Category Archives: Irish SMEs

27/7/19: A Cautionary Tale of Irish-UK Trade Numbers


Per recent discussion on Twitter, I decided to post some summary stats on changes in Irish total trade with the UK in recent years.

Here is the summary of period-averages for 2003-2017 data (note: pre-2003 data does not provide the same quality of coverage for Services trade and is harder to compare to more modern data vintage).


So, overall, across three periods (pre-Great Recession, 2003-2008), during the Great Recession (2009-2013) and in the current recovery period (2014-2017, with a caveat that annual data is only available through 2017 for all series), we have:

  • UK share of total exports and imports by Ireland in merchandise trade has fallen from an average annual share of 23.31 percent in pre-Great Recession period, to 18.06 percent in the post-crisis recovery period.
  • However, this decline in merchandise trade importance of the UK has been less than matched by a shallower drop in Services trade: UK share of total services exports and imports by Ireland has fallen from 64.86 percent in pre-crisis period to 62.97 percent in the recovery period.
  • Overall, taking in both exports and imports across both goods and services trade flows, UK share of Irish external trade has risen from 41.43 percent in the pre-crisis period to 45.4 percent in the current period.
  • Statistically, neither period is distinct from the overall historical average (based on 95% confidence intervals around the historical mean), which really means that all trends (in decline in the UK share in Goods & Services and in increase across all trade) are not statistically different from being... err... flat. 
  • Taken over shorter time periods, there has been a statistically significant decline in UK share of Merchandise trade in 2014-2017 relative to 2003-2005, but not in Services trade, and the increase in the UK share of Irish overall trade was also statistically significant over these period ranges. 
  • Overall, therefore, Total trade and Services trade trends are relatively weak, subject to volatility, while Merchandise trend is somewhat (marginally) more pronounced.
Here are annual stats plotted:

Using (for accuracy and consistency) CSO data on Irish trade (Services and Merchandise) by the size of enterprise (available only for 2017), the UK share of Irish trade is disproportionately more significant for SMEs:

In 2017, SMEs (predominantly Irish indigenous exporters and importers who are the largest contributors to employment in Ireland, and thus supporters of the total tax take - inclusive of payroll taxes, income taxes, corporate taxes, business rates etc) exposure to trade with the UK was 51.2 percent of total Irish exports and imports. For large enterprises, the corresponding importance of the UK as Ireland's trading partner was 13.62 percent. 

In reality, of course, Irish trade flows with the UK are changing. They are changing in composition and volumes, and they are reflecting general trends in the Irish economy's evolution and the strengthening of Irish trade links to other countries. These changes are good, when not driven by politics, nationalism, Brexit or false sense of 'political security' in coy Dublin analysts' brigades. Alas, with more than half of our SMEs trade flows being still linked to the UK, it is simply implausible to argue that somehow Ireland has been insulated from the UK trade shocks that may arise from Brexit. Apple's IP, Facebook's ad revenues, and Google's clients lists royalties, alongside aircraft leasing revenues and assets might be insulated just fine. Real jobs and real incomes associated with the SMEs trading across the UK/NI-Ireland border are not.

Whilst a few billion of declines in the FDI activity won't change our employment rosters much, 1/10th of that drop in the SMEs' exports or imports will cost some serious jobs pains, unless substituted by other sources for trade. And anyone who has ever been involved in exporting and/or importing knows: substitution is a hard game in the world of non-commodities trade.