Belfast Telegraph

Stena Line vows to invest further £200m in Northern Ireland despite Brexit nerves

Ryan McAleer

By Ryan McAleer

The boss of Stena Line has said it will be investing another £200m into its Northern Ireland operation in the next two years, regardless of Brexit.

Speaking during a visit to the city, chief executive Niclas Martensson said the Swedish family-owned shipping giant has invested £250m in its Belfast operation since 2011, adding that another £200m will be injected in the coming two years.

The bulk of that investment will go into two new Chinese-built e-flexer ferries, the first of which is due to arrive next year.

"We do believe in the future both before and after Brexit. Otherwise we wouldn't have made those investments," said Mr Martensson.

"For Belfast, we have a £200m investment programme in the next two years and I think that says a lot about what we have built up since we came here in 1995 and the progress we're expecting."

Stena Line operates sailings from Belfast to Liverpool, Heysham and Cairnryan.

The Stena Line boss also described its relationship with Harland & Wolff as essential.

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While he admitted that European shipyards are no longer able to compete with China for new builds, he added: "But they are essential for our operation for refits, repair and maintenance. I think it's a must from our side to have the local shipyards.

"Therefore we support them fully by utilising them as much as possible."

When it comes to shipping operators, the issue of Brexit is never far away.

Stena Line chief executive Niclas Martensson meets Swedish Ambassador to the UK Torbjorn Sohlstrom on his visit to Belfast
Stena Line chief executive Niclas Martensson meets Swedish Ambassador to the UK Torbjorn Sohlstrom on his visit to Belfast
Stena Line chief executive Niclas Martensson meets Swedish Ambassador to the UK Torbjorn Sohlstrom on his visit to Belfast
Mr Sohlstrom receives a guided tour of the Stena Superfast

Although somewhat reluctant to dwell on the issue, Mr Martensson said: "We do have some worries.

"I think the most interesting thing is that nobody has the answer. I think we just need to be patient and see where it's ending up.

"The most important thing for a company like Stena Line, being a part of the European infrastructure, being a part of the logistics flows, we are pro-free flow of people and goods, no matter if it's a Brexit or not Brexit.

"On a higher level, it's important for a company like Stena Line to have a continuing free flow of goods and people. That's how the whole set-up in Europe is now.

"We just want to continue having a lot of people and goods coming in and out of a part of the UK like Belfast. I think what's interesting, and what says a lot about Stena Line's position, if it's Brexit or not, it's that since 2011 we have invested £250m just for in and out of Belfast."

The visit to Belfast by the Stena Line boss on Thursday was part of a promotional tour organised by the Swedish embassy in London.

Swedish Ambassador to the UK Torbjorn Sohlstrom, who pulled up in front of Belfast City Hall in a yellow tour bus emblazoned with the Swedish national flag, said: "I was keen to bring the embassy out of London to meet with the people, the companies and the institutions which make up the great relationship between Sweden and the UK."

The UK's link to Sweden runs deep. Around 100,000 Swedes live in the UK, with some 1,000 Swedish companies in the UK directly employing more than 100,000 people.

Again, for the ambassador of an EU country based in London, Brexit is never far from the agenda.

"Part of my job has been to try to support my government in understanding where Britain is going, to work with companies and make sure the Swedish government has an accurate picture of where our interests lie," said Mr Sohlstrom.

"Obviously our interest is that there will continue to be a relationship that is as close as possible between the UK and the rest of the European Union.

"Given the closeness and richness of this relationship, we are obviously very keen that we can continue to co-operate in every possible way."

Sweden's border with non-EU member Norway is another topic which perpetuates the Brexit debate, particularly when technology is on the agenda.

Norway isn't a member of the customs union, but is in the EEA, which gives it access to the single market.

It means that while it allows the free movement of goods, services, capital and people, Norway is part of a different customs regime, resulting in customs checks on its 1,000-mile border with Sweden.

"We have made significant efforts to make that border as smooth as possible," said Mr Sohlstrom.

"There is an agreement between the EU and Norway on the facilitation of this border. I think this has been really important, but still, if you transport goods over that border, there are customs checks.

"If you pass the border with goods, there is an inspection."

While it's considered one of the most technologically advanced borders in the world, checking goods lorries can typically take between five and 10 minutes to complete, and queuing adds more time.

It's estimated that Norwegian customs deal with around 1,300 heavy goods vehicles at day at the main border crossing at Svinesund.

On Wednesday, 4,022 goods vehicles crossed the busiest border crossing from the Northern Ireland side on the A1 at Newry.

Choosing his words carefully, the ambassador said: "From our point of view, the relationship that the UK will have with the EU will have to be a decision by the United Kingdom.

"As part of the European Union, we will do whatever we can to promote an outcome where the relationship will be as close as possible, because that's in our interest."

Belfast Telegraph