Minister for European Affairs Thomas Byrne has today inaugurated a new Irish terminal at the French ferry port of Dunkirk, with Ireland-France sea routes rising from 12 before Brexit to 44 now.

It has already handled nearly 50,000 freight units (trucks and unaccompanied containers) moving from Rosslare and back, as exporters side step the UK landbridge since Brexit took effect on 1 January.

"It's basically sold out now with freight lorries," said Minister Byrne.

"The whole port, the [Nord Pas de Calais] region, the [Dunkirk] chamber of commerce, is behind this, to get even more connections to Ireland.

"We only had 12 direct routes to France before Brexit, now it’s 44.

"We are looking as well next summer towards tourism to get Irish tourists into this region, but also of course, tourists from Northern France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.

"They have more direct routes into Ireland too."

The importance of Dunkirk has become the latest outworking of Brexit and reflects the growing need for direct sea routes to and from Ireland so that Irish and other EU exporters can sidestep the UK land bridge.

That is because the land bridge is now associated with delays and customs formalities.

Mr Byrne said the land bridge was still important as it took less time than average and was important for certain fresh foods.

However, he said the sea route from Rosslare to Dunkirk provided lorry drivers with more rest periods.

The Dunkirk-Rosslare route is being operated by the Danish shipping line DFDS, which now has three boats operating five round trips per week.

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Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, Mr Byrne said the Irish terminal in Dunkirk would provide a huge opportunity for tourism and open up the continent to Irish people.

"Importantly, it will open up Ireland as a direct route, particularly for those with caravans and camper vans from the Netherlands, from Northern France, from Germany.

"I think there's a huge opportunity for tourism here as well and I think we're going to grasp those opportunities," the minister said.

Torben Carlsen, the chief executive of DFDS, told RTÉ News: "This was something that is in response to Brexit.

"It was clear, also to our Irish partners, that Irish exporters would be seriously suffering, potentially due to the difficulties of paperwork and delays. Lately also the [suffering from the] driver shortage you can see in the UK.

"So there was a demand for a direct link between Ireland and the EU, most specifically France, and we responded to that need."

Mr Carlsen said the sea route was also appropriate for 'just in time' food exports.

"We have a lot of time-sensitive goods on this route, and with the tacometers of the drivers and the schedule they have, you're almost able to get to Dunkirk at the same time as you would with the land bridge.

"It's a very attractive route also for drivers because they resting when they are at sea and have a full driving schedule when they arrive. So the land bridge does not have an advantage."

Mr Carlsen said DFDS was looking at ways to increase tonnage capacity on the route.

He said: "Irish exporters have really supported this route ... It's been difficult for us, in all honesty, to have enough tonnage on the route to live up to the demand.

"I've just talked to some of our largest shippers and we're trying to see how we can have a product that is sufficiently large in capacity to make it the long term solution for their customers.

"And I think ... exchanging a larger ship into the route [will] have more reliability. We want to do that with the issues we've seen from the Irish exporters.

"And surprisingly to us there's also been quite a lot of interest from the continent in using this route to rebalance things."

Minister Byrne also commented today about the Northern Ireland Protocol, saying helping people there "improve their trade flows to Britain" was equally as important as continuing to have access to the EU single market.