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InterTradeIreland: boosting and developing crucial cross-border trade

InterTradeIreland has assisted and boosted tens of thousands of firms on both sides of the border, and continues to work with businesses to grow cross-border trade, develop new products or services, or become investor ready. Ulster Business speaks to its new chief executive, Margaret Hearty, about taking up her role in the middle of a pandemic and with Brexit uncertainty, what it’s doing to help businesses recover, and seeing the major opportunities on the horizon

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Margaret Hearty

Margaret Hearty

Margaret Hearty

The importance of cross-border trade across Ireland has never been more apparent.

And business and trade organisation InterTradeIreland continues to be at the forefront of assisting and boosting businesses, north and south, across the sectors – helping thousands of companies to explore the cross-border trade opportunities for growth.

It’s just seen the appointment of a new chief executive, Margaret Hearty. She’s been with the organisation since its inception, and boasts more than 20 years’ experience working with SMEs, start-ups and entrepreneurs across Ireland.

“InterTradeIreland is a unique organisation with an important role supporting economic growth and innovation on the island of Ireland and I’m proud to play a key part in developing its strategy and vision,” Margaret says.

“We help businesses across the island of Ireland to innovate, collaborate and grow. Whether that’s exporting into the opposite jurisdiction, developing new products and services through cross-border collaboration, or becoming investor ready – we help them move forward.

“Cross-border trade has now reached £6.8bn, which represents a huge opportunity for businesses. Moving forward, we believe that there are significant growth opportunities for increased cross-border trade and co-operation across all sectors. We have an exciting piece of research underway to help inform the potential for growth and we look forward to sharing the findings with businesses and industry groups. It’s important that we remain responsive and we really listen to what businesses tell us.”

Margaret took up her post at arguably one of the most uncertain and tumultuous periods for business in a generation or more – the impact of Brexit and coming out the other side of a global pandemic.

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“It was a great honour to be appointed chief executive of InterTradeIreland, albeit during a time of great uncertainty,” she says. “Like most businesses the biggest challenge we faced was the disruption caused by Covid-19. When the pandemic hit, we wanted to make sure staff were safe and well adapted to working remotely. Our next priority was to make sure that the organisation could function effectively and continue to support businesses.

“We helped businesses to move online so that they were able to deliver across all their range of services, as well as introducing new services. InterTradeIreland introduced new programmes to help develop the digital capabilities of small and micro businesses – small interventions that delivered big for businesses. We were also able to deliver a series of funding and recovery webinars that helped businesses navigate their way through the crisis as well as avail of key supports.”

InterTradeIreland’s role has also never been as important for the all-island economy, with new figures showing a rise in cross-border trade.

“Cross-border trade presents a growing export opportunity for Northern Ireland firms,” Margaret says.

“For 2021, the latest official trade data from the Central Statistics Office shows that cross border trade in goods increased by €2.8bn. NI exports to Ireland were up by 65% to €3.9bn, a rise of €1.5bn compared with 2020. In the last economic downturn, cross-border trade opportunities were a huge factor for driving growth and recovery for many businesses.

“This time around, it’s proving to be the same and in the face of the global pandemic, cross-border trade has been remarkably robust. For companies that want to move forward, exporting to the opposite jurisdiction is an option to seriously consider.”

She says, at a macro level, cross-border collaboration is of huge importance in 2022.

“Both economies have common policy priorities which include increasing the numbers of exporting businesses but also greater investment in innovation and new technologies, transitioning to a low carbon economy and adaptation of new technologies,” she says. “Co-operation and joined up thinking in these areas makes sense.”

Margaret says firms have to pivot and evolve amid the ever-changing business landscape, following the impact of Brexit and Covid-19.

“They know their business and sector better than anybody else but it’s always good to validate those assumptions and plans. I would also encourage companies to take advantage of all of the supports and advice out there. Whether that’s getting involved in an industry network or group or taking advantage of the help available from state agencies like InterTradeIreland, Invest NI and the local authority network and local enterprise agencies. We’re here to help and bring you to the next level.”

InterTradeIreland is continuing to be a proactive organisation, and is responding to the changing needs for firms and as a result, introducing a range of measures and initiatives to help companies perform here.

“During the pandemic InterTradeIreland developed a range of supports to help companies in response to Covid-19 and now we’re focused on helping firms through the recovery phase,” Margaret says. “We also helped businesses prepare for Brexit since 2016 and our Brexit Advisory Service keeps companies informed and offers post-Brexit supports and advice.

“With the pandemic, the pace of change has accelerated, and we are undergoing our own digitisation journey so that we can continue to deliver to businesses in a responsive way. This includes our Covid supports, some of which have now been mainstreamed, including our Digital Sales programme.

“Our trade programmes help firms to gain the knowledge, skills and capability to access new markets in the Republic of Ireland. Furthermore, our Innovation Boost programme partners academics and SMEs, resulting in important industry-led knowledge transfer and supports product development/innovative new processes. Our IMPACT programme helps businesses across the island to collaborate on industry wide R&D projects with global potential. And as partners of the HBAN All Island Business Angel network we support investment flowing to good projects across the island.”

She says InterTradeIreland also wants to play its part in the delivery of the Department for the Economy’s ‘10X Economy’ strategy.

“Going forward there is huge potential in sectors such as advanced manufacturing and health and life sciences – and there will also be opportunities for smaller business in those supply chains.

“And we have exciting initiatives rolling out later this year, which are a direct response to what firms have been telling us, so watch this space.”

Another area which is increasingly coming to the fore in terms of importance is the ‘green economy’. Firms across Ireland understand they need to play their part in the race towards net zero, and are helping lead the way in terms of innovation and technology.

“In 2022, the ‘green economy’ is forecast to become a key driver of growth and businesses should take stock of these opportunities,” she says.

“For example, GlasPort Bio who were named the first ever winner of our Low Carbon prize at the 2021 InterTradeIreland Seedcorn Investor Readiness competition develop technology focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and create solutions that allow farmers to produce food in a more productive and profitable way, ensuring sustainability for generations to come.

“This new award category allows us to recognise start-ups who are innovating within the low carbon and green sector. Through this, we want to nurture new companies coming down the track that will make a positive change.”

Looking ahead, InterTradeIreland is clear in its role in assisting businesses from throughout Ireland – sharing knowledge, best practice and information across the island.

“We support businesses to trade, collaborate and innovate with partners in the opposite jurisdiction,” she says. “I personally love seeing the difference that InterTradeIreland’s supports make to businesses.”

And while recovery remains high on the agenda in the short-term, there are many real and buoyant opportunities for companies across the sectors – and InterTradeIreland is going to continue to play its part.

“Looking ahead, we’re focused on helping firms take a strategic look at their supply chains and bringing these closer to home,” Margaret says.

“In terms of new technologies there are real opportunities for early adapters, including ‘Industry 4.0’, co-operation to drive small firm productivity and in sectors such as advanced manufacturing and health and life sciences – where there is scope for developing internationally competitive all-island clusters and world class R&D.

“While the short term is focused on recovery, there are many real opportunities moving forward and cross-border cooperation will deliver mutual benefits for business development and international competitiveness. Against this backdrop, InterTradeIreland has never been busier in terms of the pipeline of applications and the demand for information, advice and financial assistance to trade cross-border has never been higher.

“We are very much open for business, with lots of supports to help companies navigate the ‘new normal’.” 


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