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Is border trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland 0.5% of UK-EU trade?


FactCheckNI, United Kingdom

17 March 2019, Updated: 17 April 2019

Claim: There are approximately 100 lorries per day crossing the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and cross-border trade represents 0.5% of UK-EU trade. Conclusion: Inaccurate with consideration. There are 5,900 lorry (heavy goods vehicle) crossings daily. Cross-border trade represents 0.97% of UK-EU trade; alternative figures may be due to different measurement practices between countries.

On 30 January 2019, UKIP leader Gerard Batten made three related claims in a tweet regarding the Ireland-Northern Ireland border. (The tweet — screenshot image below — was promptly deleted.) Firstly, he claimed that 100 lorries cross the border daily. Secondly, that trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland accounts for 0.5% of the total UK trade with EU countries. And lastly, Batten claimed that Guinness accounts for half of the total trade (“trips”) across the border.


100 lorries? Half of them Guinness?

The claims that there are 100 lorry crossings between Ireland and Northern Ireland each day, and that half of this is represented by Guinness, were addressed by fact-checkers at TheJournal.ie, who deemed them “nonsense” and “false”, respectively.

TheJournal.ie pointed to evidence showing that an estimated 5,900 lorries (“heavy goods vehicles”) cross the border daily. Diageo (the parent company of Guinness) told TheJournal.ie that they have 13,000 annual crossings “associated with the packaging of beer”; this equates to 35 crossings per day for Diageo beer products. It is unknown whether this is transit by heavy goods vehicles (e.g. lorries) or light goods vehicles (e.g. vans).

In a subsequent tweet, Batten said that “the figure for 0.5% of UK/EU trade remains” citing his source as Michael Ambuhl, the former Swiss chief EU negotiator.

0.5% of UK-EU trade?

How much does the trade of goods between Ireland and Northern Ireland contribute to the total trade between the UK and the 27 other EU member states? According to NISRA, the value of goods exported from Northern Ireland to Ireland in 2016 was £2.7bn (revised from £2.4bn). Goods imported to Northern Ireland from Ireland had a value of £1bn. This makes a total value of Northern Ireland-Ireland trade as £3.7bn (£2.7bn + £1bn).

According to Central Statistics Office (CSO, Ireland), Ireland recorded the value of goods exported from Northern Ireland to Ireland in 2016 as €1.182bn (£0.954bn). Goods imported to Northern Ireland from Ireland had a value of €1.655bn (£1.336bn). This makes a total value of Northern Ireland-Ireland trade as €2.837bn (£2.290bn).

In 2016, goods worth £142.705bn were exported from UK to all other EU member countries, and a total value of £237.067bn was imported to the UK.

This makes the share of Northern Ireland-Ireland trade account for 0.97% of the total UK-EU trade (£3.7bn/£379.772bn), according to NISRA figures; using CSO data, the result is 0.60%.

Capture d’écran 2019-03-17 à 23.09.59.jpg

Why do CSO and NISRA statistics differ?

Differences in import and export data between two partner countries are known as Trade Asymmetries. In theory, the estimate of trade flows by each country should match. In practice, discrepancies in the reporting of trade flows occur across global trade statistics, related to conceptual and methodological variations between the estimation practices of different countries.

Trade differences are documented and reduced by international agencies such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is undertaking research into trade asymmetries for the UK.

The table above shows that NISRA estimates for cross-border trade differ notably from CSO statistics, particularly for trade flows going from Northern Ireland to Ireland, with an absolute asymmetry of £1.75bn and a relative asymmetry of 95%.

NISRA explained to FactCheckNI that one reason for this could be the reporting threshold of €500,000 that CSO is using to estimate trade in products. According to NISRA, “this is quite high for businesses selling into Ireland”. Likewise, CSO explained: “There may also be issues surrounding the particular methodologies used to estimate the level of trade which can cause differences.”

Compared to the asymmetry for export from the whole of the UK to Ireland, where the difference was £0.147bn with a relative asymmetry of just 0.7%, the Northern Ireland discrepancy is remarkably high. NISRA told FactCheckNI that a plausible reason could be that Northern Ireland estimates “include both direct reports of trade by Northern Ireland businesses and some trade allocated to Northern Ireland, which is reported by Great Britain-based businesses that have employees based in Northern Ireland”.


The tweet by Gerard Batten MEP, which he promptly deleted, was published in the context of the public debate on Brexit, the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and more specifically, in regards to the “backstop” element of the provisional agreement between the EU and the UK Government.

The tweet made three inter-related claims about Northern Ireland-Ireland trade. TheJournal.ie showed that the claim that there were 100 daily lorry crossings was a large underestimation in comparison with published data (5,900 lorries), while Diageo declared an estimated 35 daily crossings for its beer products (including Guinness).

The value of Northern Ireland-Ireland trade represented 0.97% of UK-EU trade in 2016, based on NISRA data, or 0.60%, based on CSO data.

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