I mentioned last week in passing, on the subject of the importance of developing a Belfast-Dublin economic corridor tied to the rest of Europe, that collaboration rather than competition is generally the way forward, and noted airports as an example.
There is a notion, frequently implied in Northern Ireland but rather laughable in the Republic, that Belfast International Airport and Dublin Airport are somehow in competition. Viewed from a parochial point of view, there is a limited sense if you live in Belfast’s prosperous southern environs that this is so. However, in general, it is ridiculous.
Dublin Airport is now a vast, major, two-terminal intercontinental airport. In comparison, despite its recent successes around passenger numbers, Belfast International Airport is several divisions below. Dublin offers regular connections from slick new terminals to all kinds of other European hubs, as well as to many North American and even Middle Eastern destinations. Belfast International offers you a few tourist resorts. The fact is that Dublin Airport is the airport for the Dublin-Belfast corridor, located perfectly. Belfast International is a useful secondary option, primarily for quick domestic links. Belfast City, viewed from Dublin, is a glorified aerodrome.
It strikes me, thinking long term, that there are two realistic options. Either Northern Ireland can go on a quite incredibly expensive infrastructure overhaul, investing billions in its rail network (widening track at Central, turning on the entire system two hours earlier, buying new rolling stock), building a new interchange at Ballycraigy for a motorway from the M2 to the Airport and at Blaris for a motorway from the M1 to the Airport, and in effect moving the City Airport to become a second terminal at Aldergrove; or it can accept that Dublin is almost perfectly situated to be its international airport for almost all intents and purposes.
Leaving constitutional politics out of it, the latter may well be the better option. Think, then, about where that may lead.
Peculiarly, aviation is not a devolved issue, even though some aspects of Air Passenger Duty are. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s most important airport from an economic point of view is in a different jurisdiction anyway. How about, er, “taking back control”?
Instead of prolonging the fantasy that Belfast International Airport will ever be serious competition for Dublin, how about instead accepting the status quo may just work and going as follows:
- bring all Airports in Northern Ireland and east coast of Ireland under a single Airports Authority;
- establish a cross-border body (let’s call it “Aviation Ireland”) to agree aviation policy for the island of Ireland on a cross-border basis; and
- make an arrangement, at time of transfer of aviation functions in Northern Ireland from the UK Government to Aviation Ireland, that Aviation Ireland will set Air Passenger Duty for the island of Ireland with no penalty to the Northern Ireland devolved budget.
How’s that for “North-South makes sense”? So much sense, no Minister that I am aware of has ever suggested it…