Perched on the shores of Anglesey, the island linked by road bridges to the north-west coast of Wales, Holyhead’s geography has given it a leading role in British-Irish trade since the early 19th century.
About 50 miles directly across the Irish Sea from Dublin, a journey of just three-and-a-quarter hours by ferry, Holyhead was until December the second busiest roll-on roll-off port in the UK after Dover. About 450,000 trucks rumbled through each year on their way to Dublin, with cargoes of meat and agricultural produce, secondhand cars and items destined for the shelves of Irish supermarkets.
But the UK’s departure from the EU has changed all that. In just seven weeks, freight volumes have plunged by 50%. The port’s owner, Stena Line, part of the shipping line owned by the Swedish Olsson family, is warning that the slump could be permanent.
Local politicians and businesses say jobs are now at risk. In this red-wall seat, where at the last general election a Conservative MP was sent to parliament for the first time since 1983, about 1,000 jobs depend on the port, 250 of them directly.
Rhun ap Iorwerth is member of the Senedd (Welsh parliament) for Ynys Môn, the Welsh name for Anglesey. His great-grandfather worked on the docks at Holyhead, and he is fearful of the damage already done. “Any reduction in numbers of sailings, any reduction in ship capacity, can only mean one thing for the port of Holyhead and that’s jobs going,” said the Plaid Cymru politician.
A combination of pre-Brexit stockpiling and Covid have suppressed some trade, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Hauliers, it seems, are avoiding the port in order to swerve the barricade of red tape now erected between Great Britain and Ireland.
Before Brexit, hauliers in Northern Ireland would often prefer to drive to Dublin, where frequent sailings meant they would rarely wait long for a ferry to Holyhead, while Irish produce destined for the continent would go to Anglesey, before making its way across England and then the Channel.
For years, this so-called UK “land bridge” has been the quickest and most economical route from Ireland to France and beyond. Lorries filled with agricultural products such as beef and vegetables would leave Ireland for the continent, and on their return journey drop items off in Britain before picking up produce to take back to supermarkets in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Now, many Northern Irish lorries destined for Great Britain are opting to sail from Belfast to Liverpool or Cairnryan in Scotland to avoid crossing the EU border. Meanwhile, the land bridge, which accounted for around a third of trucks passing through Holyhead, is fast being replaced by sailings direct from Ireland to France.
“I used to be at this port three or four times a week, but not as much since January,” said driver Mateusz Kozlowski, 33, carrying goods for the retail giant Amazon from one of its UK warehouses. He echoed the experience of other hauliers parked in a queue on the windswept quay for the 14.45 sailing to Dublin. “I am travelling more to Cairnryan, it’s longer work,” said Stephen Connor, also transporting Amazon parcels, for Northern Irish logistics firm Manfreight.
Kozlowski and Connor had both been delayed at customs, meaning they had missed the 9am sailing and were being forced to wait nearly six hours for the next boat. “Before Christmas I would have been on the 0900,” said Connor.
Red tape has also affected Fishguard in south-west Wales, another of Stena Line’s ports. Freight from southern Ireland would previously have arrived here from Rosslare, but traffic has been down on average 50% since January.
Ferry operators have spotted an opportunity, and have started to offer direct services from Dublin and Rosslare on Ireland’s south-east coast to Dunkirk or Cherbourg in France, bypassing the UK entirely.
“Enjoy simple cross-border passage inside the EU market,” Danish ferry operator DFDS promises on its website, advertising its Rosslare-Dunkirk freight route, which launched at the end of 2020. It is currently offering six of these sailings per week, each able to carry up to 125 lorries, and all have been sold out since it started. The sea journey takes almost 24 hours, could be affected by rough weather, and currently costs €300-€400 more than the Dublin-Holyhead crossing, but business is booming.
Stena itself has added extra sailings from Ireland to France and has seen a “huge increase” in demand, despite the journey taking six hours longer than the land bridge, according to Ian Davies, head of UK port authorities at the company. He says the market has probably doubled or trebled in size, although it remains comparatively small. Hauliers are doing it “because they need certainty”, he says.
“There was great fear in the Irish haulage industry that Dover-Calais would be a bottleneck. A lot of them are saying [sailing from Ireland to France] is not the most efficient way – it is more costly – but currently they are prepared to pay that premium.”
However, Davies warns the shift may lead to trade imbalance, as Ireland exports more to the EU than it imports. “This is where the land bridge works. It may work [travelling] direct from Ireland to France, but the return loads are often dropping off in the UK, before then picking up to take back to Ireland. We know now there are a lot of empty units going back and forth, and that is not sustainable.”
Such warnings are doing little to calm nerves on Anglesey. Britain’s membership of the single market has, over the years, brought 700% growth in traffic to Holyhead, according to ap Iorwerth. That is now under threat: “Whichever way you look at it, Holyhead loses out. We can only hope to goodness that this is temporary.”
Before Brexit, the major concern for Holyhead residents and the Welsh government was that customs delays would lead to queues of lorries containing perishable goods clogging the town’s roads. A lorry-stacking area was prepared on the dual carriageway outside the port. But the roads are quiet, and the contraflow system has been dismantled.
While environmental campaigners might like to see fewer freight vehicles travelling on Britain’s motorways on their way to the continent, a lasting downturn at the port would be a fresh blow for Anglesey’s economy, hot on the heels of the decision last year by Hitachi to pull the plug on its planned £16bn new nuclear power station on the island at Wylfa. “Without the port there is nothing left,” said Arfon Morris, 56, owner of the Boathouse hotel, which has been providing rooms during lockdown for essential workers to try to make up for almost a year without tourists.
“I worry about the next generation,” Morris added. “Where are these young people going to get jobs from?”
The local MP, Virginia Crosbie, insists she is confident about Holyhead’s long-term future. “We just need to minimise disruption,” she said. “I will be talking to the UK government to press for more clarity and more ease of travel.”
Yet many locals feel forgotten about by both the Welsh and UK governments – with both Cardiff and London a more than a four-hour drive away.
“Both governments are in the south,” said local councillor Bob Llewelyn Jones, whose ward includes the port. “We really need a shot in the arm here, we need something.”
The port of Dover reported earlier in February that freight traffic volumes between the UK and the EU had returned to 90% of levels normally seen at this time of year, higher than the UK government’s estimate of 82%.
In Holyhead, locals fear these figures mask the drop-off in land-bridge traffic and wonder if changes in freight routes could see the port bypassed for good.