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Dublin Port's Future Lines of Development Affect Us All

30th January 2021
"Our jewel and darling Dublin…." Far from being seen as a problem, the intertwining of the city, port and sea should be thought of as something to cherish and develop "Our jewel and darling Dublin…." Far from being seen as a problem, the intertwining of the city, port and sea should be thought of as something to cherish and develop

Dublin and its Port. The City and the Sea. The Culture and the Commerce. The Buzz and the Business. The sense of real working and creative life, with the romance of the ocean and the hint of salty far horizons, vibrantly cheek by jowl with a thriving yet cosy civic core in a strong dynamic that inspires art and literature while providing a special enjoyment of life.

That's Dublin. There really is nowhere else quite like it. And therein lies the problem. For although CEO Eamonn O'Reilly and his team running Ireland's largest and expanding port have direct links with comparable city ports elsewhere, and have closely studied the solutions provided by those of broadly similar size such as Helsinki, the fact is that the unique nature of Dublin's relationship with its relatively small but optimised river flowing into the elegant bay framed with beautiful hills and mountains…..well, it means that Dublin has to find its own solutions.

The importance of this is indicated by the fact that its future is a matter of serious public debate, with plans being published and up-dated with continuous re-planning being a part of the process - as it should be in a constantly-changing situation.

Unusually among capital cities, Dublin continues to retain its port in the heart of the city, and it is very much part of the city's unique character.Unusually among capital cities, Dublin continues to retain its port in the heart of the city, and it is very much part of the city's unique character

Working port and serene seaside suburbs – looking north across Dublin Port across the Tolka Estuary to Clontarf. Working port and serene seaside suburbs – looking north across Dublin Port across the Tolka Estuary to Clontarf

Thus around the turn of the Millennium, the notion of moving the basic operations of the port elsewhere came top of the agenda, and many of us were in favour of this, or a partial version of it. But when the Port Tunnel opened in 2006 as a hugely successful traffic pressure relief valve, we found ourselves – or at least I did – coming round to the idea that having an active, purposeful and comprehensive yet historic port in the heart of the city was central to Dublin's character, such that with the Port Tunnel in place, it was now surely everyone's duty to make better use of the fine facilities which had developed over the centuries as the city was reclaimed eastward.

Before the Port Tunnel was opened in 2006, schemes for the re-location of Dublin Port abounded, and this was the proposal by one now-defunct political party for high-rise development on the Poolbeg Peninsula. The beloved "Poolbeg Stacks" are just about visible in the midst of it all, but today this imagined setup would probably be seen as a perfect Pandemic Incubation ComplexBefore the Port Tunnel was opened in 2006, schemes for the re-location of Dublin Port abounded, and this was the proposal by one now-defunct political party for high-rise development on the Poolbeg Peninsula. The beloved "Poolbeg Stacks" are just about visible in the midst of it all, but today this imagined setup would probably be seen as a perfect Pandemic Incubation Complex

That what they used to call it: "Reclaim". It was as though the nefarious sea had spent thousands of years furtively pinching bits of the gallant Irish nation's sacred territory, and it was our patriotic duty to get it back by glorified dumping. These days in a more ecologically-aware era, it's more often called "infill". But either way, it is now deployed sparingly, even if the port and many choice parts of the city beside it are firmly located on what used to be sea and beach and muddy foreshore, so much so that when the first grand houses were built on the south and west sides of Merrion Square, they were marketed as giving proximity to the sea, and providing the finest nautical views.

The fact that the sea and ships are still but a couple of streets away has been recognized as central to Dublin's character by town-planners such as Patrick Abercrombie in 1916. That year, certain other events were taking place around the GPO, so his plans weren't published until 1922. With them, he argued that, given a choice, most people in a coastal city such as Dublin would prefer to live near the sea. And he claimed to have made this newly possible for thousands in his plans by indicating further extensive land reclamation in the Tolka Estuary to the north of the Liffey, and what we might call Irishtown Bay to the south of the Poolbeg Peninsula, and then going on to turn both new areas into attractive coastal garden towns – Welwyn-Garden-City-on-Sea with an Irish flavour, as you might say.

