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Brexit has made InterTrade Ireland even more important

The agency shares knowledge, best practice and information for trading across the island

‘Cross-Border trade is an economic driver for both Northern Ireland and Ireland.’ Photograph: iStock

‘Cross-Border trade is an economic driver for both Northern Ireland and Ireland.’ Photograph: iStock

 

In the run-up to the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 there was a lot of talk about the “peace dividend” – economic benefits that, happily, came to pass.

The agreement also gave rise to new “all-island” bodies, including Tourism Ireland, Waterways Ireland and Safe Food. For businesses on both sides of the Border, the most important of this new breed of cross-Border agency was InterTrade Ireland.

Funded jointly by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the North’s Department for the Economy, it quickly set to work developing “networks of trust” between the business communities in the North and South. The aim was to fill the knowledge gap it had identified between the two jurisdictions, which was inhibiting trade.

Since its inception InterTrade Ireland has supported 10,000 companies, whether putting graduates from colleges on one side of the Border to work in businesses on the other; providing introductions at meet-the-buyer events; or supporting start-ups and scale-ups with grants and training.

“InterTrade Ireland has been in existence for 20 years, and during that time cross-Border trade has grown 4 per cent per annum. Before the pandemic hit the latest cross-Border trade statistics show that cross-Border trade was at an all-time high of €7.4 billion,” says Margaret Hearty, the agency’s designated accounting officer and director of business services.

“Cross-Border trade is an economic driver for both Northern Ireland and Ireland. SMEs that trade cross-Border are more productive, have higher turnover, employ more people and tend to be more innovative.

“For many SMEs across Ireland, trading cross-Border is their first step into exporting, and often leads to exporting off the island and further growth.”

Twin pillars

Helping SMEs – both large and very small – to participate in cross-Border trade and innovation are the twin pillars of InterTrade Ireland’s suite of supports.

“Our Acumen and Elevate programmes have funding specifically to help firms explore the opposite jurisdiction and start their cross-Border sales journey,” says Hearty.

“We also have a whole suite of innovation programmes to help companies develop new products or processes. This includes Innovation Boost, which links companies in one jurisdiction with ideas for new product development with academic institutions in the other. The funding support package is worth up to €67,900.”

Everything the agency does is about sharing knowledge, best practice and information across the island.

For example, it was InterTrade Ireland’s Funding for Growth research, which looked at business angel activity, that led to the establishment of the Halo Business Angel Network as an all-island umbrella group. Better known as HBAN, it has played a pivotal role in providing investment funding for early-stage business right across the island.

InterTrade Ireland also assists SMEs to tap into the all-island procurement market, worth €12.1 billion, via its Go-2-Tender training programme.

The agency responded quickly to Covid, launching specific Covid-19 funding for cross-Border traders. This includes Emergency Business Solutions, which helps companies address key business challenges related to the pandemic, as well as the E-Merge programme, which is focused on assisting businesses to develop online sales and ecommerce solutions.

Bespoke plan

In response to the UK’s decision to leave the EU, InterTrade Ireland had already set up a Brexit advisory service in 2017, offering information, support and including funding to help companies develop a bespoke plan to navigate the new trading relationship.

Immediately after the 2016 Brexit vote, business owners expressed fears that InterTrade Ireland would become redundant. In fact it is more important than ever.

“InterTrade Ireland is in a unique position to play a collaborative role providing co-ordinated focus between SMEs, networks and stakeholders across the island,” says Hearty, who says it will continue “to work collaboratively to develop ecosystems and clusters to help SMEs overcome challenges, to grow and to seize future opportunities, for mutual economic benefit”.