If the Irish Sea has become emblematic of barriers between the EU and Britain in the wake of Brexit, upstairs at Dublin’s Guinness Storehouse brewery earlier this week its role was being reimagined.
Oiled by free-flowing pints and performances from Liverpudlian, Mancunian and Irish singers, metro mayors Andy Burnham of Greater Manchester and Steve Rotheram of Liverpool headed England’s first ever mayoral-led trade mission, with a delegation of 100 or so politicians and business people from the north-west of England.
With Brussels and the UK locked in a stand-off over the implementation of post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, Burnham said he believed such “city to city” British diplomacy had a future role in finding common ground.
“If things are frosted at national level between two countries — and Britain’s obviously got slightly frosty relations with a number of EU countries right now — well, we can play a role, as we’re doing here in Ireland,” he said.
“The Irish side want it as well, because it allows them to slightly have a less strained, positive conversation. It almost defrosts things a little bit.”
The mission was focused on investment opportunities in renewable energy that the city regions say would be worth a total of nearly £100bn by 2038. Potential Irish investors were told about renewable projects across the north-west of England — including plans for a tidal barrage in the Mersey estuary off Liverpool and the HyNet carbon capture project, fast-tracked last year by the UK government. They also discussed plans to collaborate on offshore energy generation in the Irish Sea.
“I’ve not heard us discuss offshore energy in the Irish Sea as a joint enterprise. Why shouldn’t we have an international energy strategy with Ireland? Dublin is closer to Liverpool and Manchester than London,” said Tim Newns, chief executive of Greater Manchester’s inward investment agency, MIDAS.
“I think it’s really interesting to connect that as an investment opportunity — two islands, one energy policy, almost.”
The delegates also had conversations around decarbonisation opportunities such as retrofitting and energy storage, said Newns. “I think it could be really significant, because it’s about how we deal with common challenges.”
Following a meeting with Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney and tánaiste Leo Varadkar, a four-way agreement was signed by Dublin, Belfast, Manchester and Liverpool for further energy collaboration, with a summit to hammer out further details expected to take place in north-west England next summer.
Liverpool and Manchester have deep historic and cultural ties with Ireland, and both have a substantial Irish diaspora; Liverpool is often dubbed the “second capital of Ireland”. Ireland is Greater Manchester’s largest goods export partner, jointly with Germany.
Because of those existing ties, but also the need for reimagined diplomatic links post-Brexit, Ireland set up a new north of England consulate in Manchester last summer. Enterprise Ireland, the Irish trade agency, opened a base there in 2019.
Sarah Mangan, Ireland’s consul general in the North of England, said the consulate was “recognition that, first of all, the relationship between Britain and Ireland is bigger than the relationship between the British government and the Irish government”.
“It makes sense for the mayors to be promoting their regions internationally,” she said. “We’re used to that in terms of US states, for example; we would welcome a lot of US states to Ireland rather than the national government.”
There were “many facets” of the relationship between the two countries, she added. “You can’t look at the UK and say ‘they voted for Brexit, they don’t love us’.”
Corporations including Manchester United and Liverpool’s Bibby Maritime were part of the delegation, but for smaller firms in particular, the trip was an opportunity to make connections and understand how to navigate new rules governing trade and business with the EU.
“Since Brexit it’s been a lot more difficult and complicated, legally, to operate within Europe,” said Pete Casson, co-founder of Manchester finance start-up Collctiv, which is looking to expand into the EU in the next 12 months.
“The easiest way to do it, particularly with the language barrier, is with Ireland as the gateway to Europe,” he added.
“It’s our closest partner in terms of getting there, but also, speaking to people, they’re very well set up — they’re already ready to rock and roll. Working with Ireland, for us, is a no brainer.”