'Britain still rules' for Northern Ireland exporters says new report
EXPORTS from Northern Ireland into the Republic continue to grow - but Britain remains far and away this region's biggest and most lucrative market.
That's according to a new set of data highlighting the north's most significant trading partners as well as showing the types of products Northern Ireland exports, including breakdowns of the size, ownership and industry of the businesses that trade.
And while the figures - which have been produced using data from HMRC and the NI Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) - largely confirm what has already been in the public domain, they are likely to be lauded by Brexiteers and parties like the DUP.
The figures reveal that Northern Ireland businesses conducted most international trade with the Republic, accounting for around 27 per cent of exports and 23 per cent of imports.
But the rest of the UK is easily the north's biggest external market.
Sales to Great Britain are worth one-and-a-half times the value of all Northern Ireland exports and nearly four times the value of exports to the Republic of Ireland in 2016, according to the figures.
More than 50 per cent of Northern Ireland's goods exports went to just two countries - the Republic of Ireland and the USA (Republic was the most important destination for food and live animals while the USA was the most important destination for machinery and transport).
Food and live animals represented around 33 per cent of the total Northern Irish exports going to the Republic, of which the top sub-category was milk and cream products.
Almost 70 per cent of exporting businesses in Northern Ireland were small (employing fewer than 50 workers), selling a small number of products to a few markets.
Domestic businesses in Northern Ireland were less diversified in terms of products and markets compared with foreign-owned businesses.
The biggest proportion of two-way trade in similar products was in food and live animals, suggesting integration of supply-chains in this category.
The ONS also cautioned that a significant number of small exporters to the Republic and the EU may have been omitted from the report as they do not reach the threshold at which their trade information is officially collected.
The patterns of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic have formed a crucial element of the Brexit debate.
In the event of a no-deal Brexit, there are fears that industries with extensive cross-border supply chains could be seriously damaged.
Responding to the data, Manufacturing NI chief executive Stephen Kelly told the Irish News: "One outcome from the Brexit vote has been that departments and others have developed a deeper understanding about what our economy actually is and how it functions.
"This report demonstrates the deep integration of our manufacturing economy and the importance of a friction free, open border particularly for small businesses."
He added: "What's clear is that putting barriers in the way, either on the island or between these islands will be a jobs killer, particularly in our rural communities, where the huge bulk of manufacturing SMEs are based.
"If we want a successful economy and strong communities across our towns and townlands, then we need to retain the zero cost, unhindered and invisible borders that our firms currently enjoy.
"Losing that creates an existential crisis for firms who currently support one in four jobs in our economy."