Last reviewed 11 August 2021

The Republic of Ireland, an EU member, is a market that is integral to the UK and widely perceived as an ideal starter market for new exporters.

The Emerald Isle

With a population of 4.6 million, the Republic of Ireland is only a small country, yet it has a global and cultural significance far and above its modest size. It’s also a member of the European Union (EU) and the euro currency zone, giving it access to a market of 450 million.

Irish pubs can be seen the world over — from big metropolitan cities like New York, to tiny villages in the foothills of Everest — showcasing perhaps its most famous export of all, Guinness, a unique dry stout. These same cosy pubs can often become raucous bars, especially on St Patrick’s Day, held on 17 March each year in honour of the foremost patron saint of Ireland — a nod to the country’s strong religious heritage that very much survives today.

Music bands like U2 have also propelled Ireland’s cultural identity across the globe, as have its literary giants, from Oscar Wilde to James Joyce.

Immigration too has extended Ireland’s footprint worldwide, with countless families tracing their roots back to the so-called Emerald Isle — a name associated with the island’s lush rolling green hills. They include serving US President, Joe Biden, who has frequently referenced his Irish roots, and the late John F. Kennedy, who became the first Catholic elected as an American president in 1960.

But perhaps Ireland’s links are strongest of all with its nearest neighbour, the UK, where these same shared cultural and historical ties run deeper than with any other nation. That includes centuries of mass immigration, with countless families on both sides of the Irish Sea intertwined across generations.

Famous names today that span both countries include the Gallagher brothers, Liam and Noel, of Oasis fame, who were born and raised in Manchester to Irish immigrant parents. These families are brought together by a network of ferries that criss-cross the Irish Sea every day, plus of course the Dublin-based ultra low-cost airline, Ryanair, among others.

Complex history

Together, the UK and Ireland make up what is geographically known as the British Isles, a grouping of islands in the North Atlantic off continental Europe that also includes the Isle of Man, the Hebrides and over six thousand smaller islands.

The two sides share the same time zone, both speak English, although Irish is commonly used outside of business circles, and have a similar regulatory and legal framework. However, not all of that shared history has been quite so positive.

That includes long periods where Ireland was under British control — the first landings from the British mainland can be traced back to post-Norman times, almost a thousand years ago — and, more recently, decades of violent conflict that became known as “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

This era originates from the 1921 split, which divided the island into the mainly Protestant North and the mainly Catholic South, with the British planning to keep both territories in a combined United Kingdom. Just a year later, in 1922, the South seceded, while Northern Ireland opted to remain — it is still a part of the UK today.

But the partition subsequently saw decades of violent conflict between those campaigning for a united Ireland, and those wishing to stay in the UK. It was only in 1999, when a communal power-sharing agreement came into force, that peace was established under the famous Good Friday Agreement.

This has been severely tested on several occasions, however, with tensions on both sides and a sometimes febrile political environment in the North that resulted in the collapse of the power-sharing deal.

Again, things have been pressured in more recent times with Brexit, which has fundamentally challenged — and continues to put great strain on — trade arrangements between Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. These are continually evolving in the wake of broader Brexit negotiations with the EU.

Bilateral trade

At the same time, there is far more that unites these two countries, not only in terms of common values and shared culture — the British and Irish Lions rugby team is a source of great pride for both sides, for example — but also in trade and commercial ties. These extend to pretty much all sectors of the economy, with Ireland currently the UK’s fifth largest export market.

Total UK exports to Ireland reached £36.6 billion (US$50.7 billion) in 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) — although this is believed to have dropped during 2020 amid all the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic. Overall, the UK accounts for about 30% of all imports into Ireland.

Ireland's similarities to the UK make it an ideal market for first-time exporters, with similar business practices, laws and systems of finance, according to the Department for International Trade.

Irish consumers and businesses are already very familiar with UK goods and services and view them as high quality — Ireland is the UK’s largest export market in food and drink, and the second largest in clothing, fashion and footwear.

While there are obvious challenges — notably delays and complications arising from a change in rules after Brexit, not to mention a global pandemic — the platform for ongoing and sustained two-way trade is firmly in place. And that is increasingly focused on more sophisticated areas, beyond Guinness and the equally famous Irish Whiskey, with brand names like Jameson and Tullamore.

