Taskforce to battle for Rosslare
At a stormy crisis meeting, councillors were loud in their condemnation of the Irish Ferries' proposal to axe their Rosslare-France service. Maria Pepper reports
Wexford County Council is to set up an all-party taskforce committee in response to an announcement by Irish Ferries that it is 'unlikely' to operate a ferry service between Rosslare Harbour and France this summer.
Councillors decided on the action at an emergency meeting of Wexford County Council which was attended by port manager Glenn Carr who came in for criticism over Irish Rail's longstanding neglect of Rosslare Harbour but was also asked by members how the local authority could support him in securing new business and developing the port.
According to councillors, the announcement by Irish Ferries that it is pulling out of Rosslare Harbour after 40 years, sent shock reverberations not just throughout the county but the south east region which has benefited from the tourism spin-off.
Glenn Carr revealed that Irish Rail was only informed of the decision an hour before the announcement and said 'the news has been very disappointing for us'.
He defended a decision to bring the new Irish Ferries WB Yeats ship to Rosslare Harbour on a trial, a day after the announcement, which many local people felt added insult to injury.
'I thought it was important that the ship be brought in, to show that Rosslare Harbour could handle the vessel and the trials were successfully completed. There is nothing in Rosslare to restrict the vessel. I thought it was important that the vessel be brought in to allay any fears', he said.
Mr. Carr who attended a Council meeting in November to outline Irish Rail's €15 million development plan for the port, also stressed that at no point, did Irish Ferries raise an issue about port fees. He said the reality is that Irish Ferries are going to burn four hours of extra fuel on the journey from Dublin to France, compared to Rosslare.
'The rationale given to us is that from a commercial point of view, it will be easier to fill a huge ship like this from Dublin', he said.
The port manager said that while the news is disappointing, it does not detract from Irish Rail's investment plan and in relation to replacement business -'we are negotiating with other shipping lines as we speak.'
He said he did not wish to say any more as it was commercially sensitive but added that on Christmas Eve, he was contacted by a firm in London, enquiring about the availability of slots in Rosslare.
However, he said Irish Rail needed to ensure that they are not 'cannabilising the existing business that is there'.
'We are working with parties in the best interests of the port to try and generate additional business with the UK, France and Spain but not in a way that dilutes the exising business there'.
Mr. Carr said he had informed Irish Ferries and Stena Line which is continuing to operate a Rosslare service to Cherbourg, that he will be actively pursuing additional business.
County Council chairman Keith Doyle who called the special meeting, said that before this happened, Rosslare Harbour wasn't getting the attention it deserved. He was delighted with the turn-out at the meeting and acknowledged the attendance of Labour leader Brendan Howlin, seated in front of the public gallery.
In response to Cllr. Larry O' Brien who wondered where the other TD's were, Cllr. Doyle said no invitations were issued. ' I would be delighted to see them', he said, adding to Deputy Howlin: 'If only they had the interest to be here'.
Cllr. Lisa McDonald called on Irish Ferries to clarify their plans in relation to Rosslare Harbour. 'If they are not interested, let's deal with people who are interested. The selling point we have is that we offer the shortest route from Ireland to mainland Europe.'
'We have a lot going for us but the problem we have is that Iarnród Eireann are not a port authority, they are a rail company. There is something amiss here, something wrong, when you have Irish Ferries giving up as Brexit is coming in'.
'What is wrong in Rosslare Europort and how exactly can we fix it', she asked, adding that
Rosslare needs Tier 1 status as a port and needs to be made a border customs point, with Brexit just 12 weeks away.
'All councillors need to stand united on this. Rosslare could be the commercial driver of the south east', she said.
Cllr. Ger Carthy wondered why Irish Ferries had not been tied in to a contract as it is in Pembroke and said he would have concerns that a port authority in Dublin was able to secure the services of Irish Ferries and a new ship and Irish Rail knew nothing and said nothing.
He said a taskforce was needed to address the issue, to talk to Irish Ferries and to secure another company to take up the route, otherwise Rosslare is facing a summer with 500 less cars coming in every second day.
He described as 'a load of nonsense', the claim by Irish Ferries that customers indicated a preference to sail from Dublin.
