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Speech by Minister for Transport, Tourism & Sport Leo Varadkar at the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Seanad √Čireann, Monday 14th May

Added 14-May-2012

Mr Chairman, I am pleased to have been invited to speak here today at the 44th plenary of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

At the time of Queen Elizabeth's historic State visit last year many people commented that relationships between Britain and Ireland have never been closer. And it is a relationship which has continued to strengthen over the past year.

Britain is by some distance our most important trading partner and is a transit point for trade and travel with much of the rest of Europe and the world. In all three areas that fall under my Ministerial brief, the British Irish relationship is crucial.

By land, sea or air our most important transport links are with the United Kingdom. Similarly, Britain is our most important tourist market with almost half of our overseas visitors coming from Great Britain. My third area of Ministerial responsibility is sport, and in the coming weeks we will see a very symbolic manifestation of our friendship when the Olympic flame passes outside these Buildings en route to what I have no doubt will be a very successful Olympic Games in London.

Turning to this Assembly, I know that from its foundation, the aim was to promote mutual understanding and respect among our parliaments. I believe we have been successful in that aim and I should like to take the opportunity to thank all of those involved over the last 20 years or so for their endeavour.

The theme of today's Assembly is making business easier between Great Britain and Ireland. My Department's responsibilities in the area of transport speak to this. The haulage sector plays a vital role in both economies in the movement of goods to market.

As islands, our ports, railways and airports keep us connected, but the vast bulk of materials transported go by road. Connectivity, safety, good standards and fair competition in the sector are common interests for all of us and ones on which we need to continue to work together closely.

In tourism, Great Britain provides almost half of all overseas visitors to the island of Ireland, and making access as convenient as possible is crucial if we are to continue to grow tourism in the years ahead. That growth will not just come from within these islands but also from other markets, particularly developing markets.

For my contribution today, I was asked to speak specifically on the role of transport in supporting business and tourism. Firstly, I will give a brief overview of recent developments in the maritime, aviation, road, rail, sustainable transport and tourism sectors, and the approach which my Department is taking. Following that I will highlight some key areas in where I believe this Assembly and its members can help drive real progress in transport and tourism for the mutual benefit of our islands.

Shipping/Ports

First of all, our maritime links. Obviously as islands we are heavily dependent on shipping to get both passengers and goods to where they want to go. The Irish Sea is well served by frequent and competitive services. In fact there are about 600 weekly services linking the island of Ireland and Britain through passenger and freight services.

We might want to see even more services but the reality is that all shipping operators servicing routes on the Irish Sea are commercial companies. All of them have had to introduce greater efficiencies to reduce their overall operating costs and deal with increased fuel costs, market uncertainty and reduced demand.

Of course, shipping companies cannot function without the appropriate infrastructure in place. It is crucial that Ireland's commercial ports continue to provide the best possible service to the economy at large, as it returns to growth.

The question of future port capacity in Ireland is one of the many issues being addressed as part of the Ports Policy Review currently underway in my Department. But it is clear that in the medium term the challenge is to make best use of existing infrastructure.

Aviation

In the 22 years since this Assembly first met, the air transport market and the whole aviation sector has gone through an enormous transformation. We have seen the emergence of low-cost carriers as the dominant force in short-haul travel in Europe as well as the liberalisation of the market within the European Union and between the European Union and the United States.

The competitive market that has emerged has been of immense importance in terms of our economic development. As island economies, the availability of a wide range of competitive air services is crucial to us in doing business with the rest of the world and for the development of tourism and business between our two islands.

We are fortunate that very good air links have developed between these islands. The Dublin-London route, for example, remains one of the busiest routes in the EU. It is estimated that this summer there will be approximately 136,000 seats per week in each direction from Britain to the Republic of Ireland. This represents an increase of 2% on summer 2011 and covers 60 routes from 24 British airports to seven Irish airports.

As the market is completely liberalised, Government cannot directly influence the provision or operation of services - that is a matter for the carriers. However, the tourism agencies as well as airports work closely with carriers, including cooperative marketing, which highlight to potential holidaymakers the accessibility of tourism destinations.

Roads/Rail

Over the past decade Ireland has made huge progress in bringing her motorway and national roads up to standard. We now have a network of modern motorways that link our major cities and most of the major ports, enhancing access to Britain and Europe and delivering significant journey-time savings.

