Cross-border trade and collaboration is vital for innovation and the wider economy.
The upheavals wrought by the pandemic have defined this year for businesses on both sides of the border and, against that backdrop, Brexit looms. However, the designated officer and head of strategy of InterTradeIreland, Aidan Gough, remains calm despite the obvious challenges on the horizon.
“Since InterTradeIreland was set up over two decades ago, cross-border trade has been growing at 4 per cent per annum on average,” said Gough. “Before Covid-19 hit, it was at its highest level ever, worth €7.4 billion per year.
“Cross-border trade opportunities were a big factor in driving recovery for many businesses, particularly small businesses in the last economic downturn. It is a significant slice of the economy. The opportunity to trade across the border certainly adds to the resilience of many firms.”
The cross-border body has a clear remit – to develop cross-border trade and business development – and it knows its market well.
“InterTradeIreland has two main pillars to its work,” explained Gough. “One: the engine of economic growth is innovation, not just technological advances but also new business practices and processes. We help SMEs develop the capabilities to succeed, drawing on expertise from across the island. Two: trading across the border is very often the first step to exporting off the island. We enable SMEs to start that export journey by accessing new markets in the opposite jurisdiction.”
However, Covid-19 has forced many cross-border businesses to question what they know about both their customers and their markets. InterTradeIreland has stepped up, launching new funding supports and hastening its own digitisation programme. The body has re-engineered many of its existing services so they can be accessed in the new environment created by the pandemic. Gough does concede, though, that the crisis has necessitated an unexpected review of strategy, shaped by trends that it has dramatically accelerated.
“We’re in a very, very different space at the minute,” he said. “While the impact of the crisis has been pervasive, it has also had very different impacts on different cohorts. Just like in the medical field, as we learn more we see the need for more targeted and nuanced interventions. We have found that small and micro businesses are more likely to struggle with the technical capability and capacity that will allow them to work and sell remotely.”
Gough’s statement shows the organisation is aware that businesses cannot continue to operate in a semi -permanent crisis mode. It’s now focused on helping companies adapt to the new norms and get back on their feet. And it has designed a new suite of programmes to do just that.
The body has launched the E-Merge programme to help companies embrace their digital sales options. E-Merge provides £2,500/€2,800 fully funded consultancy support to help businesses develop online sales and e-commerce solutions. Advice is provided in a range of areas including e-marketing, website management, e-commerce, online payment systems, secure logistics, customer service and the legal and insurance implications of moving online. There has been a strong uptake of the programme.
InterTradeIreland also has an Emergency Business Solutions programme. Companies are offered £2,000 /€2,250 worth of support to risk assess their current business position, assist with cash-flow forecasting and HR issues, and help manage suppliers. Businesses are also directed to the appropriate sources of relevant support in Ireland and the North.
McGrath’s limestone, in Cong, Co Mayo is one company that has accessed support from InterTradeIreland. The family- run firm has been in business for 57 years and manufactures Cemfloor Binder, a high performance cement based self-compacting liquid screed. It has customers in Ireland, the North and across Britain.
Sales manager Keith McGrath said: “Like a lot of businesses, we had challenges throughout Covid-19. There was a bit of a downturn in construction work, but we had opportunities too. Cemfloor is a liquid screed, so you can install it more quickly with less time on-site and at the moment that’s important because of Covid-19.
“The future is much more online. We applied for InterTradeIreland’s E-Merge programme and it has helped with our social media and eCommerce platform. It was a really good way to stay in touch with our customers throughout Covid-19.
“Our experience of working with InterTradeIreland has always been positive. They’re always at the end of the phone and are very flexible. We’ve also used their support to help us expand into cross-border trade. They respond quickly.”
Looking ahead, Gough maintains that although Covid-19 will pose challenges for all businesses for the foreseeable future, there remain many new opportunities for cross-border trade and business development – especially in areas such as decarbonisation, life and health sciences and advanced manufacturing.
“Brexit, and helping businesses adjust to a new trading relationship that emerges from trade negotiations, remains the key priority,” he insisted. Some critical Brexit dates are looming that will set out what the new trading relationship will look like.
“We have the Northern Ireland Protocol, but many important issues that will impact on cross-border trade, in areas such as services, data adequacy, mutual recognition of professional qualifications and access to existing EU and new UK free trade agreements, fall outside the protocol and are still subject to negotiation.
“The time for procrastination is running out. As the negotiations conclude, the new trading relationship will emerge and InterTradeIreland aims to be in a position to offer clear information and advice to new and existing cross-border traders and partnerships.”