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Good morning ladies and gentleman and many thanks to Ms Kay McGuinness, Chairperson of Shannon Foynes Port Company, and Mr Seán Costelloe, Chairman of the Irish Ports Association, for their kind words of welcome.
The timing and theme of today’s conference is very welcome, in light of the current review of national ports policy, which I announced at the start of the month.
As well as boasting a long and proud maritime tradition, Limerick is of course also famous for its sporting prowess, in particular in this particular venue. There is even a tenuous link between the two, with the Limerick docks having provided much of the brawn behind Limerick’s rugby successes down through the years.
The Shannon Estuary is one of the best deep-water port locations in the country. In this regard I know that Shannon Foynes Port Company continues to play a proactive role in ensuring the full potential of the estuary is capitalised upon.
As a former Minister with responsibility for energy policy, I am particularly conscious of the importance of the estuary for the State’s energy supply. In general, I don’t think the public at large fully appreciates the role the ports play in supplying most of the energy consumed in the country.
North South Cooperation
Again this year, I welcome the participation of the Northern Ireland Minister for Regional Development, Mr Conor Murphy. With significant volumes of port traffic crossing the border in both directions it makes sense to examine ports policy in an all-island context.
The ports sectors North and South are complementary of each other. The existence of efficient modern ports on both sides of the border increases competition and provides a greater choice of routes for exporters and importers.
Like other sectors of the economy, the last couple of years have been very difficult for the ports. Sharp declines were again recorded across all cargo types in 2009.
However, there were signs of stabilisation emerging toward the second half of last year and the latest figures produced by the Irish Maritime Development Office for the 1st half of 2010 show that modest growth has returned to some market segments.
The latest figures also reflect the structural changes that have occurred in the sector over the last few years.
While the figures for all ports are down substantially compared to 2007, it is evident that the market share of the larger ports has increased. Recent growth is not evenly spread among all ports nor among all cargo types.
To some extent this is an acceleration of a long-standing consolidation trend in the market. Economies of scale, larger ships and spare capacity at the larger ports all play a role. As a consequence it is proving more difficult for the smaller ports to weather the storm.
This changed trading environment and the challenges it poses will be a factor to be considered as part of the ports policy review.
Ports Policy Review
This afternoon’s workshop on “Framing a new Ports Policy” provides a useful opportunity for all concerned to voice their views.
The Ports Policy Review is timely given the passage of time since the publication of the original Ports Policy Statement in 2005 and in light of the current challenges facing the sector.
However, it is important that a review of the sector does not just focus on the immediate challenges, but also considers the medium to long-term horizon. It is very important that the ports are in a position to facilitate a return to economic growth and to make their contribution to improving national competitiveness.
The public consultation document is a comprehensive overview of the issues facing the sector today.
Ports are operating in a rapidly changing commercial, technological, and regulatory environment. The national policy framework within which the ports operate needs to keep pace with this change.
Important issues addressed in the document include planning and funding future port developments, the role ports have to play in delivering the “Smarter Travel” agenda, competition within the sector and the corporate governance regime for port companies.
The work of the Review Group of State Assets and Liabilities, chaired by Colm McCarthy, provides an opportunity for the rationale for State ownership of most of the ports to be re-evaluated. The Group’s conclusions will certainly provide interesting input into the policy review process.
Maritime Safety, Security and Environment
One of the areas in which the ports face increased regulation is in relation to maritime safety, security and environmental protection. My Department is working closely with the industry to ensure the regulations it is responsible for are implemented efficiently and effectively.
From the start of next year the Marine Survey Office will be implementing a new inspection regime for Port State Control. This will bring about a big change in the inspection regime for foreign flagged ships calling to Irish ports. It will reward quality shipping with fewer inspections and in turn target resources at ships with a poor safety record.
This new regime will make use of the Safe Seas Ireland system for monitoring ship movements. My Department will continue to develop Safe Seas Ireland in co-operation with the industry to ensure that it meets stakeholders’ needs.
Another important priority for my Department this year is to complete the implementation of the EU Port Security Directive requirements. I would like to congratulate those ports that have already achieved compliant status and to encourage the others to complete this work as soon as possible.
The huge growth in traffic volumes up to 2007 was accommodated by the ports with little or no disruption to trade. During this period the ports also evolved from the outdated structures of the past into fully-fledged commercial entities.
With a renewed policy framework in place, I am confident that the Irish ports will be fit for purpose to meet the challenges and make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.
May I conclude by once again thanking our hosts, Shannon Foynes Port Company, for their efforts in organising this year’s conference.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your attention.