25th April 2020

Environment Coronavirus: Future connectivity ‘vital for economic recovery’

Environment

environment All three of Northern Ireland's airports are in discussions with the government about their ongoing operationsImage copyright
PA

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All three of Northern Ireland’s airports are in discussions with the government about their ongoing operations

With the coronavirus lockdown extended, thoughts have turned to Northern Ireland’s connectivity with Great Britain and Europe.

Without proper links, Northern Ireland’s economy is left in a vulnerable position.

NI Chamber of Commerce has said maintaining connectivity will be vital for the region’s economic recovery.

Aviation is of particular concern, with just two passenger flights operating to and from NI at the moment.

The three airports – Belfast International, Belfast City and City of Derry – have been in discussions with the government about their continued operations.

Sources have indicated an announcement on support that was due, but is yet to happen.

Crucial supply lines

On Friday, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told BBC Radio Ulster he was working closely with the executive and the Treasury to keep crucial supply lines open and to maintain connections between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The issue was brought into sharp focus when a P&O vessel carrying essential supplies and destined for Dublin was impounded at Liverpool port.

Last week Economy Minister Diane Dodds told a committee she had written to Chancellor Rishi Sunak to seek support to maintain strong air links between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

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Economy Minister Diane Dodds has written to Chancellor Rishi Sunak

“I am hopeful that this intervention will realise a support package,” she told the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“There has been significant pressure on the aviation industry, haulage and ferry companies which has led to a dramatic reduction in our air and sea connectivity.”

Her department has been working closely with the Department for Infrastructure and weekly calls have been taking place with the UK’s Department for Transport, led by Grant Shapps.

‘Close to collapse’

Part of those discussions include assistance for a struggling haulage industry.

The Road Haulage Association in Northern Ireland has warned firms are close to collapsing due to the losses they are experiencing.

Companies are sending almost empty loads across the Irish Sea, at great cost, as manufacturing winds down and demand in other sectors slows.

Chairman John Martin said the government needs to intervene to protect the industry and keep key supply lines operating.

Port operations

While the haulage industry is facing enormous pressures, Northern Ireland’s ports continue to operate to bring in vital goods.

Belfast Harbour, which accounts for 80% of incoming freight, said it has introduced changes to working practices to ensure social distancing and to “enable port operations to continue to run smoothly.”

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Belfast Harbour accounts for 80% of freight incoming to Northern Ireland

However, it will have other factors to consider, such as any potential impact on future property.

The harbour’s land is home to hotels, offices and film studios, all of which have effectively ceased operations during this crisis.

Future connectivity is high on the agenda for the executive and the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce.

Chief executive Ann McGregor told BBC News NI maintaining and growing the number of routes by both air and sea is essential.

“As a regional economy, Northern Ireland relies heavily on good connectivity to near and far markets.

“In a post-Brexit environment, we also need to maintain the same access to global markets via London and Dublin that we have now,” she said.

Interim Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh has also written to the chancellor, saying support for ports, airports and hauilers was “urgent”.

She added: “I urge you to quickly deliver the financial support package which is essential for critical routes and supply chains to be maintained”.

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