Ports uneconomic in era of big ships: minister

Transport Minister Leo Varadkar is planning to close down some of the small cargo ports around the country.

In an interview with the Irish Independent, Varadkar said some ports were only taking in one ship a week, but were fully staffed and losing money heavily.

He said some of the smaller ports would be turned into harbors for fishing and water sports or mothballed for a period.

"The business has changed," he said. "It's increasingly about big ships, really big ships, going in and out of deep-water ports -- not smaller ships going in and out of tidal ports. And that's what's really changed. That's the way the business is going."

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The minister's comments will leave a threat hanging over the ports in Galway, New Ross, Arklow, Waterford, Dundalk and Drogheda -- although he didn't mention any specific locations.

Varadkar said the approach proposed in two reports on his desk -- the Ports Review and Colm McCarthy's report of state assets -- is the consolidation of ports.

"It makes a lot of sense to me. Some of the ports could go back to being harbours. Instead of being commercial ports, they could go back to being harbours under the control of the local authority, rather than being cargo ports," he said.

"There's some of those ports now are getting one ship a week. They've got a CEO on €100,000, a harbor master, staff and there's one ship coming in a week. And that's not going to change when the economy recovers. It's because the big ports, which are also under my control, are taking all the business."

Varadkar said he was not planning any "big-bang" decision but the question would be addressed on an individual port-by-port basis and some ports already had plans to adapt to the changing nature of the business.

The minister accepted there would be some opposition in the local areas to any effort to downgrade the ports.

"I think there will be local opposition because there will be opposition to everything, all change, that's just the nature of things. But I think people are more realistic now than they were in the past," he said.

"It's just accepting reality. Or you can have ports that work on an on-call basis. They are effectively an amenity and they are kind of mothballed and they can be reopened for ships as they come in."

The minister's comments come as he has been given details of a range of initiatives aimed at streamlining the country's export infrastructure by Shannon Foynes Port Company (SFPC).

The country's second largest port company says the initiatives will help enhance job creation in the sector while sending out a message that "Ireland is open for business".

Speaking after a briefing at the company's headquarters in Foynes, SFPC chief executive Pat Keating described their first engagement with Varadkar as "very positive."