Now I may be missing something here, what with pandemic brain fog and so on. But it seems to me that if you turn the Tolka Estuary and Irishtown Bay into garden suburbs, then it means that, at a stroke, thousands of people who were formerly living in breezy coastal districts like Marino, south Clontarf, Irishtown and Sandymount will suddenly find that they no longer live beside the seaside, much and all as they may have liked it in the old days, when their daily inhalation of sea air and an awareness of ships coming and going into Dublin port was so much a part of life, with the Tolka Estuary and Irishtown Bay essential lungs of the community.

The Abercrombie Plan – it was claimed that it would give thousands of people new access to coastal living. But by completely in-filling the Tolka Estuary and Irishtown, it would actually have cut off thousands of long-established residents from their cherished coastal living….. The Abercrombie Plan – it was claimed that it would give thousands of people new access to coastal living. But by completely in-filling the Tolka Estuary and Irishtown, it would actually have cut off thousands of long-established residents from their cherished coastal living….. 

Going back into history, it was undoubtedly necessary at one stage to build the port city eastwards towards the sea, as the mediaeval Dubh Linn – the Black Pool – up by Dublin Castle could only accommodate ships which soon seemed small by comparison with the next generation of sailing vessels, which in turn seem tiny to us now.

And unlike ports in the Baltic and the Mediterranean, Dublin had to accommodate a tidal range which was not large enough to justify locks in the dock entrances, but was quite enough to be a key factor in any harbour planning and construction costs. The story of how, over the centuries, the limited power of the ebb in the modestly-sized River Liffey was harnessed through training walls to create and maintain a deepwater channel, and a navigable passage through a bar which at one time could be forded on foot at extreme low water spring tides, is part of the romance of the story of Dublin port.

As the port has gradually moved downriver, its nautical character has been retained with the 19th century sailing ship Jeannie Johnson berthed in the Liffey beside new office developments.As the port has gradually moved downriver, its nautical character has been retained with the 19th-century sailing ship Jeannie Johnson berthed in the Liffey beside new office developments

But as we've been indicating in various articles in Afloat.ie over the years, and most recently mentioned in our report of a feature on RTE's Nationwide, Dublin Port is approaching optimal expansion with planning approval granted for the final eastward development – MP-2 (Masterplan 2).

The permission sought was for fifteen years, as changing circumstances will inevitably alter requirements and project timescales. But ultimately Dublin Port's thinking is that by 2040 they'll be working to full capacity, and thus by 2030 a basic strategic plan should be in place as to how ship berthing and cargo handling facilities and logistics can best be handled along the East Coast of Ireland.

Topped up – the most easterly proposed development indicated in the MP2 plan. Based on pre-pandemic trends, these final berths may see Dublin Port reaching full capacity by 2040Topped up – the most easterly proposed development indicated in the MP2 plan. Based on pre-pandemic trends, these final berths may see Dublin Port reaching full capacity by 2040

For although the West Coast is blessed with the naturally-advantaged Shannon Estuary, while the South Coast is in a league of it own with the wonder which is Cork Harbour, on the East Coast even the most sheltered big-ship-accommodating inlet – Belfast Lough – has needed very extensive dredging and harbour construction works to create the Port of Belfast, while the very existence of Dublin as a big-ship port has been as the result of ingenuity and a certain amount of good fortune over the years.

How this all came about, and where it might be going, has been collated in seven fascinating discussion papers which Dublin Port published at intervals through the latter half of 2020. However, what with the pandemic and the developing technical problems of the reality of Brexit, these papers haven't yet properly engendered the public conversation that they merit. But now they're out as a compiled pdf, which you can access by scrolling to the end of this piece.

You'll find that this is a comprehensive, informative, fascinating and at times entertaining collection which, if nothing else, makes for perfect pandemic reading. And it makes you realize that the people running Dublin Port, led by Eamonn O'Reilly and inspired by Heritage Director Lar Joye, have a profound insight into the deeper meaning of the symbiotic relationship of the city and its harbour.