Whether you are a long-distance haulier, a tourist, or a business person intending to visit Ireland we can provide access from the east coast to the west and south coasts, by road, safely and quickly.

We have improved our north/south links as well. Travel between Dublin and Belfast is now achievable in just over an hour and 45 minutes. The last link in the chain - the bypass of Newry - has removed that final bottleneck and has further encouraged travel between north and south.

Of course there is still much to be done. There are significant mutual benefits in developing better road access to the North West and this is fully understood by the Irish Government. The reality of our present economic circumstances however means we have no choice but to ‘cut our cloth' as it were. In the period to 2016, the Irish Government has committed £50 million, in addition to the £22 million already contributed, to the A5 project in Northern Ireland. This contribution along with the £280 million being committed by the Northern Ireland authorities with the support of HM Treasury will allow for the upgrade of two significant sections of the route.

In terms of rail, it is worth mentioning the considerable improvement to the Dublin/Belfast Enterprise Service both in terms of reliability and punctuality. I know that both Northern Ireland Railways and Irish Rail have further improvements planned including equipping Enterprise trains with Wi-Fi - a small but significant example of making business easier for those travelling between the cities.

Sustainable Transport

If we turn to sustainable travel, my Department is involved with the British Irish Council in considering future areas of possible cooperation. There has been excellent work done in the past on a north/south basis which has seen a number of successful initiatives such as Bike Week, National Walk to School Week and a cross-border car-sharing website.

Tourism

The last area I would like to touch on is an essential driver of economic activity across these islands. The tourism and hospitality industry in Ireland employs an estimated 180,000 people and generates an estimated €5 billion in revenue from home and abroad each year.
The Irish Government has put the tourism sector at the heart of its economic recovery programme and I know that the other territories represented in this Assembly share our view of tourism's importance.

In terms of the importance of our British visitors, last year there were over 6.5 million overseas visits to Ireland with 2.9 million - or over 44% of them - coming from Great Britain. It remains by some way our biggest market and, while numbers declined considerably between 2007 and last year, we are targeting further growth of around 4% this year. Equally, I know that Ireland is a very important market for many parts of Britain.

Soon after taking office last year, we introduced a Jobs Initiative which from a tourism perspective:

• lowered VAT for the tourism and leisure sector to 9%;
• introduced a visa waiver scheme; and
• Just last week I was pleased to announce that the reduced VAT rate of 9% on tourism-related services will continue to the end of 2013.

Visa-Waiver

The visa-waiver scheme is a very practical example of how, by working together with the relevant authorities, we have made it easier for visitors from long-haul destinations to travel. The scheme allows tourists or business people who have lawfully entered the UK, including Northern Ireland, on a valid UK visa to travel on to Ireland without the requirement to obtain an Irish visa.

The Government agreed in February to the extension of the Programme for a further period of four years i.e. to end October 2016, and to waive the fee for visas for long-term residents from the countries covered by the Programme who live in the Schengen area. This means that there are real opportunities to attract more high-value, high-spending visitors from rapidly growing economies like Brazil, India, China and Russia to both Britain and Ireland.

This is an area in which I think we can make further progress. It is my view that just as we have a Common Travel Area for our citizens, we need to have a Common Travel Area for tourists - a sort of ‘mini-Schengen' in which British and Irish visas and mutually accepted and recognised.

Our Schengen area counterparts have a huge competitive advantage over us. A tourist from say, China, can get a visa which takes in the entire Schengen area comprising more than 20 countries. But they will have to get a separate visa for the United Kingdom, and another one for Ireland. It is not surprising that Schengen countries do so much better than us when it comes to attracting Chinese visitors, for example. While we may not be in a position to join the Schengen area, we should look to make our Common Travel Area as attractive as possible to tourists visiting our part of the world.

While the visa waiver is a step forward, it should be just that - one step of many to come. It makes no sense to me that a tourist flying into Dublin from Dubai needs a separate visa to travel to the Titanic Experience in Belfast and to see the Giants Causeway. And it makes even less sense to the tourist.

I know this is an area attracting considerable attention already between our Governments, and while there are various legislative and technological barriers, it is something worth pursuing. It is something that Joe McHugh TD has taken a considerable interest in, and I would encourage the Assembly to raise this issue in your home parliament and with your ministers.

