Thursday, 21 November 2019

Ceisteanna (8)

James Browne

Ceist:

8. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he has discussed the ownership of Rosslare Europort with his UK counterpart; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47710/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Transport)

I thank the House, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Minister for facilitating me in taking this question on behalf of Deputy Browne, who has been called away. We both represent the south east in Waterford and Wexford. Has the Minister discussed the ownership of Rosslare Europort with his UK counterpart? As we are all aware, Rosslare Europort's ownership status is complex.

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.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer. He correctly noted that Rosslare Port is unique, and outlined its history and how it was established. It is a joint venture between Iarnród Éireann, which operates Rosslare Port, and Stena Line, which operates Fishguard Port in Wales. These companies are responsible for the management of their respective ports, with the profits and liabilities of each port remaining with the operating company. However, the overall company structure stems from the original UK legislation. I welcome the fact that the Minister will make contact with his UK counterpart after the British general election and that he met the previous UK minister on three occasions.

This area is extremely problematic for a number of reasons. First, the complex ownership structure of Rosslare Europort has very much harmed the port's economic development. While all other ports in Ireland are owned and operated by an independent port authority, or by a local authority in the case of smaller ports, Rosslare Europort's status is much less clear. Second, given the port's strategic importance to the island of Ireland, it would be wrong to leave it in the control of a foreign country, particularly as that country prepares to exit the European Union. I acknowledge that this is a very complex issue, but it is vital that Ireland regains control of this port to ensure it plays a role in preserving our export capacity.

I have some sympathy with what the Deputy says, although I do not think the way the port operates creates any great obstructions. The structure of the port is strange and dates back over 150 years. If Deputy Butler or Deputy Browne has any concrete evidence that that structure is causing problems, I would be happy to ask my officials to examine the matter with a view to introducing legislation both here and in the UK to change the structure, if it is beneficial to do so. At the moment, while it is somewhat archaic and anomalous, the fact that Iarnród Éireann is running Rosslare Port does not seem to be an immediate disadvantage. The Deputy will be aware that there is a master plan in place for investing a large amount of money in the port. That investment by Iarnród Éireann does not seem to be hindered in any way by the port's peculiar structure and is a vote of confidence in the future of Rosslare Port. It includes an investment of €1.6 million from profits in 2018, and other investments which I can go into further.

I take the Minister's point that the port's structure dates back over 150 years but, unfortunately, with Brexit looming, the uncertainty around the future of the port must be addressed. I refer to another issue relating to the south east, which I also raised in the Dáil yesterday. The region has the highest unemployment rate in the country, according to the latest data from the Central Statistics Office. Unemployment in the south east stands at 7.3%, which is 2.1% above the national average. The importance of Rosslare and Waterford ports from an economic point of view cannot be underestimated. Waterford Port has a great opportunity to move forward because it does not trade with the UK directly and is not in competition with Rosslare Port. It is important to make that point. We need certainty on the future of Rosslare Port in light of Brexit.

I am not unsympathetic to Deputies who make the case for the south east. Developments in the region are promising and I continue to encourage them in any way I can. The opportunities for Rosslare Port are recognised by the proposed investment of €25 million by Iarnród Éireann. That investment is a vote of confidence in Rosslare Port and its future. Brexit is not a completely negative story for every port in Ireland. I gather that Rosslare Port is looking for potential opportunities arising from Brexit. It is completing the final stages of a master plan, which includes investment of €25 million. Some €1.8 million will be spent every year for the next five years on general renewal and maintenance. A further €12.5 million will be spent on the extension of berths 3 and 4 from 190 m to 220 m, with a double link span to cater for longer ships in future and two-tier vessels. That sounds like confidence to me. Some €1.5 million will be invested in information technology and creating a smart and automated port which will include vehicle recognition systems, trailer tracking systems, compound management and check-in and check-out systems. A further €3.5 million will be spent on configuration for future requirements.

That is an indication of the fact that Rosslare has a bright future.