It is likely to be the autumn before a more firm indication is given as to whether a proposal to locate a new deepwater port in east Meath is a real possibility. However, such a major project - were it to happen - would represent an enormous shot in the arm for this county, dwarfing all other industrial and commercial projects in the area.
The possibility of transferring a major part of the €300 million port project from Fingal northwards into Meath has come about because of the discovery of extensive archaeological remains of neolithic passage tombs in the area of Bremore, where the project was supposed to go ahead. In truth, even if the project was to go ahead as planned at Bremore, the spin-off for Meath would still be huge. However, to have a large part of the port's footprint located in Meath would be the most significant industrial development in three decades.
The new deepwater port would not only be a major infrastructural centrepiece that would transform the coastal area of the county, it would also provide a huge impetus for jobs if it were to go ahead. The plan for Bremore envisaged facilities to cater for 10 million tonnes of freight per annum, 500 metres of linear quay for container and general cargo handling as well as roll-on, roll-off berths and a high-speed ferry berth for freight, car and foot passenger traffic.
The port's backers, a subsidiary of Treasury Holdings, as well as the Drogheda Port Company, already has onboard one of the world's leading port operators and investors, Hong Kong-based Hutchison Port Holdings, which has interests in 47 ports in 24 countries spanning the globe. The consortium already has held some pre-planning discussions with Meath County Council and it is understood to now be looking at environmental and archaeological issues in the Gormanston area to see how feasible its plans there might be. While the group does not have any options on land in Gormanston, a number of local landowners are understood to have been approached in recent times.
The property crash means land in the area would be cheaper to acquire and construction costs also would be considerably less than two to three years ago. Treasury maintains Ireland needs a deepwater port to cater for some of the larger Panamax and post-Panamax vessels now plying the world's oceans, and says this view is backed by the IDA which believes Ireland has missed out on investment projects because the east coast does not have one. However, it is the jobs potential that is the most exciting aspect of this proposal. Thousands of jobs could be created during the construction phase of this massive infrastructure project, helping to stimulate economic activity in Meath and north Dublin for several years. The 24-hour operation, when up and running, would also itself sustain hundreds of jobs - and many more in ancillary and support industries.
An opportunity to attract such an investment does not come around very often, and given Ireland's perilous economic state at the present time, Heaven and Earth should be moved by influential political figures and the local authority to make this happen for County Meath. It represents an outstanding opportunity for this county and everyone in a position of influence needs to be 'on message' to help deliver this project.
These are still early days, though, and much discussion remains to take place. There will also be difficult environmental issues to overcome as well as other local hurdles that are part and parcel of the planning process for every major project. One possibility being discussed, it is understood, is having the deepwater jetties located offshore Bremore with the remainder of the port support infrastructure sited just across the border in Meath, but not as far north as the former Irish Air Corps base. One way or the other, it remains a very exciting project and would be a massive fillip for the entire region.
As an island, we are dependant on seaborne trade and virtually all of our overseas trade goes by sea, underlining the significance of our ports system at a time when the country is looking to export-led growth for its salvation. In fact, 99 per cent of the island's trade uses the maritime supply chain. The only question is whether there is the business out there to sustain such a new complex, given the geographic proximity of Dublin Port and the fall-off in port throughput as a result of the recession. Dublin Port has seen something of the order of a 10 per cent reduction in trade while Drogheda's business was down significantly more in 2008. One must believe that the promoters of this project have an eye to the future with their ambitious plans as well as the belief that their port can be one of the engines that will help drive exports from this country in the years to come.