Airport urgent message to Ministers: take ‘bold step’ and act on APD

19 May 2015

Dublin’s bragging has done us all a great favour!

Proclaiming 52% growth in Northern Ireland passengers through Dublin Airport accomplishes two things for Belfast International and Northern Ireland. 

Firstly, it quantifies what Northern Ireland is losing. Last year, 864,000 passengers headed south. Put another way, that’s 1.7M return journeys. And that represents a loss to Northern Ireland of 1,700 aviation-related jobs, according to a ratio worked out by Airports Council International (ACI).

That is a staggering loss, one we can ill afford as we try to grow our Private Sector and re-balance the economy. This should register an ‘8’ on the political Richter Scale but for some inexplicable reason, all it provokes is inertia and inactivity.  

Secondly, the ‘haemorrhage’ of business is largely due, not so much to destination choice, but to Air Passenger Duty (APD) which levies £26 on a return ticket to GB and European destinations. The Republic of Ireland, when it saw the damage the levy was doing, got rid of it. Scotland and Wales want to do the same. 

Ironically, Northern Ireland suffers the most of any UK region, yet our political leaders shy away from seeking the antidote to effectively tackle the issue. They prefer to say it should be addressed at a national and not a regional level – scared that it will eat into the Block Grant. 

Only last week, at a poorly reported Assembly Finance Committee, it was clear from questions put by Leslie Cree, Paul Girvan and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir that the economic ‘albatross’ that is APD has to be dealt with, and quickly.

A few days later, the Committee Chairman, Daithí McKay, tweeted: “New figures on local passengers using Dublin Airport shows why dev(olution) of APD powers must be an economic priority. Top issue for NIA_FinCom.”

Now that’s called nailing your colours to the mast. Cross-party MLAs are all on the same page demonstrating broad agreement on APD despite a wishy-washy report commissioned by two Departments – DFP and DETI – which sought to cast doubt over the benefits of devolving the power to Stormont.

Words of conviction spoken by Mr Ó Muilleoir summarise out position perfectly. He told the three witnesses, who turned up to rebut the points made by Belfast International, that they were on the wrong track.

His words are worth repeating: “I regard both Minister Hamilton and Minister Foster – they have switched roles – as ambitious and having high aspirations, and that is why I am so disappointed that they have accepted this report. This report has no aspiration, no ambition and is treading water. If you look just at our tourism industry, you find that it is inhibited by APD and held back. In my view, this region is discriminated against by APD.....

“....To me, this report speaks of pessimism. We are talking about Dublin air tourism numbers in the years ahead. There is great work going on, yet we say, ‘By the way, we are just going to tread water and mess around at the edges’. In my view, the situation needs bold steps...

“ is the most disappointing report that I have seen in a long time.”

There is another element to this debate. Corporation Tax powers are hailed as the answer to our economic ills. On its own, CT will fall short of delivering what Ministers expect. Without direct air access, potential inward investors will look askance and say ‘nice to see lower tax, but how do we get there?”

The same holds true for inbound tourism. Does anyone seriously believe that Dublin will usher prospective tourists straight up the road to NI? It is their firm objective to merely pay lip service to NI on the tourism front, throwing a few crumbs at our iconic visitor attractions as a bolt-on to a predominantly southern-based itinerary.

The Assembly Finance Committee gets it. My hope must be that Ministers, too, will see the light!

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