Perched on the shores of Anglesey, the island linked by road bridges to the north-west coast of Wales, Holyhead’s geography has given it a leading role in British-Irish trade since the early 19th century.
About 50 miles directly across the Irish Sea from Dublin, a journey of just three-and-a-quarter hours by ferry, Holyhead was until December the second busiest roll-on roll-off port in the UK after Dover. About 450,000 trucks rumbled through each year on their way to Dublin, with cargoes of meat and agricultural produce, secondhand cars and items destined for the shelves of Irish supermarkets.
But the UK’s departure from the EU has changed all that. In just seven weeks, freight volumes have plunged by 50%. The port’s owner, Stena Line, part of the shipping line owned by the Swedish Olsson family, is warning that the slump could be permanent.
Local politicians and businesses say jobs are now at risk. In this red-wall seat, where at the last general election a Conservative MP was sent to parliament for the first time since 1983, about 1,000 jobs depend on the port, 250 of them directly.
Rhun ap Iorwerth is member of the Senedd (Welsh parliament) for Ynys Môn, the Welsh name for Anglesey. His great-grandfather worked on the docks at Holyhead, and he is fearful of the damage already done. “Any reduction in numbers of sailings, any reduction in ship capacity, can only mean one thing for the port of Holyhead and that’s jobs going,” said the Plaid Cymru politician.
A combination of pre-Brexit stockpiling and Covid have suppressed some trade, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Hauliers, it seems, are avoiding the port in order to swerve the barricade of red tape now erected between Great Britain and Ireland.
Before Brexit, hauliers in Northern Ireland would often prefer to drive to Dublin, where frequent sailings meant they would rarely wait long for a ferry to Holyhead, while Irish produce destined for the continent would go to Anglesey, before making its way across England and then the Channel.
For years, this so-called UK “land bridge” has been the quickest and most economical route from Ireland to France and beyond. Lorries filled with agricultural products such as beef and vegetables would leave Ireland for the continent, and on their return journey drop items off in Britain before picking up produce to take back to supermarkets in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Now, many Northern Irish lorries destined for Great Britain are opting to sail from Belfast to Liverpool or Cairnryan in Scotland to avoid crossing the EU border. Meanwhile, the land bridge, which accounted for around a third of trucks passing through Holyhead, is fast being replaced by sailings direct from Ireland to France.
“I used to be at this port three or four times a week, but not as much since January,” said driver Mateusz Kozlowski, 33, carrying goods for the retail giant Amazon from one of its UK warehouses. He echoed the experience of other hauliers parked in a queue on the windswept quay for the 14.45 sailing to Dublin. “I am travelling more to Cairnryan, it’s longer work,” said Stephen Connor, also transporting Amazon parcels, for Northern Irish logistics firm Manfreight.
Kozlowski and Connor had both been delayed at customs, meaning they had missed the 9am sailing and were being forced to wait nearly six hours for the next boat. “Before Christmas I would have been on the 0900,” said Connor.
Red tape has also affected Fishguard in south-west Wales, another of Stena Line’s ports. Freight from southern Ireland would previously have arrived here from Rosslare, but traffic has been down on average 50% since January.
Ferry operators have spotted an opportunity, and have started to offer direct services from Dublin and Rosslare on Ireland’s south-east coast to Dunkirk or Cherbourg in France, bypassing the UK entirely.
“Enjoy simple cross-border passage inside the EU market,” Danish ferry operator DFDS promises on its website, advertising its Rosslare-Dunkirk freight route, which launched at the end of 2020. It is currently offering six of these sailings per week, each able to carry up to 125 lorries, and all have been sold out since it started. The sea journey takes almost 24 hours,…