concern for the UK in relation to transport. While I did not specifically raise the issue of ownership of Rosslare Europort, I set out the importance of continued transport connectivity between Ireland and the UK, including ports, aviation, road transport and cross-Border rail services. I wrote to the current Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. Grant Shapps, on 12 August congratulating him on his appointment and seeking an early meeting with him. I received a reply on 1 November indicating that it was not possible to arrange such a meeting during the current parliamentary session and suggesting that I make contact again when ministers are appointed following the UK general election on 12 December. I intend to seek such a meeting and will raise the issue of Rosslare at that meeting when arranged.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
I am satisfied that Rosslare Europort, as a division of Iarnród Éireann, is effectively managing operations at the port and looking at the potential of the port to develop further and take advantage of any new opportunities. The port is targeting growth and new business opportunities and has received the approval of the Iarnród Éireann board for a strategic plan to grow the port’s business. Iarnród Éireann and Rosslare Europort briefed my Department late last year on the company's plans for strategic development of the port over the coming years. This includes plans to invest up to €25 million in customer facilities, port infrastructure and assets, and new technology. The port is engaging with a number of potential new shipping customers to supplement existing operators and offer greater choice to freight and passenger business.
Investment in the port is, in the first instance, a matter for its owner, Iarnród Éireann, which is a commercial State body. While EU state aid rules restrict the scope for direct State investment, the company is exploring appropriate investment possibilities in connection with its strategic development plans.
Brexit will have implications for a number of key ports and airports. Rosslare Europort continues to work closely with my Department and a range of other relevant Government Departments and offices in preparing for the additional border controls and other impacts that will arise from Brexit. In this context, my Department is in frequent contact with Rosslare Port management about the infrastructural requirements and other Brexit impacts on the port. I understand also that Rosslare Europort is actively seeking opportunities arising from Brexit to expand shipping services from the port to continental EU ports.