The Australian Financial Review | 6 December 2023
Free-trade, investment ‘gateway to the EU’
by Invest Northern Ireland
Australian companies looking for a foothold in both the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU) markets should take a close look at Northern Ireland, which has unfettered tariff-free access to both.
That is the view of Richard Ennis, regional director, Australia and New Zealand at Invest Northern Ireland, the region’s economic development agency.
Northern Ireland is the only region that straddles both the UK and EU economies offering a location where businesses can operate free from customs declarations, rules of origin certificates and non-tariff barriers on the sale of goods to both Great Britain (GB) and the EU, says Ennis.
UK Prime Minster Rish Sunak recently said the Windsor Framework puts Northern Ireland in an “unbelievably special position”.
“Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position - unique position in the entire world, European continent - in having privileged access, not just to the UK home market, which is enormous … but also the European Union single market,” said Sunak.
Invest Northern Ireland’s Ennis says the agreement could provide a tariff-free “gateway to the EU” for Australian businesses.
“Northern Ireland is part of the UK but it also shares a land border with Ireland (in the EU),” says Ennis.
“Under special agreements drawn up after the UK’s exit from the EU, which we now know as the Windsor Framework Agreement, mean Northern Ireland continues to have tariff-free access to Great Britian and the European single market for goods.
“Northern Ireland is the only country in the world that has this access, and this presents a unique proposition for Australian and New Zealand companies to service both markets, develop and sell products across key industries, or recalibrate their global supply chain.”
In addition, Northern Ireland maintains regulatory alignment with EU on goods and remains in the UK Customs Territory, therefore accessing UK trade agreements such as those concluded with Australia (A-UK FTA) and New Zealand (NZ-UK FTA).
Northern Ireland’s multi-dimensional appeal
The UK is the second largest economy for Australian investment after the US, reaching $836 billion in 2022. Choosing Northern Ireland as the UK region in which to invest brings multiple benefits.
Although small, the region has attracted over 1200 international companies to set up there and some 70 per cent of new investors re-invest. Its success goes beyond its unique trading position.
“We’ve a young, well-educated and highly skilled workforce, a business-friendly environment, and an excellent digital infrastructure,” says Ennis.
“Companies will also find the cost of operating in Northern Ireland incredibly competitive with operating costs are around 33 per cent less than Dublin, 57 per cent less than London, 61 per cent less than New York and 69 per cent less than San Francisco.
“Moreover, our two world-leading universities, Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, can provide investors with research and innovation partners of the highest calibre.”
Among the companies that have discovered the Northern Ireland advantage is Japanese internet services firm Rakuten. In 2016, it established the Rakuten Blockchain Lab in Belfast largely based on the ready availability of experienced blockchain engineers and the region’s reputation for advanced technological innovation, particularly in cyber security at Queen’s University’s Centre for Secure IT.
With an enviable supply of talented software engineers, the region has developed a range of tech clusters including telecom, mobile and data networks; AI and data analytics; IT and cloud services; fintech, govtech, and sports tech. As a result, several global technology leaders, including Fujitsu, SAP, Microsoft, Nvidia and Australian fintech Lightyear have established operations there.
Lightyear chose Northern Ireland for its global headquarters because of the region’s credentials as a leading innovation hub for fintech and because it offers a great entry point to the European and US markets.
In life and health sciences, Northern Ireland has over 250 businesses working at the forefront of precision medicine, pharma, diagnostics and clinical trials. And its success in the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector stretches from aerospace and defence to materials handling, composites, electronics and renewables.
This capability attracted Tribe Tech, a Perth-headquartered drill rig manufacturer, which set up a manufacturing facility near Belfast in 2021. It cited the wealth of heavy manufacturing industrial expertise in Northern Ireland as a reason for locating there.
And recently, Ionic Technologies, a Belfast-born company that was acquired last year by Australian multinational Ionic Rare Earths Ltd, has been chosen as the recipient of significant government funds aiming to scale up production through development of a commercial-scale plant.
Unparalleled support for investors
Northern Ireland’s inward investment success also owes much to the comprehensive support offered by Invest NI. The agency’s Asia Pacific presence includes offices in Sydney, Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Nick Caldwell, head of Asia Pacific territory, Invest NI, says: “We can help investors get to the heart of what Northern Ireland has to offer.”
“That ranges from providing information on financial support and help with finding premises, to connecting them with business networks and research centers, and supporting their training and recruitment processes.
“Our goal is to help companies make an informed decision about whether Northern Ireland is the right location for them.
“We can organise visits for prospective investors and we encourage them to speak with existing investors to learn first-hand about their experience. And as that experience is overwhelmingly positive, it provides a huge amount of comfort.”
A dedicated Invest NI investment manager will work with the prospective investor to make sure that all questions are answered and that the process of establishing an operation in Northern Ireland runs smoothly.
But that is not the end of the story.
“Invest NI is a trusted business partner to investors, so our support remains in place throughout the lifetime of the investor’s operation in Northern Ireland.”