A new law that requires government screening of some investments into Ireland from outside the EU could complicate an attempt to build a new port at Bremore, about 35km north of Dublin city. 

Officials in Washington and Brussels have been concerned in recent years about Chinese investment in strategic infrastructure – and particularly ports – in countries around the world, and what military advantage and political influence this might gain Beijing. 

The EU in 2019 declared China an “economic competitor” and “systemic rival”, and brought in a regulation on screening investments from outside the EU. It then called on member states to do similar. 

On 31 October of this year, President Michael D. Higgins signed into law the Screening of Third Country Transactions Act, which lets the government prohibit a transaction or investment it thought could pose a risk to state security.

There’s no evidence of Chinese investment in Bremore Port. But a previous incarnation of the project involved a Chinese company the EU has singled out as being of special concern, as part of the Chinese government’s global influence effort. 

Meanwhile, the Ronan Group, one of the partners in the project, has a long history of doing business in China. And a Dublin-based company appears to be pitching the project to Chinese investors.

The Ronan Group’s response to a series of queries sent Friday, including whether it was planning to raise funds from Chinese investors to help finance the construction of Bremore Port, did not directly answer that question. 

But it’s unclear whether – despite the alarm in Washington and Brussels over Chinese investment in port infrastructure – anyone in Dublin would be particularly concerned, or inclined to step in, if the port was built with the help of investment from China.

Dublin Fingal TD Alan Farrell, Fine Gael’s party whip and justice spokesperson, said he had “no particular view of China or a Chinese investment firm investing in Ireland, such steps are commonplace and are covered by robust legislation”.

Farrell also said by email Monday that he’d been contacted by the “current purveyors of the plan”, asking him to attend a briefing session on it. 

“I replied that once planning and funding was in place, I would certainly consider reviewing it,” he said, noting that “The Bremore Port idea first emerged in my first couple of years in politics, about 20 years ago”.

Bremore Port redux

Indeed, the plan to put a major new port in this part of Ireland has been around for many years. 

Back in the 2000s, the Progressive Democrats were backing a plan to move some of Dublin Port’s industrial functions to a new port in Bremore, according to a 2006 article.

That incarnation of the plan involved Drogheda Port Company, Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett’s Treasury Holdings, and Hong Kong-based Hutchison Port Holdings, according to a 2008 article in the Irish Times.

That effort fizzled during the crash years – but now here we go again. 

This time around, Bremore Port Ireland is a joint venture involving Drogheda Port Company and Ronan Group Real Estate. 

The UK office of Hutchison Ports has not responded yet to a query sent Monday asking whether that company – whose website says it is headquartered in “Hong Kong, China” – is involved, or would like to be. 

Meanwhile, the Dublin-based Zatino Group, which helps overseas investors find opportunities in the Irish market – and get immigration status in Ireland – posted on Facebook about the Bremore Port project in Mandarin.

After giving a short description of the project, the post says, according to Google Translate, “Full service assists investors in preparing materials and applications, and has maintained a 100% pass rate so far.”

Zatino Group has not replied to an email sent Thursday asking whether it was promoting Bremore Port as an investment to Chinese investors.

In response to queries on whether they planned to raise money from China, whether this might fall afoul of the new screening law, and what they would say in response to concerns about Chinese investment in critical infrastructure, a Ronan Group spokesperson did not answer directly. 

“Bremore Ireland Port is focused on the planning consultation process, which commenced a number of weeks ago following the launch of the project. The consultation process will last approximately fifteen to eighteen months,” he said, in full.  

Wherever the finance comes from, the promoters of the project are positioning this new version of Bremore Port as not only a new deepwater port, but a key part of the country’s green-energy strategy.  

A new plan for a new era

Building a whole bunch of offshore wind farms is a big part of Ireland’s energy plans. 

The government’s counting on them to generate clean electricity to power all the stuff that’s now electric – and the stuff that it wants to electrify, like cars and heating. 

All in the service of reducing carbon emissions to help limit the scale of climate change, and the damage it will do. 

But building massive offshore wind farms requires ports. 

At present, there’s only one port in Ireland that can do that – Belfast, Wind Energy Ireland CEO Neil Cunniffe told the Oireachtas committee on enterprise, trade and employment in June 2022.

“The facilities at Belfast are first class but we will need much more. We cannot deliver our offshore energy ambitions from a single port,” Cunniffe said.

Justin Moran, director of external affairs for the group, which represents the Irish wind energy industry, said Friday that Belfast can only do one wind farm project at a time. 

“We need to be delivering multiple projects simultaneously if we’re to come close to our targets,” Moran said. “If Belfast isn’t available, and there are no other Irish ports, then developers will absolutely be looking at Dutch or French ports.” 

But those ports, like Belfast, might be busy building some of the other offshore wind farms planned across Europe – as countries push to decarbonise, with urgency added by the war in Ukraine.

Not only that, “the further away from the site you are the more expensive the construction activity is and, potentially, the more limited the weather windows”, Moran said. 

Also, if the work goes to ports in other countries, it’ll be an economic loss for Ireland, he said. 

