Trade transcends North-South rift between the Irish

"The extraordinary aspect of the last decade is the phenomenal upsurge of trade between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland," says Sean Condon, chief executive of Coras Trachtala (the Irish Export Board).

Last year the Irish Republic exported $:266 million ($604 million) worth of goods across the border to Northern Ireland. And Northern Ireland a sent $:211. 5 million worth of goods back.

Mr. Condon says business has transcended the political argument over Irish sovereignty and the question of the Ulster border.

"Ten years ago, the Irish Republic was just beginning to flourish economically," Mr. Condon says. "Our salesmen were going up to Belfast and picking up large new orders we could fulfill.

"They were mainly the traditional Irish commodities; feedstock, textiles, footwear, some clothing and, of course, stout [beer].

"Then when the bombing started, salesmen restricted their journeys to one-day trips to avoid staying overnight in hotels. But there was a very definite feeling in the South that though other countries might be apprehensive about doing business with Northern Ireland, we weren't going to let them down."

"And the same is true of Northern Ireland," he added. "Their businessmen have kept faith with the South. They've served us magnificently throughout the past decade and we have the closest relationship at all levels."

The Irish economy has been transformed in recent years. In the 1930s, Prime Minister Eamon De Valera saw Ireland as a green land returning to an island of saints and scholars. He buttressed the philosophy with trade barriers to protect the Irish farmer.

But his isolationism was seen to fail as tens of thousands of yough Irish men and women took the boats to Britain and America for work.

In the '50s under Mr. De Valera's successor, Sean Lemass, Ireland emerged as a country of opportunity for foreign investors. New factories sprang up in the west of Ireland and around Dublin. American businessmen reported that Ireland's tax-holiday plans, easygoing labor force, and, perhaps just as important, clean-air environment, made investment in Ireland as attractive as anywhere in Europe.

By the 1970s a report was being circulated in New York that Ireland offered one of the highest returns in the world on capital invested.

The Irish Republic was industrializing at one of the fastest rates in the Western world -- and the country's growth consistently either topped or was near the top of the European league.

In 1973 then Prime Minister Jack Lynch took Ireland into the expanded European Community (EC) and since then the pattern of trade has altered. Exports to Britain (including Northern Ireland) have begun to fall off, as a percentage of overall exports, while exports to other members of the Community have increased sharply.

But in recent months it's been noticed in Dublin how significantly better Northern Ireland businessmen have been picking up business in the South, as opposed to their counterparts seeking new business in the North.

Coras Trachtala has opened a new Northern Ireland desk to encourage salesmen to go north, particularly to Belfast, to redress the balance.

The industrialization of the Irish Republic was led it to take part in trade fairs and promotional events broad. Coras Trachtala is even opening an office in Peking within the next few months.

Says Mr. Condon: "We operate in conjunction with the Northern Ireland authorities. Mostly our stands are set up opposite each other.

"If we have government ministers visiting our stand, we invite them to go to the Northern Ireland stand, and vice versa. We believe that this joint approach stimulates interest in Ireland, North and South, and benefits both."

Last year's decision to join the European Monetary System -- an EC first-stage plan to move toward monetary union -- has had a dramatic effect on Irish business.

Because British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has so far kept her government out of the system, Ireland has had to break the 150-year link with sterling and launch the country's currency, the punt, as an independent unit.

Though the punt has performed well within the band of eight European currencies constituting the EMS, it has fallen about 10 percent in value against sterling.

That has helped Ireland's exporters, but it has made imports from Britain more expensive, and there are signs that Irish businessmen are looking more and more to mainland Europe for their imports.

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