UK port strikes could mean choppy waters for Irish supply chains

Carriers ‘confident’ they have contingencies in place to mitigate effects, experts say

Industrial strife at UK ports could have knock-on effects on this side of the Irish Sea, clogging up Irish freight hubs on both sides of the Border over the coming weeks and months, experts say.

Some 1,900 workers at Britain’s largest container shipping port, Felixstowe in Suffolk on England’s east coast, began an eight-day strike over pay at the weekend, heaping pressure on the UK economy, which is already reeling from record inflation, largely driven by supply shocks.

Of greater concern to Irish businesses looking to get goods in and out of the country, however, is a pay dispute at the port of Liverpool where workers represented by trade union Unite have voted to go on strike. Although dates for the strike are yet to be fixed, Simon McKeever, chief executive of the Irish Exporters Association, said the prospect of industrial action at the Peel Ports-owned hub “is a little bit more concerning” than Felixstowe.

Most Irish-bound freight coming from Asia is routed through European ports like Antwerp and Rotterdam or sometimes Southampton. But Liverpool an “important” roll on/roll off (RoRo) port serving the island, particularly Northern Ireland, for the transport of household and smaller goods from Britain. It is also a significant forwarding hub for goods travelling from the United States to Ireland.


“It’s not quite as important as Holyhead but there is a fair amount of Ro/Ro shipping coming in and out of Liverpool,” he said.

Mr McKeever said there are about six sailings a week in each direction between the port in the northwest of England and Dublin.

“So if there is a strike in Liverpool, what could happen is some of that freight might divert to Holyhead because there is extra capacity on those routes down into Rosslare for Irish freight,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s going to make Dublin Port any more sluggish or anything like that,” Mr McKeever said “The issue is actually with Belfast. Liverpool is a key freight route for Northern Ireland.”

If Belfast to Liverpool is ruled out as an option because of strikes, outbound Irish hauliers may look to Dublin Port as alternative, which could lead to traffic jams around the capital’s sea freight hub, industry sources said.

The possible Liverpool strikes could cause some disruption to the Irish supply chain because it is also “a key port for USA inbound vessels to Ireland”, said Eoin Hogan, operations supervisor at freight forwarder Woodland Group Ireland.

“However, having spoken with the carriers, they are confident that they have contingencies in place to mitigate the effects of any Liverpool strike action, if it is in fact confirmed,” he said. “The alternative is that the cargo would have to pass through the likes of Rotterdam and Antwerp, similar to current Asia inbound,” with delays of up to one week, Mr Hogan said.

Ian Curran

Ian Curran

Ian Curran is a Business reporter with The Irish Times