The UK and Ireland are increasingly active in high-tech areas in science and research. In 2020, a UK-Irish consortium, QuamNess, was awarded a £1.6 million (US$2.2 million) grant to explore the secrets of thermodynamics of quantum machines and technologies — a real-world initiative that sounds more like the topic of science fiction. The consortium is comprised of researchers from Trinity College Dublin, University of Bristol and Queen’s University Belfast, bringing all sides to the table.

Economic growth

Indeed, recent decades have witnessed a remarkable growth in Ireland’s economy overall, supported by high-tech industries and inward foreign direct investment (FDI), accelerating rapidly in the final decade of the twentieth century. Since it joined the European Community (EC) in 1973, the Irish economy has transformed from a largely agricultural society into a modern, forward-thinking, tech-driven one.

It has not all been one-way traffic though with Ireland calling for an international bailout in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. Since then, it has recovered strongly with key growth areas, including construction, life sciences (pharmaceuticals and medical devices), agritech and the energy sector (offshore wind and renewables), all presenting potential for UK trade and investment.

FDI has been one of the noticeable drivers of Ireland’s return to economic prosperity — these investments now generate about 20% of all private sector employment in the country, indirectly and directly.

The country’s success in attracting investors is a result of a combination of factors, from an educated and talented workforce and pro-business environment with a competitive tax regime to connections with world-leading research at science and academic institutions.

At present, Ireland is home to an estimated 1600 overseas company operations including global tech and social media giants like Google and TikTok. IDA Ireland’s strategy, “Driving Recovery and Sustainable Growth”, for the period through to 2024 focuses on the key pillars of Growth, Transformation, Regions, Sustainability and Impact. And there are no signs that the Covid-19 pandemic is doing long-term harm to this inward investment drive, nor its appeal to overseas institutions.

Ireland attracted its highest ever level of venture capital investment in the second quarter of 2021 — €540.5 million (US$636 million) — according to a report by KPMG. That’s more than any previous quarter, it reported, identifying 33 venture capital deals involving innovative Irish start-ups. Star firms include LetsGetChecked, an Irish home health testing start-up providing Covid-19 kits that is now valued at more than US$1 billion.

Future potential

British-Swedish drugs giant AstraZeneca is among those active in Ireland’s fast-expanding life sciences, biotech and medical industries. It has been a long-term strategic partner of Charles River Laboratories, which this year outlined plans for an €8 million (US$9.4 million) expansion of its testing capabilities at its Ballina, County Mayo site. The move will add an additional 1500 square metres of lab space and create up to 90 new skilled roles over the next three years.

Charles River Laboratories has provided AstraZeneca with outsourced regulated safety and development support on a range of treatments and vaccines, including testing and facilitating the deployment of the vaccines Vaxzevria for Covid-19 and Fluenz for seasonal influenza.

This latest expansion is supported by the Irish government through IDA Ireland, which has been a key facilitator behind the FDI influx.

Away from big business, Ireland has plenty to offer British visitors too, with travel and tourism being another vital shared industry. There are huge contrasts for all those lucky enough to visit: from the vibrant capital Dublin, which has long been synonymous for fun city breaks and culture vultures alike, to the isolated roads that wind along the rugged western shoreline facing out to the Atlantic Ocean, where the next port of call is North America.

The Emerald Isle is a beautiful island, rich in so many ways — little wonder that people talk about “the luck of the Irish”. Then, of course, there is that famous, friendly Irish hospitality, and a unique sense of humour that perhaps is appreciated best of all by those coming from across the wider British Isles.

Best of all, there is an anticipation that things are set to bounce back after all the challenges and uncertainties of the pandemic year. Bank of Ireland, one of the nation’s top commercial banks, posted a robust set of results for the half-year period up to the end of June 2021, with group operating profit 72% up on the same period the previous year.

“Our economic outlook is increasingly positive with sentiment back to pre-pandemic levels”, said the bank’s group chief executive Francesca McDonagh in an early August update.