Belfast Harbour

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View of Belfast Container Terminal from Victoria Channel approach, April 2019
New Belfast Liebherr crane under assembly, May 2020
Newly assembled Liebherr gantry crane awaiting transfer
Newly assembled Liebherr gantry crane

Belfast Harbour is a major maritime hub in Northern Ireland, handling 67% of Northern Ireland's seaborne trade and about 25% of the maritime trade of the entire island of Ireland. It is a vital gateway for raw materials, exports and consumer goods, and is also Northern Ireland's leading logistics and distribution hub.

The Belfast Harbour Estate is home to many well-known Northern Ireland businesses such as George Best Belfast City Airport, Harland and Wolff, Bombardier Aerospace, Odyssey, the Catalyst Inc, Titanic Quarter and Titanic Belfast. Over 700 firms employing 23,000 people are located within the estate.

Belfast is only one of two ports on the island of Ireland to handle a full range of cargoes, from freight vehicles to containers, dry, break and liquid bulk, as well as passenger services and cruise calls.

Belfast Harbour handled 23 million tonnes of cargo during 2015, similar to its throughput for 2014. The tonnages suggest a varying performance between sectors in the wider Northern Ireland economy.

BBC One Northern Ireland began a three-part documentary on Belfast Harbour entitled Belfast Harbour: Cruises, Cranes and Cargo on 14 April 2020 examining the role of the Port of Belfast in Northern Ireland's economy.[1]

Belfast docks in 2009


Belfast Harbour's origins date back to 1613 when a Royal Charter for the incorporation of Belfast specified the need for a wharf at the confluence of the rivers Lagan and Farset in what is modern-day Belfast's High Street.

George Benn, in his 1877 History of the Town of Belfast described the early harbour as a poor little harbour'

"The dock, if it could be so-called; or creek, or quay-room proper, extend a considerable way up the river, but its fixed and best-known bounds reached from the sea to the present Skipper Street. This small and most obscure port was the nucleus of the great docks and harbour of modern days."[2]

Records show that by 1663 there were 29 vessels owned in Belfast with a total tonnage of 1,100 tonnes. Trade continued to expand throughout the century, to the extent that the original quay was enlarged, to accommodate the increasing number of ships.

By the early 18th century Belfast had replaced Carrickfergus as the most important port in Ulster and additional accommodation was necessary. A number of privately owned wharves were subsequently constructed on reclaimed land. Throughout the century trade continued to expand as Belfast assumed a greater role in the trading activities of the country as a whole. In 1785 the Irish Parliament passed an act to deal with the town's burgeoning port. As a result, a new body was constituted: The Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port and Harbour of Belfast, commonly called 'the Ballast Board'.

The Ballast Board took over the running of the port from the Belfast Corporation. The Ballast Office was established in premises on the site of the present Customs House.

Although already well established by this stage, the Port remained disadvantaged by the natural restrictions of shallow water, bends in the channel approach and inadequate quays. Most vessels were forced to lighten their loads downstream at Garmoyle before they could dock at the quays and complete their discharge. This cost importers extra handling charges and the need for additional Customs supervision.

These problems, together with an increasing volume of trade, led to a new government act of 1837 under the Westminster Parliament. This reconstituted the Board and gave it powers to improve the port, through the formation of a new channel. Initial work on straightening the river commenced in 1839 and by 1841 the first bend had been eliminated. Thus, beginning the creation of what was to become known as the Victoria Channel. The Victoria Channel was completed in 1849. The Clarendon Dock opened in 1851 and the Dufferin and Spencer Docks opened in 1897.

In 1847 the Belfast Harbour Act repealed previous acts and led to the formation of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. This new body, with much wider powers, completed the second stage of the new channel two years later. From that time the Commissioners have developed and improved the Port, reclaiming land to accommodate new quays, new trades and changes in shipping and cargo-handling technology.

HMS Caroline is a First World War light cruiser permanently berthed in Belfast Harbour

During World War II the Port of Belfast was used by the Royal Navy as the home base for many of the ships that escorted Atlantic and Russian convoys including Captain-class frigates of the 3rd Escort Group. HMS Caroline is a First World War light cruiser permanently berthed in Belfast Harbour. It served as the training ship for some 130 reservists as the headquarters for the Ulster Division Royal Naval Reserve until it was decommissioned in 2011. After extensive restoration work, HMS Caroline opened to the public in June 2016 as a museum as part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.[3]

Belfast West Power Station (formerly Power Station West) was opened in 1961 on a site in the port subleased to the Belfast Corporation Electricity Department. This subleased is today held by Northern Ireland Electricity. The station continued to generate electricity until its closure in March 2002. On 6 July 2007 the station's three 240 ft (73 m) chimneys were demolished by controlled explosion and the remainder of the site was cleared in the following months.[4] The site continues to be managed by NIE on behalf of the utility regulator which has stated that the various conditions of the lease "suggest that the best use for the site going forward is electrical generation. The site is currently used for coal storage and sorting "[5]


Belfast Harbour is one of the UK's many "Trust Ports" and is an independent statutory body. Trust Ports are not owned by Government; they are obliged to operate independently and on a commercial basis. Its Board – known as Belfast Harbour Commissioners - is appointed by Northern Ireland's Department for Regional Development on the basis of open public advertisement.

