Northern Ireland exports to North America up but number of firms selling to the EU sinks to a three-year low
The value of Northern Ireland goods exported to North America grew 16.7% last year, new HMRC figures show.
The rise comes as the number of local firms engaged in exporting goods to the EU during the second quarter (5,574) fell to the lowest level since early 2016.
Figures for the 12-month period to June 30, 2019, reveal that exports to Canada rose 27.1% to £0.6bn, while exports to the United States increased 12.9% to £1.1bn.
At £3.2bn, the Republic remained the biggest destination for Northern Irish goods, growing by 3% over the 12 months.
Exports to Germany also saw double-digit growth to £0.5bn, but there was an 8% drop in the value of goods sent to France over the year to £0.4bn.
In all, Northern Ireland exports grew by 6.8% over the past 12 months to £9.1bn.
The Department for International Trade (DIT) said that a significant driver for the increase came from "soaring demand" in North America.
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According to DIT, the fastest-growing export regions for Northern Irish goods were the Middle East and North Africa, which grew by 23.2% to £387m.
Exports to Latin America and the Caribbean also increased by 21.6% to £118m.
But Andrew Webb, Grant Thornton's chief economist in Northern Ireland, said the data was not entirely positive when examined in detail.
"At face value, the increase in exports to £9.1bn is very positive but, as with most data, the insights come from scratching the surface," he explained.
"At the end of 2018, there were 6,195 companies engaged in exporting from Northern Ireland, a figure that had increased steadily over the past three years.
"Since the start of this year, the number of exporting businesses has declined to 5,775.
"This raises concerns over whether companies here are being replaced in the supply chains of customers as a result of Brexit, or whether firms are simply withdrawing themselves from international markets as a cautious reaction to expected trading difficulties.
"It is difficult to know for sure why the number of exporters has fallen.
"But we do know that exports are key to our economic successes and, while increased values are welcome, increased sales volumes from a diverse base of firms is a more desirable outcome."
HMRC's figures for the second quarter of 2019 showed that the EU remained the biggest customer for goods exported from Northern Ireland between April and June.
But exports to the 27 member states fell from £1.398m in the first three months of 2019 to £1.323m in the second quarter.
Exports to regions outside the EU grew over the quarter from £0.926m to £0.997m.
The figures were still below the value of goods exported during the first half of 2017.