At a press conference in Belfast on September 5th 1995, Stena Sealink Line managing director Gareth Cooper ended months of speculation by confirming the the company would be totally relocating its Northern Ireland operation from Larne to Belfast later that year. As well as relocating their route to Stranraer from P&O owned Larne, Stena Sealink would also be introducing a brand new state-of-the-art HSS vessel from Belfast in 1996. The brand new purpose-built terminal facility at Albert Quay close to Belfast City Centre which had previously been announced for the new HSS service would handle all Stena Sealink Northern Ireland traffic from the 12th of November.
Speculation had increased after berthing trials were conducted earlier in the year at the new Belfast facility which at the time was still under construction, and the possible total relocation was even raised in a House of Commons debate as far back as March 1995.
As the millennium approached there were moves made by what was now Stena Line towards a return to Larne, with an announcement even made in March 2000 that conventional ferry services would switch back to the port in April. In the end though this never happened, with Belfast Harbour Commissioners pledging to build a new state-of-the-art terminal for Stena’s Stranraer services closer to the Scottish port at the entrance to Belfast Harbour in return for a long term commitment to Belfast. This new terminal is what we now know as Victoria Terminal Four and is the current Stena Line Scotland terminal.
Back at Larne, competitor P&O had capitalised on Stena’s move by introducing additional conventional vessels for freight and a succession of fast craft which were able to considerably undercut the crossing times from Belfast based Stena Line and SeaCat.
In the longer term however Stena Line expanded their Belfast operation with the acquisition of DFDS’s former Norfolk Line Belfast routes to Birkenhead and Heysham, and the replacement of Stranraer with another purpose-built port at Old House Point near Cairnryan (now known as Loch Ryan Port). This allowed the much larger vessels STENA SUPERFAST VII and STENA SUPERFAST VIII to be used and saw the end of the fast-craft service operated by HSS STENA VOYAGER, a service which had been slowed significantly following numerous complaints about the wake the vessel generated in Belfast Lough and Loch Ryan and due to rising fuel costs.
Meanwhile P&O’s Larne operation has declined in scale to the two purpose-built modern RoPax ferries EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY and EUROPEAN HIGHLANDER on a single route to Cairnryan. Previously P&O have operated numerous vessels from Larne on routes to Cairnryan, Ardrossan/Troon, and Fleetwood. Before Stena announced they would leave Larne, the County Antrim port was the busiest in the whole of Ireland, but has now fallen behind Belfast and Warrenpoint not to mention Dublin which has seen huge growth to become the busiest port on the Island of Ireland.