Eamonn O'Reilly, CEO of Dublin Port.  Photo:RTE/ScreenshotEamonn O'Reilly, CEO of Dublin Port. Photo: RTE/Screenshot

Lar Joye, Heritage Director of Dublin Port. Photo: RTE/ScreenshotLar Joye, Heritage Director of Dublin Port. Photo: RTE/Screenshot

But before we go into a summary of what it all might mean, here's a snippet of information which recently emerged from Rome on December 5th 2020. While we may have suggested that Dublin's situation is so unique that the city has largely had to find its own way through solving its port conundrum, nevertheless we might make an exception for port news from the Eternal City. For it seems that no sooner had an initial €300 million been allocated to parts of Italy from the EU Recovery Fund than the Mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, staked a claim for it to be used to restore the River Tiber to a navigable state which would permit ships to be berthed once more in the heart of the city.

For, like many cities, Rome has long since seen its commercial port located further and further from the heart of town. But the creation of a commerce-free waterway through town contributes to the city it used to serve becoming something of an empty husk of a place, a sort of Disneyland of a city. If Disneyland is your thing, then that's fine and dandy. But many who live and work in Dublin are quietly happy that their slightly eccentric hometown is a living breathing seaport rather than a glorified film set.

The River Tiber in Rome is of a size comparable to the Liffey in Dublin. Rome's seaport is now far from the city, but the Mayor wants to bring ships back to town.The River Tiber in Rome is of a size comparable to the Liffey in Dublin. Rome's seaport is now far from the city, but the Mayor wants to bring ships back to town.

But a living breathing seaport has to be a viable commercial and logistical operation. So if we're facing a scenario where Dublin Port is approaching saturation by 2040, what's the plan?

Admittedly in these hyper-volatile times, such predictions of saturation may be changing by the day, what with changes in the way we live and work, changing in manufacturing techniques, and changes in travel and transport patterns. So really there's no plan, just ongoing planning, for we can only follow the mighty economist John Maynard Keynes who - when accused in a personal attack of changing his mind in a big way – riposted with vigour: "When circumstances change, I change my mind. What do you do?"

So by the time we can hope to get a clearer picture of where the world has got to in the coming Autumn, it may well be that those developers who would wish to take over swathes of dockland to build high-rise offices and apartments will find that the need for offices has shrunk, while potential flat-dwellers will have come to see dense apartment blocks as perfect pandemic incubation units, with that Irish desire for a bit of green space – however tiny – setting the property agenda.

And yes, I do know that recently the Dublin City senior planner has announced that the days of the three-bed semi-detached house "are over" and the future is in apartments, but presumably he somehow enjoyed lockdown and WFH in an apartment while the rest of us were sustained largely by the proximity of our little gardens.

As for Dublin Port reaching saturation, it's equally likely that by 2040, the shipping and stevedoring industry will have devised more efficient ways of using the facilities available, while the greater integration of the port with the city by means of safe cycle-ways, protected walking trails, and accessible user-friendly public spaces will have enhanced the sense of Dublin Port being an attraction to be cherished, rather than a totally utilitarian necessity which is best shunted off elsewhere.

Nevertheless Dublin Port have outlined other options in their discussion papers, and the real meat on that comes in Papers 5,6 and 7, where they address the possibility of additional or alternative facilities through DP2.0 at Bremore on the northern tip of Fingal which - under some pieces of legislation - is still seen as being in County Dublin, or else at Arklow in County Wicklow.

Dublin Port's outline of the scale and quality of design which would be required in a completely new harbour at Bremore in Fingal Dublin Port's outline of the scale and quality of design which would be required in a completely new harbour at Bremore in Fingal

Building a proper port at Bremore would be a complex and very expensive projectBuilding a proper port at Bremore would be a complex and very expensive project

It's a sobering document for those who blithely talk of building completely new big-ship harbours on what is an exposed east-facing coastline. Anyone who thinks that Ireland's east coast is snugly sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds would do well to remember that wind patterns have changed somewhat, and Storm Emma in March 2018 – the Beast from the East – very forcefully indicated the kind of conditions that a 24/7 port at Bremore or Arklow would have to be capable of withstanding.

