Trade falls between UK and Ireland in first quarter of 2021 but long-term Brexit impact 'too early yet to say'

The equivalent to 7.8 million gross tonnes of traded goods compared between 2021 and 2020 declined. 
Trade falls between UK and Ireland in first quarter of 2021 but long-term Brexit impact 'too early yet to say'

Freight trucks disembark a Stena Ferry at Dublin Port. 

Dublin port figures show trade with the European Union (EU) has risen but fallen to the UK, in the latest figures released this morning for the first quarter of 2021. 

After a strong final quarter of 2020, after a rise in trade volumes by 7.8% in the run-up to Brexit, there was a ‑15.2% decline in Dublin Port’s volumes for the first three months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.

This was the equivalent to 7.8 million gross tonnes of traded goods compared between 2021 and 2020. 

Long-term trends

However, Dublin port’s chief executive, Eamonn O’Reilly said it is too early to establish the long-term effects of Britain's exit from the EU after a weak first quarter in 2021. 

“The first quarter of 2021 was very weak with overall cargo volumes back by 15.2% compared to the first quarter of 2020. This is mainly because of Brexit. However, it is too early yet to say what the long-term effects of Brexit will be and whether the declines we have seen so far in 2021 will persist at the same level for the rest of the year," said Mr Reilly. 

Imports from January to March fell by ‑14.4% to 4.7 million gross tonnes and exports declined by ‑16.6% to 3.1 million gross tonnes.

Figures for Roll on-Roll off (Ro-Ro) and Lift on-Lift off (Lo-Lo) out of Dublin port shows unitised trade accounted for 82% of all cargo volumes in the first quarter of 2021. 

The number of trailers and containers combined fell by ‑11.7% to 318,000 units. Within this, there was a very large decline of 20.1% in Ro‑Ro to 204,000 units. This was offset by an increase in Lo‑Lo of 9.0% to 114,000 units. 

A clear distinction for Ro-Ro volumes for Ireland between the UK and the EU is evident in the 20.1% decline. 

Ro-Ro to and from ports in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands increased by +25.5% to 52,000 units while Ro-Ro to and from GB ports fell by ‑29.0% to 152,000 units in comparison.

For the 318,000 units of Ro-Ro and Lo-Lo trade combined, volumes are now split equally between ports in GB and ports in Continental Europe at 50%. 

Unitised trade with UK ports declined by ‑29.2% to 160,000 units while trade with ports in the EU and elsewhere increased by +17.9% to 158,000 units.

Northern Ireland a concern

The chief executive of Dublin port hopes to re-establish the UK landbridge soon as an option for trade to mainland Europe but said disruption to trade in Northern Ireland is worrying. 

“With two ferry lines (Irish Ferries and P&O) now operating services both from Dublin Port to UK and across the English Channel from Dover to Calais, we are optimistic that the landbridge will re-establish itself as a fast and cost-effective option for the movement of time-sensitive goods to and from Continental Europe in the months ahead.

“The dislocation of a lot of volume to ports in Northern Ireland is, however, worrying. Back in 1990, before the Single European Market was established, more than a third of Ro-Ro trade chose services to and from Northern Irish ports rather than use services in and out of Dublin Port. 

"We won’t get a proper sense until later in the year as to how much of the 29% decline we have seen in UK Ro-Ro trade is due to the new border regimes and whether this dislocation will be a permanent feature for the years ahead or not.

“The only positive thing we are seeing in the figures for the first quarter is the growth of 18% in Ro-Ro and Lo-Lo volumes on direct services with Continental Europe. This confirms that the investment decisions we have been taking in recent years under Masterplan 2040 were correct. 

"It also shows the responsiveness of the shipping market to rapidly provide the capacity needed for the changes in demand patterns which Brexit has caused," said Mr Reilly. 

Passenger numbers

The port official hopes long-term growth trends will soon return at Dublin if Ireland's trade continues to pivot from the UK to continental Europe as current changes remain sustained.

Apart from commercial figures, the pandemic continued to suppress passenger and tourism volumes at Dublin port. 

Passenger numbers on ferries (including HGV drivers) declined by ‑63.2% to 83,000 while tourist vehicles declined by ‑74.3% to 17,000.

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