DUBLIN Port chief executive Enda Connellan may have been in bullish form at its annual results launch last week but his company is facing the first major challenge to its position as Ireland's leading port.
Although there are 10 ports dotted around the east coast, Dublin has always been the dominant player by default due to the lack of any serious competitor. Although Philip Lynch's One51 owns half of Greenore Port in Co Louth, it poses no little threat as its co-owner is none other than Dublin Port.
Now, however, the port is facing what is potentially its worst nightmare: a well-resourced and ambitious rival in the form of the proposed Bremore Port in north Dublin, which is backed by Treasury Holdings and Drogheda Port.
Although little has been heard publicly about the project's progress since 2006, its backers have been quietly working towards their opening date of 2012 amid rumours their ultimate plan is to overhaul Dublin in the containerised freight market.
This prospect appears to have rattled Dublin Port with Connellan trying to cast doubt over the Bremore plans, questioning whether the project could be derailed by environmental concerns.
"At the moment, [Bremore Port] doesn't exist and when you look at the problems you have with the [environmental] directives in changing any greenfield site in Europe to a brownfield site. I think there would be an awful lot of problems there," he said.
Although Connellan denies his company is starting to get worried about Bremore, it appears increasingly likely any traffic attracted to Bremore will be at Dublin's expense.
The recent growth in port traffic nationally appears to be slowing down with Dublin experiencing only a 5% growth in tonnage last year – the lowest rate of increase in five years. In the first six months of this year, tonnage through the port rose by just 1% compared with the same period in 2007.
With Treasury and Drogheda Port proposing to provide capacity for 350,000 container units annually in the first phase of Bremore, the equivalent to slightly less than half Dublin Port's container business, it is possible Dublin will lose a significant chunk of that traffic.
In a bid to prevent this happening, Connellan and his colleagues are already talking up what Dublin Port regards as its strength – its location.
Ironically, Bremore's backers believe this is the port's greatest weakness with Drogheda Port's chief executive Paul Fleming arguing that over 50% of trade in the greater Dublin area goes on outside the M50 ring.
"Bremore's locational advantage speaks for itself," said Drogheda Port's chief executive Paul Fleming. "[Even] the majority of the traffic bound for the city centre is not directly delivered from the port but is delivered outside the M50 ring and then delivered back into the city in smaller vehicles from the main distribution centres."
Fleming also said European environmental directives would have no impact on it plans as "both greenfield and brownfield port developments have to be equally sensitive to environmental issues. The regulations do not differentiate."
Dublin Port, however, may encounter considerable difficulties in finally getting it expansion plans off the ground, which involve in-filling 52 acres of Dublin Bay.
It has been attempting to secure approval for this measure since 1988 and is now pinning its hopes on obtaining it from An Bord Pleanála through the Strategic Infrastructure Act.
It may face considerable difficulty in securing permission as the minister for the environment John Gormley has decided to extend Dublin Bay's special protection area for birds to include the area earmarked for reclamation.
There is a distinct possibility of political interference from the government, given local independent TD Finian McGrath claims former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern pledged the state would block the plans in return for his support for the current government.
Despite this, Connellan remains confident the port will get approval for the scheme. "We've got to remember that you have bigger and deeper ships so we need it," he said.
"I remember when we used to put ships into Spencer Dock and Custom House Dock – we don't do that anymore because the ships have got bigger and deeper. In fact, we hardly put ships beyond the East Link these days."
Failure to secure permission for the infilling would be disastrous for Dublin Port as it will mean that not only will Bremore be the deepest port on the east coast but its north Dublin rival would be far better equipped in general to handle the next generation of container ships.
It would also encourage Treasury and Drogheda Port to accelerate the further development of Bremore, which could easily be trebled in size if necessary, leaving Dublin Port fighting to retain its dominance.
Dublin Port: The current dominant player
in the Irish port world, accounting for over 50% of the entire state's port traffic. Fully owned by the state, the Dublin Port Company has been running the port for 11 years, although it can trace its origins back to 1707. In recent years, its expansion plans have fuelled considerable controversy. Philip Lynch's One51 and Cork's Doyle Shipping have been engaged in a pitched battle for Irish Continental Group, one of the port's major tenants, although it remains unclear what their intentions are.
Greenore Port: This small facility in north Louth is the only privately owned port in the state and has been in the hands of Philip Lynch's One51 and Dublin Port since 2002. Its co-owners hope to develop the port into a major facility for non-Dublin bound traffic despite strong opposition from local residents.
Bremore Port: Treasury Holdings, which is controlled by developers Johnny Ronan (left) and Richard Barrett, and Drogheda Port have teamed up to build a €300m port just north of Balbriggan, in Co Dublin. Their plan will involve competing directly with Dublin and Greenore Ports on price and facilities, with the potential to cause major headaches for Dublin Port and One51.