Cabotage

Another area in which we can strengthen the Common Travel Area is road freight. In both this country and the United Kingdom, the vast majority of our freight is moved by road. If we are serious about growing business on North-South and East-West basis, the efficient, safe and simple transport of goods by road must be a key consideration.

This brings me to the issue of cabotage. For those who - like me before I took up this portfolio just over a year ago - do not know what cabotage is, it relates to the carrying out of purely domestic haulage within a single country by a foreign carrier.

Since 2010, under EU regulations hauliers are limited to a maximum of three journeys in seven days following bringing a load into a foreign country. For Irish hauliers operating in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and vice versa, the rigorous enforcement of this regulation poses a significant barrier to the free movement of goods between our islands, and adds to costs and bureaucracy.

These cabotage regulations are borne from concern that there would be unfair competition to domestic hauliers, and that is a legitimate concern. But such unfair competition to Irish or British hauliers does not come from each other. Rather it comes from other parts of Europe where safety standards and wages may be lower.

The effect of these regulations in an Irish-British context is to impose bureaucracy and costs on trade between us. The European Commission is undertaking currently a review of cabotage regulation with a view to agreeing major reforms in 2013. While the Irish Government favours an open market across Europe, we know that this is not something which all member States, including the United Kingdom, support.

However, we believe there is an option which may be worth pursuing. This is the creation of what we call a ‘functional area'. Such an arrangement has been in existence for decades in the Benelux countries, and would be an extension of the Common Travel Area, to travel by hauliers between our islands unencumbered by unnecessary regulation.

I have already discussed this with my colleague Minister Penning at the British Department for Transport, and it is now being examined further.

I ask the Assembly to consider this matter further and pursue it as part of your programme.

Penalty Points

With regard to road safety, I want to set a challenge for my colleagues in the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly. There has for a number of years been agreement among the Governments and Executives in London, Belfast and Dublin to consider mutual recognition of penalty points between the UK and Ireland.

In the Republic of Ireland at least, road safety legislation is the most frequently tested and challenged in the courts, and I am sure that in the United Kingdom it is no different. In this environment, you will all appreciate that there are significant legal and administrative barriers to realising this aim. Not least the fact that there is currently no aggregation of penalty points between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

However, not doing something because it is difficult is a quitters approach to politics. And we are not quitters. So I am glad that there is now a commitment from the North South Ministerial Council to have mutual recognition of penalty points north and south by 2014 as agreed recently by Ministers Alex Attwood, Danny Kennedy and me.

But it needs a push behind it. I ask parliamentarians from the Oireachtas and the Northern Assembly to question Ministers and press officials on progress in this area to make sure it happens.

Conclusion

Before I finish, I want to draw members' attention to The Gathering Ireland 2013. This tourism initiative builds on the experience of our Scottish counterparts and their Homecoming project.

The Gathering is Ireland's biggest ever tourism initiative. We are reaching out to 70 million people of Irish heritage, and hundreds of millions more who feel a special connection with Ireland, to ask them to visit the country in 2013. There will be about a dozen flagship events around the county, some old and some new, and existing festivals will upgraded to include a Gathering dimension. This could include a local or parish festival, family reunion, board meeting, alumni event, conference, concert, sporting competition etc.

The Gathering 2013 presents a real opportunity to deliver a massive boost for Irish tourism but also an opportunity to harness real community spirit in a meaningful and worthwhile way. I ask this Assembly to consider how it might contribute to The Gathering in 2013. One thing you might consider, is a Gathering of parliamentarians and former parliamentarians from Britain and Ireland that could be held somewhere in Ireland in 2013.

To conclude, Chairman, I believe there are areas in which the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly can take a lead. These include:
(1) a common travel area for tourists with a single visa for Britain and Ireland or mutual recognition of the same,
(2) a common travel area for hauliers by setting up a functional area of Britain and Ireland for cabotage;
(3) pressing Ministers and officials to deliver on mutual recognition of penalty points; and
(4) by organising a parliamentary Gathering for 2013.

I hope you will consider taking on these important issues.

I hope you all enjoy your stay here in Dublin.

Ends

 

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