Cllr. David Hynes said the announcement showed 'the complete disrespect they have for Wexford'.
'It doesn't seem to be the case that the Government is interested in Rosslare Harbour. There was no mention of Rosslare in the national plan. We have two Government ministers and five TD's and nothing seems to be happening. Rosslare should be taken over as a stand-along port', he said.
Glenn Carr replied that in order to qualify for Tier 1 status, a port must receive 15% of the national tonnage as set out y the EU.
He wasn't here to dwell on the past and the port ownership issue had nothing to do with Irish Ferries deciding to operate the ship from Dublin. 'I'm not here to say that Irish Rail will give up the port', he said.
In relation to Irish Ferries having a 30-year contract in Pembroke, he said they are the dominant player there. 'Are you saying we should offer an exclusive deal wo one shipper'.
Cllr. Carthy replied: 'They should have been contracted in the harbour. They're free to come and go and destroy the local economy'.
'Have you as an organisation met with Irish Ferries and said don't leave the port'.
Mr. Carr said Irish Rail met with Irish Ferries eight weeks before and at no stage during that meeting did Irish Ferries indicate that they were planning to withdraw any service.
After Mr. Carr criticised councillors for quoting incorrect figures in relation to planned Irish Rail investment in Rosslare, Cllr. McDonald said Mr. Carr went on the radio and outlined different figures than those he presented to the Council, so they should publish a report and make it clear.
'You took profits from the port during the recession to support the train and bus service. You now want us to forget about the past. We need to strategically develop the port and with your plan that is not going to happen', she said.
Cllr. Michael Whelan said Rosslare is one of very few places where you have a passenger rail line going into the port. Wexford County Council should focus on what it can do to help Rosslare Harbour.
'As a Council, we need to get involved and show the economics of this and how we can change it'.
Cllr. Martin Murphy asked how advanced the negotiations are in relation to a ferry link with Spain and said this could be the way to go with over a million people living in the south east corner of Ireland.
Cllr. Michael Sheehan said 'all of us across the county were shocked to hear the news'.
'When you gave that presentation to us, it was very upbeat, very positive. We didn't know this news was going to come down the line. They knew it was coming but never said, that was very disgenuous of them'.
'I think what we should be doing is establishing a cross-party taskforce, to sit down and say this is what Rosslare needs. We should be asking the Director or the CE0 to come forward with plans, setting down what incentives we need from the government, for the development of Rosslare, rather than criticising someone who had no hand, act or part in the decision. I formally propose we do that and get working on a plan for Rosslare'.
Cllr. Fionntáin O' Suilleabháin said he attended a meeting 20 years ago about the need for development in Rosslare Harbour. He wanted to know what the TD's and the ministers have been doing, what pressure they have applied and what vision they have outlined.
Cllr. George Lawlor told Glenn Carr that he respresented an organisation, that in the view of the chamber, had neglected Wexford and drained Rosslare or resources and profits to pour it into 'the black hole of Irish Rail'.
'It's a strategic location not just in County Wexford but on the island of Ireland.'
Cllr.Lawlor said he sensed there was a desire not to upset Stena and keep them happy but he believed the focus should be on Rosslare and on getting 'as much traffic on as many days as we can' in the port.
Asking about the Irish Rail investment, he asked if this was money the company was hoping to get or was it money in the bank.
Cllr. Johnny Mythen said investment is the key to growth but Rosslare has been neglected over the past 15 years, an approach he described as 'disgraceful'.
'We have to have a business plan so that we know exactly where we are going. 65,000 people are not going to be coming through our port this year'.
Mr. Carr said: 'we are absolutely out there trying to chase new shipping business'.
Cllr. Lawlor: If someone asked to go on the same day as Stena, would you say that they can't.'
Mr. Carr replied 'No' and said one of the key findings of a market survey was a lack of frequency from Rosslare for hauliers whereas Dublin has 11 sailings a day going to the UK.
'If I'm a truck driver and I miss a sailing in Rosslare I have to wait around all day to get another sailing to the UK.'
Mr. Carr refuted the suggestion that Irish Rail was influenced by Stena. 'I am not wedded to Stena, Irish Ferries, Sea Truck or whatever'.
