'Upturn' in Belfast Harbour trade

By Eddie O'Gorman
BBC NI business reporter

Image caption,
Over the past few years Belfast Harbour has invested considerably in new infrastructure

Belfast Harbour has suggested that an upturn in trade through the Port during the first quarter of 2010 may indicate that the Northern Ireland economy is over the worst of the economic downturn.

The upbeat assessment was made as the Harbour Authority published its 2009 Annual Report which reflected an increase in turnover of £400,000 to £33.1m, and a £300,000 rise in operating profits to £15.1m.

Profits before taxation and exceptional item stood at £19m.

The exceptional item relates to a £13.9m contribution towards the new Titanic Signature Building in Titanic Quarter.

There were a number of other capital investment projects with a total value of £24m, including the development of the island's longest deep-water berth.

Overall trade during 2009 fell by 4% to 15.7m tonnes, reflecting the continuing impact of the difficult trading environment in the economy generally.

Belfast, however, outperformed Irish ports such as Dublin and Cork, and increased its market share of the Irish Sea roll-on/roll-off sector to 20%.

Trades associated with the agri-food sector recorded double digit growth and passenger numbers increased by 3% to £1.33m.

Major projects

The chairman of Belfast Harbour, Len O'Hagan, said that trading figures from the start of the year suggested there has been an upturn in business activity.

"Last year was a difficult year for the economy," Mr O'Hagan said.

"But initial figures from quarter one of this year suggest that economic activity is on the up with both imports and exports through the Port increasing."

He said that the uncertain economic climate had slowed down the pace of investment.

But even so, a number of major projects had been initiated or completed, not least the Titanic Signature Building which is also supported by the Northern Ireland Executive, Belfast City Council and Titanic Quarter Ltd.

Mr O'Hagan described it as "the single most important regeneration project under way" in Belfast Harbour Estate and one which would help drive significant tourism and investment interest in Northern Ireland generally.

"Maritime related projects include a major upgrade of the Harbour's road access at Dargan to Northern Ireland's motorway network; an extension of our deep-water facilities which were used by 35 cruise ships; a 70% increase in handling capacity for paper imports and a new £6m storage facility for the agri-food sector.

"Over the past few years Belfast Harbour has invested heavily in new infrastructure and we will continue to upgrade and develop new facilities to meet the long-term demands of the local economy," he said.

The report noted other regeneration projects within the Harbour Estate, such as the completion of a 50,000 square foot facility by the Northern Ireland Science Park, continuing work at the new campus of Belfast Metropolitan College, and the new headquarters for PRONI, all located within Titanic Quarter.

Mr O'Hagan said that the Tall Ships Festival in August 2009 had attracted up to 500,000 visitors, making it Northern Ireland's largest ever outdoor event.

A further 10,000 people visited Belfast Harbour Office, attending charitable, education and business-related events facilitated by the Harbour Authority as part of its community programme.