The impact of the first year of Brexit on Ireland has been revealed after official data showed cross-border trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland jumped by €2.8bn (£2.3bn) in 2021.
Full-year figures from Ireland’s Central Statistics Office show that imports to Ireland from Northern Ireland were up 65% to €3.9bn, a rise of €1.5bn compared with 2020.
Exports from Ireland to Northern Ireland also rocketed, up 54% to €3.7bn, an increase of €1.3bn compared with 2020 – a total trade rise of €2.8bn.
The breakdown of figures show the biggest increase in trade in both directions was in food and live animals, with exports to NI up from €919bn to €1.35bn year on year, while imports to Ireland were up from €714m to €1.02bn. The past year also saw a tripling in the value of imports of chemicals and related products to Ireland from NI, up from €280m in 2020 to €850m in 2021, with big rises also in imports of fuel.
As no contemporary trade figures are published by the UK government or the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency for goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, it is impossible to tell how much of the increase in trade is a result of the new trade barriers created by the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol.
Nonetheless, they will be seized on by protocol critics, including unionist parties, as confirmation that Brexit has boosted Ireland’s trade with Northern Ireland.
The CSO figures, published on Tuesday, also show the impact of trade barriers erected between Ireland and Great Britain as a result of the UK’s departure from the EU, with a fall in exports from Great Britain to Ireland.
Exports from Ireland to Great Britain were up 17% across the year to almost €14.4bn, but imports plummeted by 13% to €15.4bn.
There was a drop of just over €2.3bn in exports from Great Britain to Ireland.
The UK was Ireland’s single biggest trading partner before Brexit. The UK is now neck and neck with the US as the largest single non-EU source of goods imported to Ireland, accounting for 20% of trade at around €2bn apiece.
However, the CSO figures suggest traders are becoming accustomed to the Brexit barriers. They show a massive drop in imports from GB between December 2020 and January 2021, when the new rules came into force, but then a slow rise over the year.
Data for December shows that the decline in imports from GB slowed by the end of the year, down 4% compared with December 2020. The main decreases were seen in imports of food and live animals, machinery and transport equipment.
Levels of exports to GB were less volatile across the year, with no comparable sharp fall in January last year.
This may be down to better Brexit preparedness in Ireland compared with Britain. Exports for December 2021 compared with December 2020 were down 5%, with greatest decreases in exports of food and live animals.
The steady export trade also suggests Brexit has not caused a diversion of trade to GB by the use of new Brexit-busting ferries that go direct to France and Belgium, allowing exporters to bypass the so-called “land bridge” to the EU.
Preliminary figures for 2021 show that Ireland enjoyed a bumper year with exports at highest on record, exceeding €165bn.
The largest increases were in medical and pharmaceutical products, a reflection of the strong presence of large companies such as Pfizer, one the of manufacturers of Covid vaccines, in Ireland.