Brexit quarrel highlights Northern Ireland’s data gaps

There are trade links between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland “worn away” by post-Brexit rules with the EU, says Lord David Frost, Britain’s Brexit minister. But try to find the data to prove it. Official Northern Irish statistics for trade stop by 2019.

At a conference I attended shortly after I moved to Ireland this summer, the audience of academics, diplomats and officials sounded a collective moan as the topic of Northern Ireland’s scattered economic data came up. Business people describe being sent between departments in search of seemingly impossible to extract information about an economy that was once famous for the Titanic and linen and now focused on agriculture, construction and manufacturing. But the lack of timely data on exports and imports seems particularly strange, not least because prospect of trade war with Brussels over British demands to rewrite the rules for Northern Ireland.

Frost has calmed down, for now, after firing the first salvo – triggers Article 16 in the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, a clause allowing both parties to suspend important parts of the agreement if it was considered to cause serious economic damage or redirect trade. But he has made it clear that the possibility is still on the table if Brussels refuses to waive his demand for greater concessions.

“Wouldn’t it be awful to trigger Article 16 and discover when the numbers come out that there had been no difference when the whole rationale for doing so was that it affected trade,” said a business executive who asked not to be named. “They wanted eggs in the face – but the injury would have happened.”

Northern Ireland unique post-Brexit access to both the UK single market and the EU single market is billed by Brussels as a significant benefit for the small region of 1.9 million people, which in 2019 exported £ 11.3 billion in goods to the UK and only £ 4.5bn. to Ireland and £ 2.4bn. to the rest of the EU.

According to official data released in Ireland this week, the Republic’s imports from Northern Ireland increased 60 per cent between January and September compared to the same period last year. But real-time trade data between Northern Ireland and the British mainland is harder to come by; economists are back by gathering information from ports and other sources.

The lack of official figures is frustrating, but it’s not Belfast’s small statistics agency Nisra’s fault, argues Neil Gibson, Ireland’s chief economist at EY. After all, Northern Ireland is far smaller, both in terms of population and economy, than large British city centers like Greater Manchester, and “we do not know how much Manchester trades with London, or what County Donegal trades with Dublin,” he said. .

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An initiative by the Irish think tank, the Economic and Social Research Institute and the UK National Institute of Economic and Social Research, launched this week, will model economic statistics across the island of Ireland to inform policy decisions. But it requires numbers.

“In Northern Ireland, data seems to be either lagging behind or lacking in too many areas,” said Paul Mortimer-Lee, deputy director of NIESR. “I do not quite understand the reason for that… But it is difficult to make database decisions without good data. What you can not measure, you can not handle.”

ESRI Director Alan Barrett found that “very, very often [the data] exists somewhere ”. But he added that statistical agencies may not publish the more obscure data on a regular basis. In fact, ESRI’s models had “generated a market” for some figures from the Irish Statistics Office, he said, predicting the same could happen in Northern Ireland.

“My view is that a lot of data is being collected, but Nisra and [UK’s] The Office for National Statistics lacks a kind of overall approach in the presentation, ”said Graham Brownlow, an associate professor at Queen’s University in Belfast. The region’s statisticians defend their output, saying their trade data depends on an annual survey. Recent figures – for 2020 – are out on 15 December.

When it comes to data collection and analysis, the Brexit uncertainty is exhausting enough. As one Northern Irish business person put it: “You do not want to wait 18 months to find out that there is a problem.”

jude.webber@ft.com

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