NI business report strong sales and exports for 2023 

9th Jan 2024

Businesses in Northern Ireland reported a largely positive trading environment during 2023, with more firms reporting increasing sales to Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and further afield than those reporting a decline. 

The results of an annual Trade Survey published by NI Chamber and Invest NI show that last year, more than twice as many businesses saw sales to the rest of the UK grow compared to those who experienced any fall. 49% saw sales to the Republic of Ireland grow, compared to 18% where sales fell. 48% saw sales outside the UK & Ireland grow, compared to 16% experiencing a fall.

Barriers and supports to export
When asked about potential barriers to export, more than half of respondents identified political, social, economic or environmental uncertainty as a barrier. Other impediments include transportation costs (40%) and access to skilled labour (22%).

Around 1 in 4 respondents believe some form of support is required to help them trade overseas. The top three supports suggested include a dedicated SME UK Export Fund (45%), assistance with finding a business partner or distributor overseas (43%) and trade shows (36%).

Post EU Exit Trading Arrangements
February 2023 saw the agreement of the Windsor Framework, the well documented agreement between the European Union and the UK government in respect of post-EU exit trade arrangements. There was one substantive implementation phase of the new Framework during the latter part of 2023 which principally involved the introduction of the retail specific ‘Retail Movement Scheme’ on 1 October.

Dual market access to the EU and UK markets for goods, as maintained through the Windsor Framework agreement is strongly supported. 71% of survey respondents believe that it enables businesses to grow or increase sales. Almost 1 in 2 agree that this is the case, while 1 in 10 strongly disagree.

Over half of respondents to this survey believe that guidance on the Windsor Framework should be clearer, while 45% think that more efficient systems and processes to access and use existing schemes (such as the UK Internal Market Scheme, the Retail Movement Scheme or the Duty Reimbursement Scheme) are needed. Just over a third say that mechanisms to manage regulatory divergence are needed as a priority.

Trade Deals
Most businesses don’t believe that business views are considered when the UK government is making decisions around trade deals. Around 1 in 3 members believe that business views are not considered at all in terms of priority markets for future trade deals, priority objectives for trade deal negotiations and the practical implications of trade deals once implemented.

A further 1 in 3 members believe business views are not really considered. Only 2% to 4% of business respondents believe that business views are very much considered when the UK government is making decisions around trade deals.

Commenting on the 2023 Trade Survey findings, Suzanne Wylie, Chief Executive, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NI Chamber) said:

“It is encouraging to see that NI Chamber members responding to this survey have reported a largely positive trading environment in terms of sales and exports in 2023 – that is broadly reflective of the resilience our member businesses across all sectors have demonstrated against a background of challenges including inflation and geopolitical uncertainty.

“It is also notable that despite protracted supply chain challenges globally, more of these businesses are reporting increased purchases from Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the World than those reporting a decrease. Respondents were also clear that there a number of outstanding challenges to be addressed as the Windsor Framework is further implemented. Securing clearer guidance, achieving more efficient processes and delivering stronger mechanisms for addressing/managing regulatory divergence are the top three priorities that members believe require the attention of policymakers.

“Whilst it is positive that a substantial majority believe that dual market access is an enabler of growth, a strategy needs to be agreed at pace to maximise the opportunities in what could be a unique selling point for Northern Ireland relative to other regions of the UK, the Republic of Ireland and other jurisdictions across the globe.”

Anne Beggs, Director of Trade and Investment at Invest NI added:

“It is reassuring that businesses are reporting a positive trading environment over the last year including increased sales and exports.

“Trading in a new market, whether in Europe or internationally, can bring both challenges and opportunities. This is why we offer a comprehensive range of support to help businesses to identify the right market, find trading partners and put in place the right processes and structures to trade successfully.

“I would encourage any business that is interested in exporting to visit our website and complete our Export Health Check to receive a tailored export guide and the opportunity to speak with one of our International Trade Advisors.”

Read the report in full here.