Irish rise to the top in Britain

With Irish exports to Britain poised to grow in the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s visit, from businessman Gerry Robinson to TV and radio presenter Terry Wogan, the Irish are making their presence felt there, writes Kyran Fitzgerald

IRELAND and Britain may never fall in love, but the once-warring pair have been out on the dance floor together more often recently.

Our businesspeople have taken advantage of the post-1998 Good Friday Agreement mood. Today, the countries appear, once again, deeply intertwined economically, more than 30 years after the our national currencies went their separate ways.

Last year, Irish exports to Britain amounted to almost €28bn — 23.5% of total Irish exports.

Exports of goods amounted to €13.8bn and services to €14bn, a remarkable transformation. In 2001, exports reached €26.4n, of which just €4.5bn were in the services category.

2009 was a tough year, the fall in sterling hit our exports hard, particularly among Irish-owned firms, but in 2010 there was a rebound, particularly among Irish food companies — Britain accounted for 43% of food and drink exports.

Many US-based firms export across the Irish Sea, along with smaller Irish companies such as Flahavans, Kilmacthomas-based makers of oatmeal, and Irish Dog Foods.

Britain enjoys a substantial trade surplus with the Republic. Ireland accounted for 7.5% of UK exports — we are Britain’s fifth largest trading partner. We buy more British goods than Brazil, India, China and Russia combined. Tesco and M&S are leading players in Irish retailing.

Sainsburys and Asda are tipped as possible buyers of Superquinn.

Britain needs Ireland to stay afloat. Royal Bank of Scotland holds more than €5bn in Irish Government debt while total UK bank lending to Irish households and firms approaches €100bn. This may explain the large loan extended by the British to this country last November.

Almost 10% of foreign direct investment projects in Ireland come from Britain. GlaxoSmithKline, for example, employs 500 people in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and around 440 in Cork. Broadband firm Talk Talk employs 700 in Waterford.

John Whelan, CEO of the Irish Exporters Association, believes the positive spin-off from the royal visit goes well beyond tourism.

“It puts us back on the boardroom maps. Irish products are more likely to be listed. The trip has produced a positive ‘peacock’ effect as opposed to the bad news out of Ireland in recent times.” Exports should soon top €30bn, he says.

Irish in British business:

Over the years, Irish people have featured prominently in British business.

- Niall FitzGerald served for years as head of Unilever.

- Chris Haskins headed Northern foods.

- Former attorney general and EU competition commissioner Peter Sutherland has been based in London for many years. He chaired BP until recently and is chairman of Goldman Sachs International.

- Matt Barrett ran Barclays bank (1999 to 2006). His large salary attracted much attention. Mr Barrett oversaw a major restructuring involving branch closures and staff reductions. He responded to those who criticised bank charges with typical bluntness: “The last time I went to the supermarket I didn’t see an aisle marked ‘free food.’ ”

- Many Irish people have risen to the top of the construction trade, the best known perhaps being Joe Murphy Sr, the one-time boss of key Flood Mahon Tribunal witness James Gogarty. The latter’s row with “Senior” over his pension provoked some of the sharpest testimony at the Tribunal.

- The 2012 Olympics project has generated €200m in new business for Irish firms such as John Sisk and architects, Heneghan Peng.

The following people, Irish born or of Irish origin play an important role in UK business and media.

- Terry Leahy: CEO, Tesco, 1999-2011. Britain’s most successful corporate chief. Born in Liverpool to Irish parents, he began his career stacking shelves. He pushed profits at Tesco up from £1bn (€1.14bn) in 2001 to £3.4bn (€3.89bn) in 2010. Tesco has entered the Chinese market and is now in 13 countries. It is a market leader in Ireland, but declines to disclose its Irish profits. Britain’s greatest grocer has seen off five CEOs and rival Marks & Spencer.

