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North-South integration in Ireland

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Geoff McEnroe

The IBEC/CBI Joint Business Council is a partnership between the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation and the Confederation of British Industry (Northern Ireland). It was established eight years ago — previously there were only annual meetings between the confederations — to act as the catalyst for maximising trade, business development and economic co-operation between Northern Ireland and the republic.

The council began by establishing a north-south committee on transport (now transport and logistics). This led to the concept of the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor. There was, further, consideration of energy and communications. And the council engaged in lobbying the two governments and the European Union institutions.

The council’s objectives include:

  • identifying barriers to north-south
  • trade and taking action to remove them;
  • providing, via a trade and business development programme, information on the cross-border market to meet the needs of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) on both sides; and
  • improving, via a company development programme, the competitiveness of industry on the island, to enable companies to compete island-wide and in international markets.

More than 2,000 companies, north and south, have been drawn into the work of the council since its inception. A feature of this has been improving business-to-business contact, networks and co-operation.

Last year, for example, briefing papers were prepared for food companies interested in supplying one of the new supermarket investors in Northern Ireland, and research on the food-service market island-wide was distributed to companies in the north and the southern border counties — allied to individual assistance and introductions to buyers. A workshop in Cavan brought together suppliers and buyers in the health-care sector.

There were workshops in Dundalk and Derry to assist companies to supply the northern public sector, utilising e-commerce. And a seminar led by the Department of Trade and Industry in London outlined opportunities for Irish construction services companies in developing countries, as well as stimulating co-operation between them in overseas markets.

In the wake of the Belfast agreement, the council submitted papers to government on potential areas for north-south and ‘east-west’ co-operation, including the European dimension. Its trade and business development programme for 1999 has been approved by the (northern) Department of Economic Development and the (southern) Department of Finance, administrators of the INTERREG programme.

This includes a conference in Belfast and north-south workshops on logistics and supply-chain management. There are initiatives on north-south bench-marking for SMEs as well as on cross-border employment and training. There is a programme to assist SME5 to work with transnational companies.

There are joint programmes with the US Department of Commerce, in e-commerce and construction services. There is co-operation on securing technical-assistance contracts in the mining sector in the ‘ACP’ developing countries. And so on.

The council, and private industry on the island represented by IBEC and CBI, welcomed the decision in December 1998 to establish a north-south ‘implementation body’ covering trade and business development. It has the potential to develop and expand the work carried out to date by IBEC/CBI, and by other agencies and programmes, in this domain.

The council expects the new body will draw on the experience gained from the principal north-south economic programmes of the past eight years and that information, as well as experience, will be shared. It is important that the limited resources available to the body are efficiently allocated and that duplication of the work of existing organisations is avoided. It will be essential that it ‘hits the ground running’ — rather than electing to start from first principles.

Before decisions are made about specific areas of implementation for the new body, it will be important to examine the potential for expanding trade, business development and co-operation from current levels. There remain many barriers to co-operation that need to be overcome, reduced or removed. It would therefore make sense to carry out a feasibility study before structures are put in place.

This would mean that all partners in the north-south enterprise would have a clear understanding of the benefits achievable in a defined timescale — to the two economies as well as to the island economy as a whole. The potential size of the ‘peace dividend’ should be quantified by sector and market, and not exaggerated. Otherwise, there will be a danger of failing to realise inflated expectations.

The new body must be given sufficient power and resources to deliver an 'extra’ dividend that cannot be achieved under existing structures. Unless the policy-makers, north and south, agree a common economic development strategy for maximising growth on the island up to the year 2010 — a specifically Northern Ireland strategy review has just been published (Strategy Steering Group, 1999) — the maximum benefits will not be achieved.

As the accompanying tables show while exports to the north from the south have increased absolutely in recent years, in the context of rapid growth they have actually fallen in relative terms, to 2.7 per cent of the total. So Northern Ireland is a very, very minor market for many companies in the republic. At the same time, exports from the north to the south have risen and now comprise 12 per cent of its total.

A strategy whose priority is maximising exports from the island should thus be adopted. This would entail continuing to reduce the dependence of Northern Ireland and the republic on the Great Britain market, and substantially increasing the share of Northern Ireland exports going to mainland European and other world markets.

A new plateau of north-south economic co-operation will need to be attained to maximise growth in exports from the island. Companies on the island — manufacturers, providers of services to industry and internationally-traded services companies must be developed as sub-suppliers to Irish industry, to ensure that industry on the island remains competitive in international markets.

Existing economic agencies, north and south, should continue to operate independently under the direction of their respective administrations. Yet all services provided externally by these agencies — the Industrial Development Board, Enterprise Ireland and others — to exporting companies could be co-ordinated and made available to firms north and south. While north-south trade will, of course, continue to expand in value terms, the priority for the new body should therefore be developing and maximising foreign trade from the island.

Exports/external sales from north and south by market (%)

Table 1: historic levels


North (1991)

South (1993)

Great Britain



Republic of Ireland



Northern Ireland



Rest of EU



Rest of world




Table 2: recent data


North (1996/97)*

South (Jan/Oct 1998)






Great Britain





Republic of Ireland





Northern Ireland





Rest of EU





Rest of world














Strategy Steering Group (1999), Strategy 2010: Report by the Economic Development Strategy Review Steering Group, Belfast: Department of Economic Development

[Report Contents] [List of Reports]

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