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It will be tough task to pilot port through years ahead

By Margaret Canning

United Dairy Farmers chief executive David Dobbin has faced many challenges in his career.

The dairy industry has been having a tough ride. It seems the once-insatiable appetite of the Chinese for our milk products has finally been satisfied. And even the most far-seeing chief executive could not have imagined the tumultuous world events which led to sanctions against Russia and their reciprocal imports ban, which has hit Dale Farm and other milk producers right where it hurts.

While the agri-food industry can be fraught, Mr Dobbin's new role as chairman of Belfast Harbour will be even more intensely political.

The port and its estate are one of the prized assets - in fact, one of precious few prized assets - which Northern Ireland can call its own.

Many well-known Northern Ireland businesspeople have held positions at the harbour in the past. Both Robert Barnett of W&R Barnett and his father William have served as chairmen.

But its status as a trust port could be sacrificed to raise money to help balance the books as Northern Ireland makes big cuts to its spending.

A statement from Belfast Harbour heralding Mr Dobbin's first comments in the new job did not refer explicitly to the challenges facing the harbour and its new leader.

But he did appear to suggest that it should be preserved in its present form.

"Belfast Harbour has a tremendous history of being an engine for local economic and regional development.

"Our board, drawn from the business community and nominees from Belfast City Council, recognises the importance of the role we play and intends that we will continue to create significant trade and job opportunities for this and future generations, just as we did in the past."

This statement of intent suggests there could be a battle for hearts and minds over the harbour if moves are made to sell it.

In an interview with Alf McCreary for his book Titanic Port, Robert Barnett said the harbour was "key to everything that comes in and out of Northern Ireland".

"If you make a mess of the harbour, you make a mess of the province, and over the years everyone connected with the port was aware of this."

He summed it up as a "sacred trust" run in a businesslike way.

Reconciling that sacred status with business, and its recent status as a political hot potato, will be a job-and-a-half for Mr Dobbin.

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