- Gerry Robinson: Now 62, Robinson was born in Dunfanaghy, Co Donegal. Knighted in 2003, he ran Grand Metropolitan’s contract service division before becoming CEO of Granada, the company behind Coronation Street, acquiring London Weekend TV and later, Forte Hotel Group in a £4bn (€4.58bn) hostile takeover bid. A friend of the Blairs, he has become a leading TV personality, fronting the Troubleshooters and Can Gerry Robinson fix the NHS?

He spends much of the year back in a Georgian mansion in Donegal with his wife.

- Angela Brady: President-elect of RIBA, the UK association of architects. She is also the chair of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland.

A graduate of Bolton Street DIT in Dublin, she co-founded Brady Mallalieu Architects, a London firm which specialises in sustainable architecture. She recently fronted The Home Show, on Channel 4.

- Philip Treacy: The Galway-born, London-based milliner is the leader in his craft, named as official royal wedding hat maker on the advice of the Duchess of Cornwall. Treacy grew up on a farm in Galway, learning to sew at age five.

His early patron was Isabella Blow, leading fashionista and editor. Loyal clients include Lady Gaga and Sarah Jessica Parker.

- Gerry Murphy: Cork-born Murphy has pursued a successful career on both sides of the Irish Sea. Having cut his teeth with Grad Met (now Diageo), he headed Greencore before becoming CEO of TV Group Carlton Communications which also employed future PM, David Cameron. He departed to run Kingfisher, owners of the B&Q chain, after Carlton’s takeover by Granada in 2002.

- Orna Ní Chionna: Dublin-born Orna, trained as an engineer at UCD before earning an MBA at Harvard. She is one of Britain’s best-known female directors. After 10 years as a partner with McKinseys, she joined the boards of Bank of Ireland, BUPA, Northern Foods and most recently, the Royal Mail. She is also chairwoman of the board of trustees of the Soil Association.

Her Scottish-born husband Adair Turner has been the chairman of the Financial Services Authority since late 2008.

He chaired the Committee on Climate Change as well as major review of pensions. He was recently ennobled as Lord Turner of Ecchinswell.

Irish in British media:

- From the 1960s, Limerick’s Terry Wogan carried the baton for Ireland in broadcasting. Most people literally “woke up to Wogan”.

The Wogan effect helped to lessen the blow of the IRA bombing campaign.

- The Wogan mantle has passed to Bandon Grammar’s Graham Norton who has cast aside his cheeky chappy Channel 4 persona to fill Jonathan Ross’s lucrative chat show shoes.

- Comedian Dara Ó Briain and sports presenter Craig Doyle have carved out lucrative British media careers.

- Two generations ago Britain’s wartime propaganda chief was Tipperary- born Brendan Bracken, later founder of the Financial Times.

Emerging Irish:

- UCD commerce graduate Joe Lynam, BBC business TV reporter for the past six years.

- Banker, Patrick Foley. At 25, UCC and UL graduate Foley advises aristocrats and sports stars on their investments.

As a private banker at Coutts, bankers to the royal family, he says “no two days are the same”. He got his technical grounding in business information systems in Cork.

- Broker Barry O’Neill. O’Neill set up Clear Currency, a money broker, along with a colleague, Clive Lennox. The company will open an office shortly. Regulated by the FSA, it undercuts banks thanks to lower overheads.

O’Neill and Foley belong to a new group, the London Irish Graduates Network which is being set up in association with the London-based Irish International Business Network run by LSE graduate Fionuala Pender.

- Another name to watch is Stephen O’Connor, executive director of The Underwriting Exchange, which specialises in servicing the London market on behalf of Irish brokers. He owns showjumpers together with showjumper Cian O’Connor.

Fact file

- Irish exports to Britain: €28bn. Goods: €13.8bn. Services: €14bn.

- Exports of prepared foods: €2.8bn.

- British share of total Irish exports 23.5%.

- Successful Irish exporters to Britain: Goodman Group; South Western; Windmill Lane; Flahavans; Feedhenry; Espion; Daon; John Sisk & Co.

- British trade surplus (with Ireland): €3bn — 2009.

- Major Irish investors in Britain: Dawn Farms; Glanbia; Greencore; Kerry Group.

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