Ports across Ireland's Brexit divide reaffirm unity on UN project

12 April 2018

The Northern Irish port of Belfast and its Irish counterparts of Cork and Dublin sign an agreement to bolster UNCTAD's work with ports in Africa and Asia.

Ports sitting on opposite sides of a future Brexit border on the island of Ireland have signed a new agreement with UNCTAD, reaffirming their commitment to work together to help counterparts in Africa and Asia boost productivity.

A four-year memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the UN trade body was signed between the ports of Cork and Dublin, both located in the Republic of Ireland, and the port of Belfast in Northern Ireland. All three are longstanding partners of UNCTAD’s TrainForTrade Port Management Programme.

Since more than 80% of global trade travels by water – mostly by sea but also by river – a country’s ability to do business with the world depends on the efficiency of its ports. And long delays in ports in many developing countries make the goods their companies export less competitive and the products they import more expensive.

In Africa, for example, containers wait in terminals for an average of three weeks before being shipped to their final destination – three times longer than in other emerging markets. Such delays add up to 10% to the price of imports, and even more to exports, according to some estimates.

What you see in front of you is an all-Ireland approach to these really important issues,” the Republic of Ireland’s top representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Ambassador Michael Gaffey, told port managers from around the globe gathered in Geneva for a meeting on measuring port performance.

“This is an important programme for Ireland and it’s an important programme for Irish Aid,” Mr. Gaffey said during the 11 April signing ceremony.

“We’ve been supporting the English-speaking network of the port management programme since its launch in 2007. And we continued to support it even when our aid programme was under enormous pressure and threat during the financial crisis,” said Mr. Gaffey, a former head of his country’s foreign development body, Irish Aid.

“We did not cut our support for this programme because this programme is really vital for development,” he said, adding that evaluations done by Irish Aid, the programme’s main financial donor, have identified TrainForTrade as an example of best practice.

Hailing the quality of the TrainForTrade programme, Pat Ward, the head of employee relations for the Republic of Ireland’s biggest sea port, said: “It gives me great pleasure on behalf of Dublin Port Company to attend today’s event and to sign off on the next chapter of our work with UNCTAD.”

Paul O’Regan, Port of Cork’s harbour master and operations manager, added: “The core knowledge and the content of the programme is probably the most relevant I’ve seen in any progamme I’ve ever done.”

Building networks

“Ports, and indeed airports, are gateways to our particular countries. They have to be open. They have to be effective. They have to be efficient. And they have to be part of a much wider network,” Mr. O’Regan said.

“This particular programme does that,” he added.

Indeed, the TrainForTrade Port Management Programme consists of three networks – Spanish, English and French – based on the primary languages of those involved.

Started in 1996 in ports in the French-speaking African nations of Benin, Gabon and Senegal, the programme has since expanded to more than 200 ports in 34 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Cork, Dublin and Belfast signed up to support the English-speaking members, which are currently Ghana and Nigeria in Africa, and Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in Asia.

Beyond numbers

“For over 10 years now, our port partners from Ireland and Northern Ireland have played a central role in fostering the activities of the English-speaking network of the port management programme,” UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Isabelle Durant said at the ceremony, held in the Palais des Nations, the UN’s European headquarters.

“Their support has produced impressive outputs,” she said, which include the training of more than 850 senior and mid-level managers.

But the impact goes beyond numbers, and the training course has become a “major change-maker” in the career of graduates, Ms. Durant said, citing the example of Ghana, where the ports and harbours authority has made the course mandatory for promotion and increased responsibilities for middle managers.

“The agreement that we are going to sign today will give these activities a new impetus and will allow us to reinforce our efforts in favour of developing countries’ port communities,” she said.

Under the agreement, the ports of Belfast, Cork and Dublin commit to:

  • Help update the course material

  • Host training of trainers workshops for local instructors in Africa and Asia

  • Organize coordination meetings to bring together the programme’s main beneficiaries and partners

  • Send senior managers to lead training modules in ports in Africa and Asia

  • Support the development of a digital platform for the programme

Getting as much as you give

But for the representatives of the three ports, it’s as much about learning as it is about teaching.

“We get as much from this programme as we give,” Mr. O’Regan said.  

“We initially come in as so-called modern ports to share our knowledge. And I think what we learn when we leave the table…is that all of the other ports have as much to give us as we have to give them,” he added.

Port of Belfast Harbour Master Kevin Allen added: “We approach this very much from a learning context. We have something to learn from ports in countries that are starting the journey of improving trade.”

Competitors and collaborators

Mr. Allen said the ports of the island of Ireland are competitors but also “collaborators in terms of making an all-Ireland economy function and succeed.”

Collaboration will be crucial to overcoming the challenges that may arise when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland exits the European Union, set for March 2019.

Brexit has created a new challenge for building an all-Ireland economy, Mr. Allen said, “But the willingness is there…to make trade work.”

The MoU’s signing took place just one day after the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a peace deal that helped end many decades of political violence in Northern Ireland. It also comes at a time when businesses and transport companies across Europe are trying to understand how the UK’s looming exit from the European Union will affect trade routes.

The UK and the Republic of Ireland both joined the European common market in 1973, allowing importers and exporters on the island to use both countries as a gateway to other European markets.

But Brexit has stoked fears of new checks and customs hurdles when goods from the remaining 27 EU member states pass through UK ports, which include Belfast, or when British goods arrive to the Republic of Ireland.

London, Dublin and Brussels agreed in December to avoid controls on the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. But according to Dublin Port Chief Executive Officer Eamonn O’Reilly in a Financial Times article, the deal didn’t cover the sea border that would come into play between the two.

From 200,000 to 1 million

The Republic of Ireland therefore plans to finish building new customs booths and freight inspection points in Dublin this year. The port currently imports about 1.3 million containers or trailers a year, of which just 200,000 must go through customs checks because the rest are shipped from within the EU.

“Once Brexit happens, 200,000 increases to one million,” Mr. O’Reilly said.