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Our island of exports: the businesses adapting to changing trade across Ireland

Amid the surge in Irish exports, businesses are adapting to changing trade patterns and finding new cross-border opportunities. Pavel Barter speaks to some of those firms continuing to see growth across the island while some Irish firms are pivoting their focus away from GB

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Our island of exports

Our island of exports

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Declan Gormley, managing director of Brookvent

Declan Gormley, managing director of Brookvent

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Our island of exports

For many years, the world was an oyster for HigenX. This Galway-based firm, which specialises in hygiene monitoring solutions, sold its products as far afield as South America, but in recent times it has also seen a boom in localised exports. “And we’ve definitely seen an increase in trade to Northern Ireland,” Mike Mahoney, the company’s manager, says.

According to recent Central Statistics Office (CSO) data, Irish exports rose to their highest level ever in 2021. The EU accounted for €61bn (£51bn) (37%) of total exports and exports to GB stood at €14bn (£11.7bn). Exports from the Republic to Northern Ireland last year were among the biggest surprises: €3.7bn (£3.1bn) in value, an increase of €1.3bn (£1.1bn) over 2020, equating to a 54% growth. HigenX caters for various-sized businesses and sectors in Northern Ireland. It transports its products to north by courier, saving on transport costs and emissions.

John Hempenstall of Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese, which produces well-known cheese brands such as Wicklow Gold and Wicklow Blue brie, has seen a “sizeable increase” in its Northern Irish business.

Exports of food and live animals make up some of the largest increases in trade on the island. Ireland’s surge in localised exports can be attributed to numerous factors, including the rising cost of energy and its inflationary impact, and shortages of supplies resulting from global demands. Some factors are particular to our times.

“The growth in pharma has contributed to the growth in cross border trade value,” Kerry Curran, acting director of strategy and policy at InterTradeIreland, told a recent Oireachtas Joint Committee, Enterprise, Trade and Employment session.

“A lot of that is in vaccine and Covid-19 related products, which are particular to the pandemic and not necessarily a feature of [future] cross-border trade.” In 2021, medical and pharmaceutical products were the largest category of goods exports from the Republic, accounting for €62.6bn (£52.2bn) (38%).

The primary driver behind changing patterns of trade on the island, however, appears to be the Brexit protocol. Products arriving from Great Britain are subject to new checks and controls, but goods traded across the Irish border remain barrier-free.

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During 2021, Manufacturing NI held regular surveys with their members and “about one in five said their GB supplier was no longer willing to send stuff to Northern Ireland”, Stephen Kelly, chief executive, says.

“So they found alternative suppliers. That’s reflected in those [CSO] numbers. As moving items from GB into Northern Ireland became more difficult, retailers in particular shifted supply chains to Ireland where there were no checks or controls.”

Some businesses, such as the award-winning Mossfield cheese brand in Birr, Offaly, are turning toward an all-island model due to onerous regulations in GB. “We still export to Britain, but not as much,” says Ralph Haslam of Mossfield, whose cheeses are distributed in Northern Ireland through Musgrave’s La Rousse Foods.

Mike Mahoney of HigenX says: “Brexit made us almost uncompetitive within the UK, whereas Northern Ireland is fine. We’re almost priced out of the market [in GB] because of the extra administration. The small businesses [from GB] that used to approach us online are completely gone. We now find that selling to the UK is not viable with the tariffs, the VAT, and above all the time delays.”

This surge in cross-border trade is a two-way street. In 2021, NI businesses exported £3.35bn worth of goods from to RoI: an increase of 65% compared to 2020, according to the CSO. “Whereas exports from the UK, as a whole, to the EU declined by 15%,” Stephen says.

“So there’s clearly a massive shift in European buying habits. If [an Irish customer] wants to buy from the UK now, they are buying from Belfast instead of Birmingham. That’s to our benefit. Most of my exporters are reporting that they’re having the time of their lives, not just on the island but in Europe. As it becomes more difficult to trade with the UK, European buyers found they can continue to trade seamlessly with Northern Ireland.”

Brookvent, a ventilation systems manufacturer founded in 1984 and based in Dunmurry, derives 70% of its turnover in export markets across the globe. Until 2019, when regulatory standards for Brookvent’s products became aligned between the UK and Ireland, the Republic was not a significant contributor to their business.

“Post-Brexit, the surge in trade has been significant,” Declan Gormley, managing director of Brookvent, says. “[The Protocol has] indisputably changed the trading dynamic on the island of Ireland. Trade tends to find the path of least resistance and we have seen that play out in a significant way, post-Brexit. If a customer in the Republic was buying the same product from a UK manufacturer, they are now are more likely to say, ‘It’s easier if we buy the product from Brookvent in Dunmurry. They can put it in a lorry and send it to me directly by road. I don’t have any of the hassle I might potentially confront through the sea border – nor the additional paperwork’. People are choosing that option more frequently.”

Walsin Ltd, an architectural façade specialist contractor in Lisburn, is starting to experience solid sales across the border. “It’s a good start: more than embryonic. It’s a good footing to build on,” remarks Eric Sinclair, business development manager.

“There have been issues with Brexit. The price of goods has risen. In terms of the all-island model, a lot of companies in our sector – major developers with tier one contracts that have a foothold in the south and north of Ireland – are involved in public sector jobs. Once they’re happy with your quality of work and services, they put you forward for other work.”

Businesses have found help in adapting to this new trading dynamic. HigenX has conducted training programmes with Enterprise Ireland and InterTradeIreland. “We developed a lot of contacts in the north that we didn’t have previously,” Mike Mahoney says.

InterTradeIreland’s Acumen programme allowed Walsin to recruit a full-time senior sales manager “to help us get a foothold in the southern market and also improve our export market into mainland UK”, according to Eric Sinclair. “That worked well for us. Off the back of that, we’ve picked up decent contracts in the south.”

Some firms trading across the border (particularly those with complex off-shore supply chains) are finding it difficult to adjust to the new market rules. Despite the free movement of goods on the island, a lack of cross-border trade in services and a lack of alignment around professional qualification recognition are causing problems.

Meanwhile, the political situation remains volatile. Paul Kelly, director of Food Drink Ireland, a trade association in RoI, described the protocol as “working” for businesses on the island.

“The priority now must be to stabilise the EU-UK relationship and ensure the continued seamless flow of goods north and south. We welcome the Commission’s proposals for pragmatic solutions to ease the flow of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland which respect the integrity of the EU single market.” Paul Kelly urged the UK government and Commission “to reach agreement to ensure a sustainable implementation of the protocol”.

Businesses are not holding back on investment in the cross-border model. “One of our targets is to grow our foothold in the Irish market,” Eric Sinclair of Walsin in Lisburn, says.

In Galway, meanwhile, HigenX is looking north for future growth. “There are definitely more opportunities inter-island and I think over time it will develop organically,” Mike Mahoney says. “We’re developing good relationships in the north and we expect some of those to dramatically change our level of business.” 


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