'The suggestion that there is some sort of cosy relationship with Stena - I want to absolutely refute that. 'We are in negotiations with three companies in relation to additional sailings.'
He said there is no Government funding for investment in the port and 'all the funding will have to be raised on a commercial basis'.
He said Rosslare has been nominated as a border inspection post which is due to be designed and built on a four-acre site over the next few years by the OPW. 'There is no port in Ireland, the UK or Europe that has all its facilities and is sitting there waiting for Brexit.'
Cllr. Tony Dempsey remarked: 'If anyone here thinks Irish Ferries is going to Dublin to lose money, they are in the wrong place. If it was more profitable to stay in Rosslare, they wouldn't be going to Dublin'.
'What we can do is ask the Minister to set up an autonomous body to manage Rosslare. What we can do is focus on the facilities in Rosslare that are within our control such as access roads, to make it more attractive for international traders to trade in our port'.
Cllr. Paddy Kavanagh said they were told for years that Rosslare wasn't being used as much as it should because it didn't have the infrastructure. Now the infrastructure is there with the imminent opening of two major by-pass roads. 'I though once the by-passes were done, we would get more throughput in Rosslare. That is why the announcement was so shocking but I don't think it's as bleak as it's made out to be. I think it was the initial shock of the news'.
Cllr. Larry O' Brien said there has been a vast improvement in Rosslare since Glenn Carr took over, 'at least you can get a cup of tea'.
Agreeing about the need for increased frequency, he said two sailings leaving Wexford at the same time don't work.
'What we need here today is to support Glenn Carr in his efforts. It's a commercial decision made by a company. there's nothing we can do about it. Let's ask Glenn Carr what we can do to help him get more business in there. We are not going to change a commercial decision no matter how much we talk here today.'
Cllr. Pip Breen said Dublin Port is at capacity and the only viable alternative is Rosslare. 'We need the Minister for Transport to take note of what is happening in Rosslare'.
Cllr. Willie Kavanagh asked about Rosslare's ability to accommodate container traffic while Cllr. Mary Farrell described it as a 'very emotinal issue'.
Cllr. Farrell asked Mr. Carr what can the Council do to help him, if there is no docking issue, no rise in port fees and the Rosslare route is shorter with good access roads.
'What are the underlying issues. What can we do in your opinion'.
Cllr. tony Walsh said it was a 'unifying concern' as 'Wexford is unthinkable without Rosslare Port' and he encouraged long-term thinking.
Cllr. John Fleming asked if it was port charges or a shortage of footfall while Cllr. Barbara Ann Murphy asked the chairman to 'please do not accept any proposal for a deputation because since I came back to the Council, we have not had a single deputation accepted by a minister. We are being totally ignored'.
Glenn Carr said he was not afraid of criticism and he fully understood the target wasn't him but the company he worked for. 'I certainly don't take any offence. It's very heartening to see the passion and the commitment of everyone. I fully recognise the importance of the port to the region.'
He said roads are critically important, and the newby-pass roads are very welcome. One of the customers he is speaking to has been critical of the congestion in Dublin Port.
He said Waterford Port caters for container traffic and putting lift-off facilities in Rosslare would be expensive.
He said there is a gap in the market for Spain as only 5% of tonnage from the country at the moment is going to Spain but he wasn't sure it would work from a passenger point of view as the journey is 32 hours.
'I have issued an invitation for Brittany Ferries to come and talk to us', he said.
'We will do everything that gives us a commercial return for the port. I don't think we will be found wanting when it comes to finding business for the port. We are talking to a number of shipping lines at the moment'.
'It hs been a shock but there is a danger in talking it down too much. There is a danger of putting off potential new customers. My ambition is to make Rosslare easy to get into and easy to get out of'.
'I remain optimistic in relation to the future of Rosslare Harbour and the role it can play in the region'.
The chairman concluded the meeting by asking the Deputy Chief Executive Tony Larkin to come up with a formula for an all-party taskforce which would speak with one voice. 'This is an opportunity to put Rosslare at the heart of what should be a national issue, for the benefit of the region and the country', he said.