New demands for direct ship route to North America
There have been renewed calls for a direct shipping route from Northern Ireland to North America to help boost the struggling export market.
Currently, most goods made here must travel by road and sea to Liverpool or Southampton before sailing on to America.
One company which ships to Canada weekly, Bombardier Aerospace, is set to begin manufacturing the wings for the new CSeries aircraft in Belfast next year, and with orders flooding in, Michael Ryan, vice-president and general manager at the plant, has called on ferry operators to look to Belfast to expand their services.
"Given that we in Northern Ireland are trying to create an export-driven economy, it's important when trade between Ireland and North America reaches a sufficient volume to attract larger ships, and a shipping company is willing to provide a regular service, that port infrastructure is suitable to be able to take larger ships," he said.
"In 2007, the Irish Exporters' Association carried out a study at our instigation, which indicated at the time that there was scope for a direct shipping route.
"Clearly, as we emerge from recession and trade volumes grow again, this should strengthen the interest among shipping companies in providing a direct route service."
A spokesman for Belfast Harbour said it has been working closely with exporters from across Ireland to encourage a shipping company to run a regular direct service.
"While Belfast Harbour can accommodate the service, the downturn in manufacturing exports across the island has made the route less attractive to operators," he said.
"Improving market conditions and increased demand from exporters will, however, make it a more viable proposition."
John Whelan, chief executive of the Irish Exporters' Association, said that the situation was "not ideal".
"There have been lots of negotiations, but at the moment we are stuck," he said.
"We have to travel east to go west and that is not a satisfactory situation.
"We did have interest from a couple of lines, with one line very interested in setting up but it is a matter of the ports and large exporters coming together to offer an attractive package to those ferry companies, who initially will make a loss."