Crossborder trade dodges a Brexit bullet
In the wake of the 2016 referendum result, the sheer scale of the interconnectedness between the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic became manifest among all but the most casual of observers.
On occasions, statistics can confuse, indeed bamboozle – but as often as not, they provide much in the way of clarity.
UK statistics on the level of trade between the Republic and Britain, & the Republic and Northern Ireland are particularly instructive in the context of Brexit and the trade deals reached at the end of 2020.
Let’s look at cross border trade, first.
In 2019, 35% of total Northern Ireland goods exports went to the Republic. This amounted to £3.1bn Sterling in monetary terms.
Exports from the Republic to the North reached a somewhat lower figure – £2.3bn.
Some 29% of total Northern Ireland goods imports were sourced ‘down south’ in the Republic.
Food and drink products account for a large percentage of the trade between the two jurisdictions.
The economies of NI and the rest of the UK remain closely intertwined. Sales from the North to the rest of the UK reached £10.6bn in 2018 with purchases amounting to £13.4bn.
The UK Government and European Commission have opted to prioritise trade across the land border over that between the North and
Britain with the Northern Ireland Protocol coming into force on January 1. As a result, NI remains in the EU Single Market.
As a result, a huge potential threat to firms engaged in crossborder business activity has been removed though with an added burden shifted on to the East / West axis of trade as the EU moves to protect the Single Market.
This has ratcheted up the political tension among the Unionist community and among many retailers and manufacturers. This resulted in a temporary suspension in customs controls in February.
Consumers have complained about gaps on shelves due to customs delays and the withdrawal of suppliers from the Northern Irish market.
A particular pinch point has been the emphasis on the part of the EU on strict health checks on agricultural / food products. These checks look set to be further strengthened as three-month and six-month grace periods draw to a close in April and July.
The UK government has been pressing for an extension in those grace periods for up to two years. The EU is reluctant to countenance anything that could threaten the operation of the Single Market and a particularly high priority has been attached to food safety given the damage caused by the spread over the years of diseases in animal herds whether in the form of Foot and Mouth or BSE / CJD.
Discussions on food safety and animal / plant health issues between London and Brussels looks set to gather momentum in the months ahead.
An insight into the current level of interconnectedness between the economies of the Republic and Northern Ireland is contained in a recent report prepared by the Economic & Social research Institute for Inter Trade Ireland.
The report concludes that a very significant part of the cross border trade is made up of trade in both directions by firms as their trucks, for example, move between plants on either side of the frontier.
Some interesting case studies are contained in the report.
Take that of the sportswear manufacturer O’Neill Group. It employs more than 700 people in Strabane and Dublin. 45% of its sales are in the North and 40% in the Republic. The company imports yarn from outside the EU and knits it into fabric in Strabane. The resulting product is sent to Dublin to be dyed before being returned to Strabane to be made into sportswear.
It is not hard to imagine the considerable impact that the introduction of customs controls and tariffs at the land border would have on the company’s operations.
As the ESRI notes, firms based in the Republic in such circumstances would have had to consider relocation to the North.
The crossborder supply chain is highly complex.
Milk tankers cross the borders continually. Some 30% of milk production in NI is processed in the Republic.
For example, cream is removed from Northern Ireland produced milk in Virginia, Co Cavan, before being sent back to be processed at the Baileys Irish Cream plant in Antrim.
In the event of a ‘hard’ or no-deal Brexit, tariffs of 40% to 64% would have been imposed, rendering this trade unprofitable.
The crossborder supply chain is critical to a key Irish export category: milk powder which supplies markets in China, Africa and beyond.
The new arrangements look set to further increase economic interconnectedness across the island.
Northern Ireland finds itself uniquely placed with its access to the British and EU markets. How its business community will handle the opportunities thrown up remains to be seen.
Already, according to the retail publication Shelf Life, bakery solutions company Deli France has entered into a distribution agreement with the operators of an Armagh logistics hub to handle products which up to now have been distributed from the UK.
Northern Ireland could become a logistics hub of sorts as firms avoid the trade pitfalls associated with UK distribution.
Opportunities for Irishbased retailers and continental retail groups like Aldi and Lidl may also increase in the North as UK-based grocers such as Tesco and
Sainsburys examine their options.
Some commentators are less upbeat about the North’s commercial prospects, concerned that matters constitutional may take priority over more pragmatic commercial considerations. NI has done well in attracting financial services and technology investments benefiting from a population that is highly educated, but willing to accept much lower salaries than those on offer in the Republic.
