Trust ports in plea for commercial freedom
The fate of Northern Ireland's four trust ports should become apparent later this month, it emerged today.
The Assembly's regional development committee is set to take evidence on the long-awaited Ports Policy Review.
Among those appearing before the committee will be DRD Minister Conor Murphy.
The Minister's evidence is expected to give a clear indication as to which way the wind is blowing as regards future administration.
The four ports - Belfast, Warrenpoint, Londonderry and Coleraine - have pressed for a continuation of their present trust port status, but with extended commercial powers.
In particular they want to be granted the freedom to raise funds on the open market instead of having to borrow finance from the Government.
When the original proposals were floated in a review paper by direct rule minister David Cairns last June, there was a storm of protest.
Belfast Harbour Commissioners accused the Government of seeking to strip it of its assets by making it sell off non-port land.
The Assembly's DRD committee has scheduled four hearings at which the Ports Policy Review will be discussed. The process kicks off this Wednesday, when the committee opens proceedings by taking evidence from DRD officials.
Then on December 5 Mr Murphy will appear before the committee to be questioned.
The trust ports will get their chance to make their point at two further hearings on November 28 and December 12.
Roy Adair, chief executive of the Port of Belfast, said the restoration of the Assembly had brought a welcome urgency to the Ports Policy Review process.
He said: "We are encouraged by the importance which Mr Murphy and the DRD committee have attached to this subject. Ports are Northern Ireland's primary link to the global economy and if we are going to achieve a step-change in the local economy all our trust ports must have the commercial agility necessary to develop to their full potential and to meet the needs of local importers and exporters."
Jim Wells, deputy chairman of the DRD committee, said he felt that a good degree of unanimity on the way forward had now been achieved.
"The committee has visited all four ports and we got the same message from them all," he said.
"What is needed is for the ports to be granted maximum commercial powers without compromising the public interest.
"Our ports are profitable but they should not have to go to the Department of Finance to borrow money.
"Instead they should be free to go to the market where they will be able to borrow money at very competitive rates - and more quickly, too."
Mr Wells said, however, that it was important to build in safeguards so that the ports could not "sell off the family silver" without reference to the Government.
A spokesman for the DRD said that feedback from the committee would be factored into the final report, which would be published in the New Year.