I’ve written before about Scotland’s nearest small neighbour and what we can learn from Ireland’s economic experience. Our two countries of course share much in common, with historical, cultural and family links going back centuries. We start from different places of course, with different strengths and opportunity, but that difference of itself is an opportunity.

This week I had the pleasure of hosting the annual St Patrick’s Day dinner in the Scottish Parliament. An opportunity to enjoy time together but with a serious purpose. Building strong economic links starts with building strong relationships, something the Irish know very well being masters at leveraging their worldwide diaspora and cultural capital to grow trade opportunities.

Ireland is already one of Scotland’s top five trading partners, remarkable given the relative size of the market in global terms, and there is much scope to significantly grow that trade in the short term.

Trade missions between the two countries, enabled by the Scottish Government office in Dublin, continue to expand across a wide range of sectors, as do investment flows in both directions.

Ireland’s presence in the EU of course offers perhaps the easiest route for Scottish businesses seeking a foothold to access the world largest trading bloc, until Scotland is able to resume full EU membership in its own right with all the benefits that brings.

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Chambers of Commerce on both sides of the sea have further developed relationships and business-to-business links. Organisations like the Causeway Ireland Scotland Business Exchange also have a key and growing role to play bringing potential business partners together.

The Scottish Government and Scottish Development International (the international wing of Scottish Enterprise) have a small but very effective presence in Dublin, demonstrating the huge value Scotland gains from its investment in overseas offices. Ireland’s economic development agency Enterprise Ireland is about to open a new office in Glasgow, cementing the relationship and making joint opportunities easier to realise. The cohort of Global Scots in Ireland – experienced business people working to support Scottish trade – continues to grow.

The Scottish and Irish Governments conducted a Bilateral Review in 2020 identifying areas for further cooperation in culture, education and the economy. These documents are often more symbolic than practical, a good opportunity for a visit and a photoshoot that then gathers dust on the shelf. But this one has some real intent behind it. With both governments recognising the untapped potential, particularly with regards to the economy.

The Herald:

Short-term trade opportunities abound, but it is around cooperation in jointly accessing international markets that the biggest long-term opportunities probably lie.

There are many areas where Scotland and Ireland both have strength and intent: Fintech, Life Sciences and Space are good examples of sectors of the future where the two countries have different, but complementary strengths and ambitions. Ireland has built a large international footprint of global tech giants, and Scotland’s indigenous tech sector, populated by a wide range and fast-growing cohort of start-ups and spin-outs from our universities, complements that.

And in the more traditional sectors of food and construction well established businesses on both sides of the Irish Sea are seeing increasing scope for expansion in each other’s markets.

The one sector however that offers the most opportunity is undoubtedly renewable energy. It was no surprise therefore that the sponsor of last week’s parliamentary event was ESB, the Irish energy company which has invested heavily in Scotland’s renewables sector with a pipeline of around 2GW of onshore wind projects – enough to power several hundred thousand homes – and another 2GW of projects being developed in the offshore wind sector.

The Irish Government’s recent published Industrial Strategy for the Renewables sector is explicit in identifying Scotland as a key strategic partner. There are opportunities for Scottish businesses to fill in gaps in Irish supply chains and vice versa. Scotland’s long-established expertise in offshore deep water technology is an asset that can help Ireland to exploit its own offshore renewables potential.

But the big prize lies in taking that joint cooperation and expertise onto the world stage.

Jointly developing technologies, leveraging world leading academic research in both countries. Sectors working together sharing resources to access markets that businesses from one country may not have the scale, expertise or investment to exploit on their own.

Being of similar size makes it easier. A cultural affinity goes a long way to building the trust essential to establish economic cooperation. The fact that both governments take this approach seriously is important. Yes, businesses will continue to compete with each other, but looking for strategic opportunities to co-operate on the world stage, particularly in the renewables energy sector, is undoubtedly where the biggest opportunities lie.