However, many manufacturing jobs have been disappearing and current delays at the ports may not help in this regard.
The NI Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, has warned that her ministry stands to suffer a huge shortfall as a result of the withdrawal of Stg£100mn in EU funding. As a result, Invest Northern Ireland – NI’s equivalent of the IDA – may be forced to stop writing new investment business unless Westminster opts to make up more of the shortfall.
In the words of Irish News columnist Ryan McAleer: “The fallout from Brexit could leave Northern Ireland with its shoelaces tied together.”
And another loser in trade terms could be the UK as a whole. In 2019, its trade surplus with the Republic amounted to £10bn, a huge jump over 20 years, reflecting the greatly enhanced buying power of Irish consumers. Any hard commercial divorce could prove painful indeed from the standpoint of London.
In the same way that next Monday’s virtual National Recruitment Federation Skillnet International Women’s Day event is different to its normal format, the socalled ‘new normal’ continues to impact upon working routines everywhere.
“The world of work has changed over the past 12 months, with the emergence of a two-tier labour market,” Donal O’Donovan, president of National Recruitment Federation, explains.
“On one hand, some sectors have been decimated where employment has almost ground to a halt due to restrictions. On the other hand, sectors where work can be done remotely have adjusted and transitioned well.
“A major challenge has been transitioning company culture from the real world to the virtual world.”
Donal points to plush offices rendered irrelevant and vacant, with many new joiners to organisations over the past year having yet to physically meet their colleagues or set foot into the company premises.
“Culture although difficult to quantify, can be a driver and enabler of business. It is a major factor in attracting and retaining talent. Conversely, if not proactively managed, an organisation’s culture may be a barrier to the change needed for organisation to thrive postpandemic.”
Looking to the world beyond Covid19, he believes a range of new positions and occupations will likely emerge: “Employers are obliged to ensure that employees have a safe working environment.
“Following that vein, workplace auditors and designers are now in demand within the health and safety profession. Roles associated with fighting the spread of the pandemic, such ‘contract-tracers’ and ‘temperature checkers’ were not part of the vernacular 12 months ago but are now in demand.”
Demand is strong within accountancy and finance, technology, cyber security, procurement, risk, digital, marketing, communications, and business change.
“We have seen an uplift for roles within the human resources profession. Roles in workforce planning, diversity and inclusion, wellbeing and organisational design are plentiful as organi
position themselves for postpandemic growth,” he adds.
While the post pandemic landscape will include casualties across multiple sectors, the overall economy has been resilient and outperformed many of our European counterparts.
“We have seen the unprecedented hit in the hospitality, retail, personal services, and tourism sectors,” Donal says. “Conversely, the pharmaceutical, medical devices and ICT sectors have had strong performances. Fortunately, the timing of the pandemic coincided with public finances being in good shape. The budget deficit in 2020 is expected to be €19bn, or 5.5% of GDP, one of the smallest in Europe.
“On that basis I think we can be reasonably optimistic for a post-pandemic upswing in the labour market.”
Brexit, as the other major event of 2021 so far, has created a lack of security for EU workers in the UK, many of whom are considering opportunities to work and live in Ireland.
“From a talent perspective, the impact has been an increase in applications from workers based in the UK. The labour market, in the knowledge
Occupation: President, National Recruitment Federation
Background: The National Recruitment Federation is a voluntary organisation representing recruitment agencies throughout the country, established to maintain standards and codes of practice for the industry
economy, remains buoyant. These additions to the labour market are welcomed and there is competition to attract workers who have developed their career in the UK and now wish to return to Ireland.”
Founded in 1970, the NRF seeks to provide its members with the optimum service in terms of support, communication, advice sharing and problemsolving to promote professional competence within the profession.
As part of this mission, the NRF has inaugurated a formal education programme in recruitment practice to ensure all new entrants to the profession have a solid ground in legislation, customer service operations and sales to equip the graduates of the programme with the tools and knowledge to provide a quality service to clients and candidates alike.
The three-year honours degree in recruitment practice involves the apprenticeship learning model where the recruitment executive — whether a school-leaver, new recruit or existing employee — is retained by a recruitment agency and learns on the job and through online tutorials, while attendsations
ing college one day a week.
“One of the challenges facing the talent and recruitment profession over recent years has been a skills shortage,” Donal explains. “To address this, the NRF partnered with the National College of Ireland to develop an undergraduate degree, specifically for recruitment and talent professionals. It is delivered as part of the national apprenticeship program, which means the learners can ‘earn while they learn’.”
