Big pharma drives record €165bn worth of exports last year - CSO

Agency’s figures also point to partial displacement of trade following UK’s exit from EU

Exports leaving Dublin Port. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ireland exported a record €165 billion worth of goods last year with exports of chemicals and related products accounting for almost two thirds (62 per cent), figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) show.

The US was Ireland’s largest trading partner, accounting for 32 per cent of total goods exports, worth more than €52 billion in 2021. Medical and pharmaceutical products and organic chemicals comprised €37 billion or 71 per cent of the total exports to the US in 2021.

The Republic is a global hub for pharma and medtech, playing host to 24 of the top 25 players, including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Roche, Novartis and AbbVie. These companies traded strongly throughout the pandemic.

The CSO data shows the State’s second biggest export partner was the UK with more than €18 billion of exports, closely followed by Germany with over €17.7 billion. Belgium (€14 billion) and China (€11 billion) complete the list of the remaining top five export markets.

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The figures also chart the impact of Brexit on the Republic’s trading relationship with the UK.

The CSO noted that Ireland has generally had a trade deficit with the UK, “that is, we import from the UK more than we export to the UK”.

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The deficit increased from €2 billion in 2016 to €5.4 billion in 2020 before falling to €1.3 billion in 2021, due to both a fall in imports as a result of Britain leaving the customs union in January 2021 and an increase in the level of exports. At the time, British exporters complained about the red tape involved in exporting goods from Britain.

The CSO data shows imports from Britain fell from €18.2 billion in 2019 to €15.4 billion in 2021, while exports to Britain fell from €13.4 billion in 2019 to €12.3 billion in 2020 before recovering to €14.4 billion in 2021.

The figures highlight a sudden fall-off in trade with Britain in the early part of 2021 after a period in late 2020 in which firms on both sides stockpiled goods. However, since then trade has picked up, albeit with some trade between the Republic and Britain being displaced by trade between the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland.

Exports from the Republic to Northern Ireland were about €2.5 billion in 2019 and 2020 but increased to €3.7 billion in 2021 after Britain left the single market but Northern Ireland remained within it.

Imports from Northern Ireland increased from €2.4 billion in 2019 and 2020 to €4 billion in 2021.

Ireland’s exports to Northern Ireland as a share of total UK exports increased from 16 per cent to 23 per cent between the first quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2022, while the share of imports increased from 12 per cent to 18 per cent over the same time period.

Under the Northern Ireland protocol, trade in goods with Britain is subject to customs checks. However, while Northern Ireland remains within the customs territory of the UK, it is simultaneously within the EU single market for the movement of goods. This means goods moving between Northern Ireland and the Republic are not subject to customs checks.

Some British-based traders have apparently established bases in the North to facilitate trade with the Republic, while some companies in the Republic have replaced imports from Britain with imports from the North.

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times