Trade winds blow fair for Warrenpoint port
It's said that ports are a strong barometer for economic activity, and if the recent experience of Northern Ireland's harbour in Warrenpoint is anything to go by, the region is well on its way to recovery.
With imports such as animal feeds and exports including bulk cement and building materials, the Port of Warrenpoint recorded a doubling of pre-tax profits to around £850,000 in 2013.
There are now plans for a new yachting marina, increased cruise ship activity and even the possibility of taking over facilities in Greenore, Co Louth, on the other side of the border.
Chief executive of the port, Peter Conway, who is from the harbour town, managed shipping terminals at the ports of New Ross, Co Wexford and Cork before spending two decades in the energy industry, including work for Esso in Ireland.
Warrenpoint Port, which employs around 200 people, is the second biggest general cargo port in Northern Ireland and fifth largest on the island of Ireland.
It carries out the same types of business as bigger ports like Dublin and Belfast – a freight service runs twice daily to Heysham in Lancashire, and there are container services three times a week to Bristol and Cardiff.
Mr Conway said: "Ports are a very strong barometer of what is happening in economy and following the downturn of 2007/ 2008, in the last 20 months or so we are seeing very significant signs of green shoots.
"2013 saw the highest tonnage go through in the port's history with over 3m tonnes being handled and this increase in volumes has been sustained throughout 2014."
The harbour has even received tourist visitors for the first time.
"The harbour welcomed the first visit of a cruise liner in July, the Saga Pearl 2 [Britain and Ireland Explorer], which had 800 people on board, who disembarked in the local town and visited the region.
"We are hoping that this is the start of new business for us and that we can help welcome more tourists to this beautiful part of Co Down.
"There are also plans for a 200-berth yachting marina and we are trying to secure funding.
Mr Conway added: "We would be prepared to invest £2m in this £5m project; there is an inherent demand for leisure activity on Carlingford Lough."
It's understood the port has also been in negotiations with a view to a possible purchase of the port at Greenore in the Republic, the only privately-owned port in Ireland.
That port is most famous for being used to fit out the ships used for the pirate radio station Radio Caroline.
Mr Conway said he had ambitions to broaden the port's appeal.
"Warrenpoint is primarily a commercial port, but we we have other stakeholders and we think that it is important that we put something back into the local community which is why we want to develop the cruise business and marina, and open up this part of Northern Ireland to a wider audience," he said.
Warrenpoint also accommodates a small but successful mussel-dredging fleet, selling to customers in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Local fishermen also sell scallop and crab to some of the top Northern Ireland restaurants.
In December 2013 the board also agreed to the construction of a new £3m grain storage facility and conveyor system.
In October this year the Warrenpoint Harbour Authority will host the 2014 British Ports Association (BPA) 2014 annual conference.
The event, to be based at the Slieve Donard Resort in Newcastle, is expected to attract around 200 delegates.