Manufacturing NI to host Brexit debate in Belfast featuring former Secretary of State Lord Mandelson

Northern Ireland manufacturers are hoping for a 'Stay' outcome after June 23
Stephen Kelly

The EU Referendum is just three weeks away, and its outcome will truly define Northern Ireland’s manufacturing ambitions.

Whilst not scientific, a survey of Manufacturing NI members overwhelmingly showed that local manufacturers do not want barriers to trade or the free movement of labour, particularly for those who sell into the £3 billion EU market or who leverage EU Trade Agreements with other parts of the world which are worth an additional £3 billion.

These concerns and the feeling that Northern Ireland would be disproportionately impacted by a Leave vote was the motivation for Manufacturing NI to host a debate tomorrow between former NI Secretary of State and EU Commissioner Lord Mandelson and Daniel Hannan, author of 'Why Vote Leave'.

Uncertainty is as damaging as action. We’re already aware of businesses holding off investment, EU customers and partners stalling orders as concerns are raised about what happens beyond June 23.

Our manufacturing sector remains brittle and we need to make sure we are tooled up to realise our export potential and grow our economy. For small open economies like ours, exports are a critical driver of economic growth. They provide an external source of demand which compensates for a lack of domestic scale. Exports also help to support demand in non-export sectors such as retail through economic multiplier effects.

Manufacturing accounts for 61 per cent of all goods and services exported by Northern Ireland companies. Consequently, as our largest exporting sector, and therefore source of revenue, manufacturing plays the most an important part in supporting the region’s economic growth.

Manufacturing turnover in Northern Ireland reached £18.1bn in 2014. Of this, 79 per cent (£14.3 billion) was generated in markets outside the region. Some £8.3 billion (58 per cent) of these external sales were destined for the British market and the remaining £6 billion consisted of exports. Manufacturing exports in 2014 actually fell by 1.5 percent from the 2013 level, caused by a decrease in sales to the rest of the world.

The manufacture of food, beverages and tobacco accounted for the largest share of manufacturing exports at 28 per cent - twice as much as the next largest manufacturing sub-sector (transport equipment).

Firms of all sizes contribute to Northern Ireland’s exports. In 2014 firms with less than 250 employees posted export sales of £1.9 billion, almost one-third of total exports. The Republic of Ireland is our largest single market accounting for more than £1.4 billion in sales in 2014 or 23.5 per cent of total exports. The rest of the EU accounted for a further 25 per cent.


The mix of destinations and increasing globalisation of trade is important given the range of expected rates of growth across the globe. However, Ireland is expected to grow significantly faster than the world average over the next decade, and given its proximity should provide strong demand for Northern Ireland’s businesses.

Our manufacturing sector contributes 214,000 direct and supported jobs, one in four of all jobs in the economy, and makes an almost £10bn total GVA contribution, or around 30 per cent of our economy. It also accounted for over 60 per cent of total business investment in 2014 and attracted £900 million in FDI between 2010 and 2014. There is a huge amount at stake, and the outcome from the referendum could not be more critical for our businesses, our economy and for communities reliant on a manufacturing wage.

:: Stephen Kelly is chief executive of Manufacturing NI

:: The MNI debate will take place at the Belfast Harbour Commissioner’s office this Friday (12.30-3pm) and is open to all manufacturers. To attend, register at or email


Today's horoscope


See a different horoscope: