A smart, green port in a growing, vibrant city

A smart, green port in a growing, vibrant city

Joe O’Neill, Chief Executive of Belfast Harbour, has helped oversee the transformation of Belfast port into one that is smart, green and adapted to the robust economic growth that the Norther Irish capitol sees on the horizon.


The port of Belfast has a rich history that goes back 400 years, and from a muddy estuary has radically transformed into a modern, deep water port. Given Northern Ireland’s situation, the port has been holding a central role as gateway to the country. To start, can you give us a rapid overview of Belfast Harbour. How vital and significant is it to the region?

Belfast Harbour was founded in 1613 and has a rich heritage of more than 400 years. The Port has always played a fundamental role in the social and economic development of Belfast and the region. Today, as Northern Ireland’s primary gateway for trade, services and tourism, it is more important than ever in the day-to-day lives of the people and businesses in this region.   Belfast Harbour handles 70% of the seaborne trade for Northern Ireland. We are a multi-modal port, connecting the region to worldwide markets and handling all manner of tradeable goods.

Building on the innovations of the past, Belfast Harbour’s vision is to become the world’s best regional port by growing economic activity, adopting new smart technology and upholding the highest environmental standards as a clean, green port. Belfast Harbour is also committed to developing an iconic waterfront that is a standout destination for the city’s residents and visitors.

Spanning 2,000 acres, Belfast Harbour Estate is home to a vibrant community of people and businesses, including commercial and residential real estate, film studios and leading companies in sectors such as IT, R&D, engineering and aerospace. 1,500 people live within the estate and it is home to more than 760 businesses, with around 27,000 people working and studying within the Estate.

The Harbour Estate attracts more than 5 million visits annually and is home to some of Northern Ireland’s best-known organizations including George Best Belfast City Airport, Belfast Metropolitan College, Baker McKenzie, ITV, Belfast Harbour Studios, Harland and Wolff, Spirit AeroSystems, Catalyst (Science Park), SSE Arena and world class tourist attractions such as Titanic Belfast.

Belfast Harbour is fast becoming a key economic hub for innovation and for creative industries like film and media. We are at the heart of the city’s new Innovation District – both in terms of physical locality and as a core partner in the coalition of anchor institutions that make up Innovation City Belfast.

As we put Northern Ireland on the map as a leading European hub for film production, planning permission is in place for a potential $62 million expansion of Belfast Harbour Film Studios, with existing facilities already playing host to global brands such as Netflix, Paramount and Universal.

As we improve our connectivity to the city centre, similarly, the scale of our residential offering within the Estate is increasing. In the next 15 years there are plans to build 3,500 apartments, further developing the Harbour Estate as a place where people not only work and spend their leisure time but also live.

With 400 years of history, we are proud of our rich maritime heritage and the Estate is also home to significant tourism and heritage projects, like Titanic Belfast and the array of heritage assets located along The Maritime Mile.


The port is a Trust Port, not receiving public funding but operating, maintaining and developing itself by reinvesting its own profits. How has this model helped you in the past, and how does it help with the port’s agility, decision-making and competitiveness?

As a Trust Port, Belfast Harbour has no shareholders but it is set up by statute to operate, maintain and develop Belfast Harbour for the benefit of its customers and the people of Northern Ireland. It means we are a port that works for and gives back to our community.

As a Trust Port, our capacity to take a long-term strategic view on investment has never seemed more relevant. Our Trust Port model means every penny of our net earnings is reinvested into developing the Port and Harbour Estate.

Annually we invest about $70 million into port facilities and estate development. Our Trust Port operating status helps to enable us to be agile and responsive to market demands when taking investment decisions. We are strong advocates of the Trust Port model; it has served Northern Ireland and the local economies very well, enabling Belfast Harbour to invest in the transformation and growth of the region.


As outlined in its vision 2035, Belfast Harbour aspires to be the World’s Best Regional Port , and the ultimate gateway for trade, growth, tradeable services as well as an Iconic Waterfront for the City. Can you tell me a bit more about your 2,000-acre harbour estate assets? What sorts of expansion and regeneration projects are you working on? What is the vision here?

Our 2035 ‘Port for Everyone’ vision is to be a world leading regional port and key economic hub for the region and to develop an iconic waterfront for the city. Sustainability as a Green Port and technical innovation as a Smart Port are key enablers that will help us deliver our ambitions.

First and foremost, Belfast Harbour is a leading regional port. More than two-thirds of what comes in and out of Northern Ireland by sea comes through Belfast Harbour—from the food in our weekly shop, to the tourists visiting our shores, to the wide variety of products sold by our businesses and shipped around the world. Put simply, we play a key role in keeping the economy in this region moving.