The Commissioners currently number fifteen and are led by a Chairman. The positions are remunerated and are for terms of three years. All of the Commissioners with the exception of the Chief Executive are non-executives.

Board members[edit]

The current Commissioners (February 2020) are:[6]

Adair, Roy

Alexander, Kyle

Beattie, Ciaran

Chambers, Jane

Copeland, Sonia

Dobbin, David CBE (chairman)

Everitt, Richard

Fitzsimons, Diana

Hayes, Christine

Johnston, Rotha

Lange, Deborah

McCoubrey, Frank

O’Hare, Gerard

O’Neill, Joe (CEO)

Vernon, Ed

Law enforcement[edit]

The port is patrolled by the Belfast Harbour Police, which is one of the oldest constabularies in the British Isles, dating back over 160 years.

In recent times the service has faced new challenges as the relocation of marine facilities to the seaward end of the Port have created opportunities to develop new residential, commercial and public spaces. In addition to traditional port users the Harbour Police now provide a range of policing services to tenants, residents and visitors who frequent the Harbour Estate.


MS Stena Lagan as Lagan Seaways in Belfast


In 2014 476,000 freight vehicles used the Port, a 2.2% increase over 2013. By 2019, Stena Line's Belfast-Loch Ryan route, Belfast-Birkenhead and Belfast-Heysham service together carried 542,000 freight vehicles were handled; a record number for nine consecutive years.

125,000 containers and 6.0 million tonnes of bulk cargo were handled in 2009.[7] By 2019, bulk cargo throughput had increased to 9.9 million tonnes and the number of containers handled at Victoria Terminal 3 increased to more than 130,000 units, carrying over 2.1 million tonnes of goods. The total trade tonnage in 2019 exceeded 24 million tonnes for the second successive year.[8]

In 1993, container operations moved from York Dock and Herdman Channel to Victoria Terminal 3; a new terminal equipped with three Liebherr ship-to-shore gantry cranes and three rail-mounted stacking gantry cranes. This terminal was operated by Coastal Container Line Limited; a subsidiary of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company; later Peel Ports Belfast. VT3 served feeder traffic from Rotterdam, Le Havre, Antwerp, Felixstowe, Southampton and Liverpool.

In 2006, a rival service operated by a subsidiary of the Irish Continental Group; Belfast Container Terminal, began to operate a service to Antwerp and Rotterdam from the Herdman Channel using a mobile ship-to-shore crane and three straddle carriers.

In 2015, Peel Ports lost the tender to operate the service at VT3 to the Irish Continental Group. Belfast Container Terminal began to operate solely from VT3 by September 2015; initially for a five-year period.[9]

In October 2019, Belfast Harbour announced a £40million project to upgrade VT3 with eight new remote-controlled Kalmar rubber-tyres gantry cranes and two Liebherr ship-to-shore gantry cranes. Five of the new cranes were delivered in November 2019. The first two are expected to go into service in the first quarter of 2020. Major civil engineering works are underway to accommodate the new equipment[10]

The first of the two new Liebherr ship-to-shore gantry cranes arrived in Belfast at the end of April 2020. This was discharged alongside the cruise ship berth on the County Down side of the Victoria Channel to be assembled.[11] Assembly of gantry crane 101 was completed in May 2020. This crane was floated across the channel by barge in June 2020. The second Liebherr crane, 102, arrived in August 2020. These new Liebherr STS gantry cranes two of the three existing gantry cranes which have been on site since 1993.

Passenger services[edit]

1.4 million passengers used the port's ferry services in 2014. Routes from the Port of Belfast include:

Ferry & Rail Connections[edit]

Connecting Belfast with Glasgow Central via Stranraer using the bus link from Cairnryan. Trains run along the Glasgow South Western Line from Stranraer to Glasgow Central.

