Belfast Harbour said 25.6 million tonnes was handled by the port in 2021, an increase of 9% on the previous year.
The trade volume was also up 5% on the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.
While a pandemic bounce back was one driver of the increase in trade in 2021, the harbour’s annual report also highlighted that Belfast had benefited from a diversion of traffic away from GB to Republic of Ireland routes.
While Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol requires checks on goods entering NI from GB, the processes are not as rigorous as those applied on GB shipments to Ireland.
Ongoing grace periods that have delayed the full implementation of the protocol are one of the main reasons for the differential in checks between NI and RoI ports.
Northern Ireland exporters can also sell unfettered in the rest of the UK market if they ship from NI ports.
The harbour’s annual report stated: “Following the UK’s exit from the European Union, changes in RoRo (roll on/roll off) traffic volumes on routes between Ireland and Great Britain have taken place, with all NI Ports, including Belfast, experiencing improved trade volumes whilst grace periods continue to apply.”
Belfast Harbour CEO Joe O’Neill said there was evidence that some of the trade was starting to migrate back to Dublin routes.
He said the flow of trade through Belfast port was “smooth” through 2021.
With the fate of the protocol still to be resolved, including the status of the grace periods, Mr O’Neill said businesses were seeking certainty.
“Businesses are calling out for certainty,” he said.
“And with certainly then they can make their appropriate plans and adjustments and work with that – it’s the uncertainty that is the issue, it potentially deters investment and makes it a little more challenging to manage day to day operations.”
Mr O’Neill said trade flow had continued to be strong in the first half of 2022, but said there was some evidence that surging inflationary pressures were starting to result in a “softening” of activity, particularly with the movement of goods like animal feeds and fertilisers.
The report shows that Belfast Harbour has returned to more normal trading conditions after the pandemic, with a record year-on-year increase in turnover and profit.
In 2021, turnover increased by 17% to £73.3 million on the prior year, while operating profits were up 14% to £33.9 million.
Dr Theresa Donaldson, chair of Belfast Harbour, said: “2021 was a record year for Belfast Harbour, with a strong trading performance across our diverse portfolio, with both port trade and wider estate activity out-performing the previous year.
“Throughout the challenges of the pandemic, trade has continued to flow, and these results demonstrate the continued resilience of Belfast Harbour and its customers and tenants, as together we adapt and respond to external challenges and operating changes.
“This strong performance provides a firm economic base and positive outlook for 2022, but we remain mindful of the continuing risks posed by the pandemic and of the global energy and supply chain challenges and related inflationary environment.”