As a key economic hub, we are attracting both local and foreign direct investment to the new Grade ‘A’ office accommodation that we are constructing within the Harbour Estate. Belfast has two world class universities, educating a rich talent pool which is a key factor in attracting investment to the region, particularly in emerging sectors such as FinTech, Healthtech and Greentech. Our investment in high quality office accommodation in developments such as our City Quays mixed use waterfront project is therefore complemented by a highly educated local workforce.

Our investments in developing an iconic waterfront and enhanced public realm are transforming what was previously a largely industrial landscape. We are creating a sense of place and a ‘Port for Everyone’ that all of the city can enjoy.   Our 15-year strategy is very much about ensuring the Harbour Estate is open, welcoming and relevant to all.


How is the Port working to promote all these projects, to reach out to further potential visitors and investors? What are you doing concretely to send out the message that Belfast Harbour is more than a port and is heavily investing into the future of Northern Ireland?

The diverse nature of our Estate means that our local and international stakeholder partnerships are rich and varied. A key development, which is driving this variety and is transforming the city’s waterfront landscape, is City Quays, a 2.2 million square feet of mixed-use development, with 70 percent allocated to office accommodation. As we continue to develop as a key economic hub and invest in the Harbour Estate, these BREEAM excellent, Grade ‘A’ offices are attracting local and foreign direct investors. Our Trust Port operating model ensures that our business is strong enough to invest speculatively in this type of development and, because of the high standard of office accommodation constructed, we have been able to attract companies to fill all of the space we have built to date.

Currently, within City Quays, we are building the largest office development in Belfast, City Quays 3. It is a 16 storey, 250,000 square feet office, which will accommodate about 1,800 people and include Covid-19 secure requirements built into the design.

We work with InvestNI to liaise with global businesses who may be interested in locating within Belfast Harbour Estate, are we are currently showcasing both our City Quays 3 and Olympic House office developments. Based at the heart of Queen’s Island, Olympic House comprises of a further 190,000 square feet of office space that we are co-promoting in conjunction with Titanic Quarter Limited.

Working closely with Northern Ireland Screen, Belfast Harbour Studios has helped to establish the region as a media and film production hub, attracting global production houses such as Netflix, Paramount and Universal. Intense collaboration by local partners has resulted in global recognition for the region as a location with both quality media space and talented crew. As we build our reputation for delivering top quality creative production space, we have a $62 million investment plan to quadruple the size of our existing studios. This new purpose built studio space will make Belfast Harbour Studios one of Europe’s largest creative media hubs.

As we create ‘A Port for Everyone’ we are developing the leisure and tourism offering within the Estate. We work closely with tourism development agencies, both here and in international markets, to promote Northern Ireland as a tourism destination.

While paused by Covid-19, both domestic and international tourism have seen rapid growth across the region in recent years. The cruise sector is a clear indicator of this. In 1995/96 Belfast had no cruise calls at all, compared to 150 cruise calls pre-Covid. Belfast Harbour is the second largest cruise port in Ireland, which is a testament to the quality tourism assets in the region now, supported by Tourism NI and Visit Belfast.


The next four years should see an investment of $360 million, including $138 million in port infrastructure. What are some of the biggest infrastructure projects that you wish to highlight, that will enhance the port’s capacity and efficiency, that will build the foundations for a green multi-modal port, and perhaps also lead to a diversification of your activities?

Belfast Harbour has a significant ongoing investment program, committing more than $346 million to the development of marine and Harbour Estate infrastructure and facilities up to 2023, including the completion of a $55m upgrade of the Victoria Terminal 3 container terminal. As part of that we are introducing sustainable initiatives like electric plant and smart initiatives where cranes will be remotely operated etc. We have made productivity gains, efficiency gains, but also, more importantly, safety gains. This is a once-in-a-generation investment of which we are about two-thirds of the way through.

As well as investing in the port, significant investment has gone into Belfast Harbour’s wider Estate and iconic waterfront development. This includes the transformative redevelopment of City Quays in recent years, with the $69m City Quays 3 office currently under construction on the waterfront, due for completion in November 2021. Further investment in City Quays public realm is also imminent, as we commence engagement with planners for approvals to develop City Quays Gardens.

Our infrastructure and place-making investments and future strategic master-planning for the Estate are designed to support Belfast City’s Council’s 2035 ‘Agenda’ objective to accommodate 66,000 new residents, create 46,000 additional jobs, and develop 550,000 square meters of employment floor space. Our investments have lasting socio-economic impact, supporting 3,500 construction jobs up to 2023, and better connecting our Estate to the wider city through sustainable and active travel networks.

