Criticism of exporters' attempts to seek out new markets is wide of the mark

As the high stakes drama in Westminster on how to exit the EU rolled on last week, pushing Britain to the verge of a national emergency, business and trade union leaders have called for the political parties to come up with an alternative acceptable exit plan to the apparently doomed Theresa May plan. The rolling uncertainty looks scheduled to continue for some weeks yet.

Since the UK voted, back in 2016, to exit the EU, Irish exporters have consistently been warned that they were far too reliant on the British market. Recent events in Westminster have heightened the concern.

However, the criticism over an apparent lack of effort by Irish businesses to get out into the wider global market may well be wide of the mark.

The recent releases from the CSO, which for the first time, gives a full picture of the progress of both goods and services exports to the end of last year, paints a different picture.

There is now clear evidence that Irish exporters have, in fact, created most of their sales growth in markets outside the UK in the three years since the Brexit referendum.

Initially, a look at the manufactured goods sector - inclusive of agri-foods which have been in the forefront of the debate on over-exposure to the British consumer - demonstrates the giant steps taken by exporters to ease back from the UK. We see that total exports to Britain have increased by less than €1bn since 2015 – the year before there was any concern about membership of the EU. Total goods exports to all markets globally, have increased five times faster, increasing by just under €30bn, in the same three-year period.

And, when we look at the agri-food exports to the UK, we see that they have remained static at much the same level as they were back in 2015, whereas total food exports to global markets increased by 13%.

Computer software exporters and others in the business services trade have also reduced their reliance on exposure to the UK market in recent years. Total services exports from Ireland rapidly expanded into global markets, hitting a 39% rise over the past three years, but exports to the UK only increased by 22% in the period.

The sector - which includes aircraft leasing, banking and insurance - although aware that Brexit may have a positive impact on their business, has obviously been hedging its bets and opting to but higher effort into other markets.

The markets which have responded most to the push away from the UK have been the US, the eurozone and Asia – mainly China. There has been very rapid growth in exports to the US, where Irish exporters have increased sales of their manufactured goods by 50% since 2015, despite all the protectionist moves by the Trump administration. Expansion has also been very strong into the eurozone, the principle region at the core of the Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia promotional campaigns.

However, the most rapid growth in export sales has been achieved in the Chinese market, where exports have more than doubled, up from €2.2bn in 2015 to €5.4bn last year.

The trend away from the UK over the years since 2015 has continued into the current year, with the latest figures from the CSO showing a slight fall in goods exports to the UK in January, while exports to global markets increased by 12%.

Of course, many exporters to the British market are rightly concerned that a hard Brexit, could severely damage their business. For a wide range of small exporters, the UK is their only export market. It is never easy being forced into losing good customers, built up over many years. And, there is no indication that Irish exporters will pull away completely from the British market, Brexit or not.

In fact, not all exporters have products or services that they can sell in markets outside the UK and are locked in regardless of Brexit. The unsavoury truth is that despite the trojan efforts made by a wide range of exporters to expand on global markets, for some there will still be severe contraction if a hard Brexit emerges.

- John Whelan is managing partner of international trade consultancy The Linkage-Partnership

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