The relationship between Scotland and the Republic of Ireland has strengthened at government level in recent years as Holyrood steps up visits across the Irish Sea and a new investment hub establishes itself in Dublin.
Ministers made six trips to Eire in 2015, and have made two already this year, while a Scottish Government-backed office aimed at attracting more trade between the two nations officially opened in the Irish capital in January.
We have to exploit and support the market opportunities in Ireland
Irish firms were responsible for at least €270 million worth of exports to Scotland in 2013 and Holyrood is confident that figure is increasing.
Ireland was Scotland’s eighth largest export market in 2013, worth £920 million – an increase of 12 per cent on the previous year, according to Holyrood figures.
With St Patrick’s Day celebrations due to take place across the world tomorrow, the Scottish Government has hailed its links with the Republic, while emphasising the two administration’s shared support for European Union membership.
“Our economic links with Ireland, our work together in the EU, and the shared value we place on our membership of that union, show how much we have to gain from strengthening our links,” said a spokeswoman.
“The new innovation and investment hub will help form new and enhance existing relationships on both sides of the Irish Sea, between business, government, cultural institutions, civil society and academia.”
The Cabinet minister for external affairs, Fiona Hyslop, announced in November that John Webster, a diplomat who previously worked at a UK-level, would head the new hub.
She said investment from Ireland supported around 6,000 jobs in Scotland and the Dublin hub would provide firms with additional support to help them grow.
Webster, who is orginally from Partick, Glasgow, told The Scotsman he was working in co-operation with London as well as other devolved administrations.
“My colleagues in the Welsh government are already here in Dublin working on a similar agenda,” he said.
“Rather than competing, we’re all looking at slightly different bits of the market.
“There are obvious trading links on food and drink, business services, and tech.
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“Ireland is a very obvious market for companies that want to bring products to export for the first time.
“With the help of Scottish Enterprise, I’ll be looking to bring over a trade mission to Ireland in November.
“I’m also working with the British and Irish Chambers of Commerce to bring a chambers mission to Scotland in the coming months which will identify those opportunities for two-way trade.
“The hub is a development the Irish government has welcomed. They have been very supportive of me since I started on the 5 January.
“But I’ve been here for four years working on the UK-Ireland relationship.
“So I have a very strong network in Dublin already.”
Webster identifies several key sectors of the Scottish economy as being of particular interest to Irish business.
“There’s a lot of investment partners in Ireland who view Scotland as a hub for life sciences,” he said.
“Both counties also share common challenges in the renewables industry – there’s a bit going on there at the moment, but more can be done in terms of drawing down EU framework funding to support innovation.”
The UK referendum on EU membership in June has the potential to alter existing agreements between the two governments if there is a Brexit vote.
But while acknowledging there is a risk, Mr Webster is focused on proceeding in his job as normal.
“The Irish government’s position is it’s in their national interest for the UK to remain in the EU. It’s a risk, but I have to proceed on the basis that we are in the UK, and the UK is a member of the EU.
“The co-operation we have with Ireland is rooted firmly in that market.
“What we can do is be positive about the relationship being of benefit to the Scottish economy.
“The Scottish Government has ambitious targets to increase exports, here we have a strong Eurozone economy we have strong cultural ties with and speak the same language.
“We have to exploit and support the market opportunities that exist in Ireland.”