The apprentices work four days per week in an approved company and study one day per week with the National College of Ireland. Following the three-year apprenticeship, the learner becomes a qualified recruit
ment executive, with a QQI level 8 honours degree in recruitment practice.
“This will provide a new stream of talent to the sector, and an opportunity for people already in the profession to upskill,” says Donal.
Given that working from home has now become now a growing reality over the past year, with even its own acronym — WFH — it seems a permanent part of future practice.
“Before the pandemic remote working was often a privilege confined to long-tenured employees, whereas the success of the ‘experiment’ has accelerated trust for many more workers, with anecdotal feedback that productivity levels have remained strong.”
Roles that involve research, writing, creativity, or analysis are more suited to a quiet environment for concentration, he says, while conversely, roles in business development, trading and where high levels of collaboration are needed must find new ways to maintain the energy synonymous with an office environment. The restrictions have allowed some employees to shape their role, according to how it can best be delivered. “There has been research in Ireland and internationally which suggests that the preference of most office workers is for a hybrid of office and remote working to remain after the pandemic,” says Donal.
“This could have many positive effects such as: reducing our carbon footprint, traffic decongestion, and improving retention of key workers due to the ability to work in a manner that suits the individual, and allows them to work to their potential.
“Employers would potentially benefit from a reduced requirement for office space, plus the ability to access talent outside their usual commuting catchment area. It sounds like a ‘winwin’ to me.”
The Oppo A53 is a budget phone that distinguishes itself with a 90Hz display and premium design.
As budget phones go, the A53 has a contemporary feel, with a polished plastic back and a vertically stacked, triple camera set-up. The front is Gorilla Glass 3 and has a pre-installed screen protector.
It also comes with a transparent soft case to protect the phone. This is just as well, because the back scratches easily and is a fingerprint-and-dust magnet.
The 6.5-inch screen is large and although the bezels are not the smallest, the overall dimensions of the A53 don’t make it feel massive in the hand.
The screen corners follow the rounded contour of the body nicely, so the phone feels comfortable to hold. There’s a punch-hole cut-out for the 8MP selfie camera on the top left of the screen and the chin on the bottom is larger than the top and edges.
It’s nice to see a 90Hz refresh rate on a budget phone, but the display is only HD (720 x 1600). In real-world use, the resolution didn’t bother me, but on a macro level, text isn’t as sharp as it would be on a full HD display.
The display has good viewing angles, punchy colours, and gets bright enough to be readable outdoors.
The 90Hz refresh does make scrolling feel smoother than a 60Hz display, but, as is to be expected, not as smooth as a more powerful phone.
Wired for sound
The inclusion of a headphone jack is nice and Oppo include a set of wired headphones in the box. Surprisingly, they’re not terrible, either.
The stereo speaker sounds much better than I was expecting and I’d have no problem using them to watch a movie or YouTube videos.
Performance and hardware
Powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon SDM460 and Adreno 610 GPU Octa-Core chipset, 4GB of RAM and 64GB, the A53 is not a performance champ. That being said, it gets the job done and I had no issues playing games and switching apps, as long as I didn’t have too many open at the same time. You can increase the storage with a microSD card, up to 256GB.
Thanks to the 5,000mAh battery, this is easily a twoday phone, with moderate use. It even comes with an 18watt charger.
It’s great to see NFC for contactless payments as well as Bluetooth 5.0, with support for SBC, AAC, aptX HD, and LDAC sound codecs.
The camera set-up on the back features a 13MP f/2.2 main lens, which is capable of taking decent photos in good lighting conditions. However, don’t expect great results indoors in dim light. It doesn’t do well with moving subjects in low light and there’s no night mode.
The other two cameras are a 1.92MP f/2.4 macro lens and depth camera, which is used for portrait mode to assist the software to isolate the subject from the background.
The macro lens is like all other macro lenses on every other camera I’ve used. Essentially, you’ll get better results using the main lens and cropping in.
The selfie camera is 8MP f/ 2.0 and, like the main lens, can produce excellent results in good light. It can capture fine details in faces, and portrait mode does a decent job of isolating the subject and blurring the background.
The Oppo A53 is a solid performer with a contemporary design, a two-day battery life, and a large 90Hz display. As budget phones go, this is one of the better ones. Like all budget phones, the cameras are average, at best.
■ Available now from three.ie, €139. Also available from Eir.