The Carlingford ferry, which connects Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, was launched one year ago, but is already facing an uncertain future with a solution to the post-Brexit border problem still to be found.
The service has proved popular with commuters looking for a speedy crossing, but the potential imposition of time-consuming customs checks means it might be increasingly reliant on an underdeveloped tourism sector.
The project was 10 years in the making when Britain voted in 2016 to leave the EU, but despite the setback, Frazer Ferries, which operates the service, has vowed to plough on.
“There is no clearly defined endgame for Brexit yet and we don’t know what it will ultimately look like, but we do feel very confident that we will adapt,” Frazer Ferries director Paul O’Sullivan told reporters.
Barry Gardener and his wife, Rita, were among those at Carlingford quay on a cool and calm weekday morning, waiting with two other vehicles to board the ferry.
The couple were traveling from Drogheda, 65km to the south, for a day’s shopping in Newcastle, across the border in Northern Ireland.
“I decided to take her out of the country,” joked the 70-year-old.
The service, which can accomodate 10 cars, runs every 30 minutes across the Carlingford Lough, an inlet of the Irish Sea that separates the two countries.
There are no checks on the border between the British province of Northern Ireland and its southern neighbor, as both are members of the EU and share the same customs rules.
However, EU and British negotiators are stumped on how to maintain the open border post-Brexit.
The quiet region around the lough is renowned for its idyllic, mountainous scenery, but remains isolated, and is more than 20km from the M1 motorway linking Dublin to Belfast.
“A lot of people didn’t know this part of the world existed,” said Geoffrey Chestnutt, owner of a holiday resort on the Northern Irish coast, adding that the ferry had boosted business.
“They would have traveled directly from Newry [in Northern Ireland] to Newcastle, just missing it out,” added the 40-year-old. “It’s a good thing for both sides of the lough.”
In addition to the 17 jobs directly created by the service, it also has the potential to provide a broader boost to the economy, O’Sullivan said.
The operator said a fishery based in the Northern Ireland coastal town of Kilkeel had been in touch about the possibility of making deliveries to the south.
“The ferry would obviously cut a 30 mile [48km] journey down to a couple of miles,” he said, adding that the boat takes quarter of an hour, compared with more than an hour by road.
Ticket-seller Nora McKee said that “most of our commuters are from the north side — a whole lot is traveling through to Dublin for work.”
However, the return of a border could spell an end to the shortened journey for professional clientele.
The ferry is already trying to increase its tourist numbers, but the holidaymakers are still few and far between, said Brian Mac An Bhaird, who blamed a lack of investment.
“Look at today, this is the middle of the summer ... there are no people. Where are the tourists?” said the 71-year-old retiree.
Paddy Malone, from the regional chamber of commerce, said Carlingford was hit particularly hard by the Troubles and has “been neglected” since peace was achieved.
He partld blames authorities south of the border, who he said “feel that if they get people up to the border, half of the money will be spent on the other side.”
Malone said the area has “huge potential if we can manage Brexit,” but added that uncertainty hung over the border region and the future of the ferry.
On a more optimistic note, O’Sullivan said that if a physical border reappeared, “perhaps those cars would rather wait for these checks in the comfort of the ferry terminal overlooking Carlingford Lough” than take the motorway.
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