We have a diversified investment strategy with innovation at its core. As part of Innovation City Belfast, we are working in partnership with the two universities, Catalyst, Belfast City Council and InvestNI to create an Innovation District, located within the Harbour Estate, where there is already a substantial FinTech presence. In line with the NI Executive’s 10x economic plan, we want to create a step-change in what we are doing individually and collectively as partners. A substantial part is around positioning Belfast as an innovation center of excellence, particularly in the areas of Greentech and Healthtech.


In October last year, the Port announced a partnership with BT to build a state-of-the-art 5G ecosystem within the Port. What is the latest progress made in terms of digitalization, technology roll out, and towards your smart port strategic ambitions?

Developing a technologically smart, clean, green port is core to the delivery of our strategic vision. We want to sustainably use technology and digitalization as a way of leveraging efficiencies and improving safety and productivity. Our partnership with BT to develop one of the first private 5G networks within a port in the UK will help our engineers to do enhanced maintenance checks more safely via the remote technology. Some of this activity will use 5G technology to help the engineer in the field and cranes on our quayside locations to communicate back to the equipment manufacturers or maintenance engineers to get real time assistance.

We are leveraging 5G technology from our private network to get real time data on the performance of our road network and provide real time updates to people so that they can manage their journeys. Our recently purchased 5G operated drone will also providing real time monitoring data for inspections of all of our high masts or cranes and less accessible marine infrastructure.


As trade operator, Belfast Harbour has been on the frontline to feel the impact of Brexit. How have you coped so far, how have you prepared for this transition over the past four years?

A lot has been talked about Brexit. To date we have coped well and our business has been resilient.   We had some stockpiling by a number of our customers in the last two months of 2020, but the start of 2021 has been positive and is, in the most, part similar to 2019 as a pre-COVID year.


Looking at 2020 in retrospective, what’s been the impact of the pandemic on the cruise and container traffic? What have been some of the major lessons learnt?

Belfast Harbour has not been immune to the significant social and economic challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, but our port has continued to operate safely and effectively throughout the recent crisis. The port remained operational 24/7 during the pandemic. As an essential service provider, the goods that we bring in are crucial products to our economy and survival; be it fuel, food or medical supplies, those products need to continue to flow.

Trade through the Port has proved remarkably resilient, with the greatest impacts felt in our cruise, tourist and leisure offering. We did have a dip in our trade during 2020, but most of that, with the exception of tourism passengers and cruise, bounced back strongly. We are now seeing a gradual and positive restart of the cruise sector this summer.

The impact of the pandemic has been minimized by the resilience and diversity of our business portfolio, and by the dedication of the entire Belfast Harbour community, who together kept essential goods flowing smoothly.

As Covid-19 restrictions begin to ease, Belfast Harbour’s sound financial position and ambitious investment plans are playing a key role in supporting social and economic recovery, working with our customers and key partners to play our part in getting the economy back on track.


You’ve been heading up the Port as CEO since 2018, after over 20 years within the business. What are some of the achievements that you are most proud of from these last 3 years?

I am proud of how the organization is respected externally as much more than a port, but as a thriving bustling port and estate with a strong strategy and a vision which is going to deliver not just for the business but for the benefit for Belfast and the region. I am also proud of how we have weathered the challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit. Our Trust Port business model has enabled us, even during the pandemic, to remain committed to making investments on a speculative basis, developing new office space, film studios and new residential and leisure offerings, all of which are already providing an economic boost.

Our ongoing investment in new assets, we hope, will help drive economic recovery for Belfast and for the region. I’m pleased to see how rapidly we are moving towards making our ‘Port for Everyone’ vision a reality, building a community and place that people feel an affinity to, and want to visit, work, live and invest in.


What’s your final message to our readers?

As a Port city, Belfast has an enduring legacy to be proud of, and as we at Belfast Harbour look forward and continually innovate, we are ambitious for the future development of our Port and our region. As we strive to deliver ‘A Port for Everyone,’ we hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards as a socially responsible Trust Port. We are seeking out opportunities and building partnerships that will grow Belfast as a leading Port city on the global stage.

It is a genuinely exciting time for Belfast. All the key stakeholders in the city and region have ambitious and well aligned strategic plans. Working in partnership, we are embracing new opportunities, particularly around innovation, and we are collaborating to deliver something where the sum of the parts will be much greater than the individual parts.

Our ambition is to play our part in attracting investment and help to inspire and create opportunities for the talent in our city. By creating a culture of inclusive growth for all, we are creating a positive socio-economic landscape for everyone in our community.