Trade across the Irish Sea

Published: 21st May 2018

In brief

Claim

72% of the goods that leave Belfast port come to Great Britain.

Conclusion

This claim hasn’t been substantiated and we’ve not seen wider evidence for this. In 2016, 85% of goods which left Belfast port went to the UK, measured by their weight. 56% of all Northern Irish goods sold beyond its borders went to Great Britain, based on the value of those goods.

“72 per cent of the goods that leave Belfast port come to Great Britain.”

Arlene Foster MLA, 6 May 2018

The DUP has repeatedly made claims like this. We’ve asked them for more information on where Ms Foster’s figure comes from, but have so far received no response. We’ve not seen any wider evidence to support that figure either.

Based on the official data we’ve seen, it was actually higher—more like 85% in 2016.

This data looks at the weight of goods. There’s no data we’re aware of for the value of goods. 

It also looks at trade with the UK (plus the Channel Islands and Isle of Man), rather than Great Britain. That means there might be a slight disparity in the numbers, as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not part of Great Britain. No trade within Northern Ireland is counted in these statistics.

The claim was made in the context of a discussion about the importance of “free [trade] flow across the Irish Sea”. To understand the full picture on this trade it helps to look beyond just the port of Belfast. 56% of all Northern Irish goods (in terms of value) sold beyond its borders went to Great Britain in 2016. Including trade within its borders, 21% of all Northern Irish goods sales were to Britain in 2016.

We’ve not seen the evidence for the 72% claim

We’ve asked the DUP where their figures come from, but have so far received no response. They have previously made the slightly different claim that “73% of trade flows in and out of Belfast Harbour” are to Britain.

85% of goods that left Belfast port in 2016 went to the UK (plus the Channel Islands and Isle of Man). That’s based on the total weight of goods. 89% of loaded goods units that left Belfast were going to the UK.

Looking at goods coming both in and out of Belfast, 67% were to or from the UK (based on weight).

That’s not strictly the same as goods travelling to Great Britain (which doesn’t include the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, or Northern Ireland). The Department for Transport told us that this was not likely to make a significant difference in this instance.

Why does this matter?

Ms Foster made her claim in relation to the possible situation for Northern Irish trade after Brexit. Her point was that a lot of Northern Ireland’s external goods sales are to Britain, and therefore it’s important “that we have that free flow across the Irish Sea” after Brexit.

We’ve written more about why free trade across the Irish Sea after Brexit is complex here.

Belfast is not the whole picture

Belfast was responsible for two thirds of the goods sent out of all Northern Irish ports in 2016.

Across the four major Northern Irish ports, 88% of goods (in terms of weight) went to the UK in 2016. Looking at both outbound and inbound trade in goods, 69% went to or from the UK.

Although politicians speak of the proverbial “red line down the Irish Sea”, it’s not only shipped goods that could be affected. Any goods travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would be affected by customs controls between the two land masses, were they to be introduced.

56% of Northern Irish goods which were sold beyond its borders went to Great Britain in 2016. 21% of all Northern Irish goods sales (including those sold within Northern Ireland) were to Britain in 2016.


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