Preceding station   Ferry   Following station
Stranraer Harbour
(via bus link from Cairnryan[13])
  Stena Line
(nearest stations Yorkgate, Lanyon Place & Belfast Great Victoria Street)
Liverpool   Stena Line
(nearest stations Yorkgate, Lanyon Place & Belfast Great Victoria Street)
Holyhead[14]   Stena Line
(nearest stations Yorkgate, Lanyon Place & Belfast Great Victoria Street)
Douglas   Isle of Man Steam Packet
Ferry (Seasonal)
(nearest stations Yorkgate, Lanyon Place & Belfast Great Victoria Street)
Rail and sea connections from Belfast with Abellio ScotRail in red.

There is Metro bus Service 96 connecting with Yorkgate onto the Londonderry Line and Belfast Suburban Rail network of Northern Ireland Railways.

Cruise ships[edit]

It is increasingly popular with cruise liners, with 2016 due to be the busiest cruise season in the city's history with over 145,000 passengers and crew due to visit, representing a 26% increase in visitor numbers compared with 2015.

The 2 cruise berths that are used are the Pollock dock, named after Northern Irish politician Hugh MacDowell Pollock, for smaller ships and the Stormont Wharf (deep water berth) for larger ships, The extended Stormont Wharf was opened on 30 June 2009 by the Grand Princess.

Pollock Dock: (Length 457m, depth 8.5m) Stormont Wharf (Length 177m, depth 10.2m)


Belfast Harbour has extensive property interests covering about 1,950 acres (790 ha). 855 acres are used directly for port operations, 90 acres (360,000 m2) are reserved for nature conservation and the remaining 1,005 are either leased or under negotiation.[15]

Titanic Quarter[edit]

Panorama of the Titanic Quarter, showing the remaining Harland and Wolff buildings, the Samson and Goliath cranes and the Odyssey.

Belfast Harbour's largest property project is the Titanic Quarter, which is "co-promoted" with Titanic Quarter Limited.

Holywood Exchange[edit]

Sainsbury's at Holywood Exchange.

Belfast Harbour Commissioners and its partners made the first planning application for Holywood Exchange (previously known as D5 or Harbour Exchange) on 14 November 1995. Planning permission was granted twice and then successfully challenged. The third time planning permission was granted it was again challenged, but this time unsuccessfully. Construction began in December 2002 and when completed the development consisted of an 11 unit 13,940 m2 (150,000 ft2) retail warehouse centre, a Sainsbury's store and service station, and a B&Q store. A 29,000 m2 (312,000 ft2) IKEA store opened on 13 December 2007.

City Quays[edit]

City Quays is a mixed-use commercial offices in City Quays 1 and City Quays 2 and includes shops, cafes, restaurants and other local services.[16]


The Odyssey Complex, which consists of the Odyssey Pavilion, SSE Arena Belfast and W5 is a large sports and entertainment centre in the Belfast Harbour Estate. The Odyssey arena and pavilion is built on land owned by The Odyssey Trust under a 150-year lease with Belfast Harbour Commissioners.[17]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Belfast Harbour: Cruises, Cranes and Cargo". BBC One.
  2. ^ Benn, George (1823). History of the Town of Belfast.
  3. ^ "Caroline". National Museum of the Royal Navy.
  4. ^ "Tall chimneys come down to earth". BBC News. 6 July 2007.
  5. ^ Consultation on Vacant Sites within the NIE Land Bank Archived 25 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine 13 May 2010
  6. ^ "The Board".
  7. ^ "Belfast Harbour: The Board". Archived from the original on 6 January 2015.
  8. ^ "Belfast Harbour tonnages remain strong". Belfast Harbour. 5 February 2020.
  9. ^ "Container and Terminal Division". Irish Continental Group.
  10. ^ "£40m Investement to upgrade container terminal". Belfast Harbour. 1 October 2019.
  11. ^ Belfast Harbour [@BelfastHarbour] (12 May 2020). "A few weeks ago a new @Liebherr_GB Ship to Shore crane arrived in Port (picture on the left) and the assembly is now complete. She will soon move across to VT3 and will increase efficiency of handling essential goods for Northern Ireland" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  12. ^ "[PR] Highly anticipated new Stena Line ferry arrives in Northern Ireland for final trials". NI Ferry Site. 26 February 2020. Retrieved 28 February 2020.
  13. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 21 October 2013. Retrieved 20 October 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  14. ^ "Liverpool to Belfast by Ferry".
  15. ^ "New law raises questions about future of key asset and island's second-largest port". The Irish Times. 25 March 2008.
  16. ^ "Belfast Harbour". Belfast Harbour. Retrieved 13 November 2018.
  17. ^ "The Odyssey Trust".

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 54°37′04″N 5°54′06″W / 54.61778°N 5.90167°W / 54.61778; -5.90167