Dublin Port's outline proposals of the harbour requirements which would be needed at Arklow Dublin Port's outline proposals of the harbour requirements which would be needed at Arklow

As at Bremore, a new port at Arklow would require extensive shoreside development in addition to massive breakwaters As at Bremore, a new port at Arklow would require extensive shoreside development in addition to massive breakwaters

But in the spirit of the brief for their Discussion Papers, Dublin Port has done thorough research and conceptual design work on these possible developments. Even the most basic breakwater construction works on such facilities will not come cheap, and at mid-2020 costings (which will have already risen) Arklow comes in at €3.9 billion, while Bremor would be higher again, at €4.2 billion.

With the costs of associated shoreside infrastructure still to come, those figures are only by way of a deposit, while beyond all that there's the environmental impact, increasingly a matter of public concern, and very valid in these cases.

A telling paragraph in Paper 6 puts it in perspective:

"Because Dublin Port is nestled into Dublin Bay and along the banks of the Liffey, it can be difficult to appreciate its scale. For example, the distance from the Tom Clarke Bridge to the end of the easternmost berth in Dublin Port is almost three kilometres. It is a further two kilometres from this point to the entrance to the port at the Poolbeg Lighthouse. Dublin Port is concave; DP2.0 would be convex. DP2.0 would extend 3.2 kilometres into the Irish Sea if built at Arklow, and 4.5 kilometres 
if constructed at Bremore."

As it happens, the main factor in the nation's economy for the foreseeable future is surely going to be handling the debt incurred from the various pandemic shutdowns. So although some major infrastructural projects might well be promoted as integral to economic vitality and revival, schemes like these totally new harbours – described by planners and engineers as being in the realms of "megaprojects"- are of doubtful real benefit if more effective use of existing facilities can solve the problem and thus leave the necessary funding available for much-needed housing.

Meanwhile, the management and specialists at Dublin Port have given us plenty of material for discussion, and their analyses and conclusions merit serious attention with thoughtful answers rather some headline-grabbing flippant responses.

We'll allow Eamonn O'Reilly and his team the last word:
"Our analysis of these issues in the seven papers of the Dublin Port Post 2040 Dialogue leads to the following conclusions:

Conclusion 1
Dublin Port Company must complete all of the projects outlined in Masterplan 2040 to deliver infrastructure with an annual throughput capacity of 77 million gross tonnes by 2040.

Conclusion 2
Critically, this will require planning permission to be secured for the 3FM Project.

Conclusion 3
The achievement of a throughput of 77 million gross tonnes per annum by 2040 will require not only the completion of all of the infrastructure projects in Masterplan 2040; it will also require that the efficiency of port operations greatly increases so that port infrastructure is utilised to its maximum. This will require the elimination of systemic inefficiencies in existing supply chain operations.

Conclusion 4
Over the next 20 years, additional capacity at other existing east coast ports will be required so that, as Dublin Port approaches its ultimate capacity, volumes which Dublin cannot handle can be accommodated elsewhere.

Conclusion 5
During these 20 years, DPC will need to work on the DP1.5 project so that it can be brought through the planning process and construction started by about 2033 should that become necessary.

Conclusion 6
The projects to provide additional capacity in other ports and the project to construct DP1.5 can only be realised with State support – none of the projects and none of the port companies (including DPC) are capable of raising the project finance that would be required.

These six conclusions will inform DPC's contribution during 2021, firstly, to the preparation of the next Dublin City Development Plan and, secondly, to Government's review of the National Development Plan.

In publishing the seven papers, we have invited others to critique our thinking and to prepare detailed responses including, possibly, alternative analysis which yields different conclusions to ours. The long-term planning challenges faced by DPC are national challenges and it is important that future port capacity plans are formulated on the basis of as detailed a consideration of the issues as is possible."

Download the 'Dublin Port Post 2040 Dialogue' below

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Published in W M Nixon, Dublin Port
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WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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