“If you’re standing on a beach looking out at ships installing offshore wind turbines and you know those vessels are operating from Irish ports with Irish workers, supporting the development of Irish businesses, is that a better outcome than looking out at ships and knowing not a cent of everything you’re seeing is coming to Ireland?” he said.

In addition to helping build wind farms, Bremore Port would use the electricity from them to produce “green” hydrogen, according to the plan.  

Using wind energy to pull the hydrogen out of water, and bottle it, provides a way to store and transport it, rather than having to use it near where and when it’s generated.

The government’s national hydrogen strategy, published in July, includes a plan to make hydrogen from water using power from the electricity grid – made in part with natural gas – in the short-term, and later using power from offshore wind farms. 

“We have enough offshore wind power to power this country and export energy as both electricity and green hydrogen,” said Wind Energy Ireland’s Cunniffe, at the committee hearing in June 2022. 

Drogheda Port Company’s page on the Bremore Port project says it plans to put in a planning application in 2025 or 2026. 

“During 2023/2024 the project team … are preparing the necessary material for a planning application in 2025/2026, including a public consultation process, and substantive discussions with port users and other stakeholders,” it says. 

A press release about the project says “Initial berths are projected to be functional between 2028-2030” and quotes Ronan Group CEO Rory Williams talking about an “initial €1 billion capital investment into the project”.  

Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly said Tuesday that she remains to be convinced of the need for a new port at Bremore, and says her constituents in the area would be worried about its potential impacts on local infrastructure and the environment.

“The fear would be that it would bring a lot of disruption but very little benefit,” O’Reilly said by phone.

As far as Bremore’s potential role in helping to build offshore wind farms, she said, “I think sometimes with these things it’s better to maximise what we can do with what we already have.”

“Developing a new port would take a long time, and we need these wind turbines now,” she said. 

EU regulation, Irish law 

In their 2019 “strategic outlook”, the European Commission declared China an “economic competitor” and “systemic rival”. 

“This requires a flexible and pragmatic whole-of-EU approach enabling a principled defence of interests and values,” it said.  

That year, the EU brought in a new regulation, providing for the screening of foreign investments from companies outside of the bloc.

“This mechanism is a symbol of Europeans’ awareness that the world around us is not filled only with investors with benevolent objectives,” French MEP Franck Proust, rapporteur for the legislation, said during a debate on it in the European Parliament. 

“Europe, with this instrument, will be able to better protect itself from the butterfly effect of an investment, not to mention the investment race between the United States and China,” Proust said.

Cecilia Malmström, who was at that time EU Commissioner for Trade, said the regulation was “a very important new tool, which would help us strengthen our collective capacity to respond to challenges that have arisen because of globalisation, in particular when foreign investments threaten our strategic interest”.

The EU Commission then called on all member states to put in a mechanism to screen foreign direct investment.

Ireland’s law, just brought in at the end of this October, sets up a process for “certain transactions that may present risks to the security or public order of the State to be reviewed by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment”, it says. 

If the minister decides that a transaction presents a risk to the state’s security, they can take actions including prohibiting the transaction from going ahead, the law says

The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Fine Gael TD Simon Coveney, has not responded to a query sent Friday asking if he’d see Chinese investment in Bremore Port as problematic.

O’Reilly, the Sinn Féin TD, said “As it stands a project of this size would be encompassed by this legislation.”

Protecting key state assets

As part of its Belt and Road Initiative, China has “been developing economic interests in ports in European countries”, according to a February 2023 report from the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS).

So far, this includes Greece, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Italy, the report says. “The main players are two Chinese state companies … as well as Hutchison Port Holdings … the second largest port terminal operator in the world,” it says. 

“Port investments could be an indirect source of political leverage – the more a country’s economy benefits from the presence of Chinese port operators, the more it depends on good relations with China,” the report says. 

But during a September 2022 debate on the screening bill in the Oireachtas, Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly said that it’s not only investment from hostile foreign actors, but also from profit-seeking private companies that can be problematic. 

“The EU-forced liberalisation or sell-off agenda of strategic assets has seen energy, transport and telecommunications pass into the hands of private business,” O’Reilly said, pointing to problems in each of these sectors in turn.

For example, the massive spike in energy prices and energy company profits since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “Businesses and people are seeing their energy bills double and treble as energy companies pay out dividends to stakeholders.” 

“While we support this investment screening Bill, it must be said there is another way to protect critical assets and infrastructure, namely, through public control over critical sectors,” she said. 

Independent TD Matt Shanahan made a similar point during the June 2022 committee hearing on wind energy and the need for more ports, such as Bremore, to help build the offshore wind farms the government is planning for. 

“I have concerns about a lack of state ownership in the wind energy sector as it develops,” Shanahan said. 

“I can see that something similar to what happened with the oil industry is going to happen,” he said. “Ultimately, we will sell the licences, foreign players will come in and provide everything and we will ask what we really got out of it.”

Do you know more about this story and the plans for Bremore Port? Get in touch with Sam Tranum at sam@dublininquirer.com.

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