Dublin offers a better quality of life than the UK. But can its economy withstand Brexit?

The incredibly picturesque Samuel Beckett Bridge, in Dublin. Image: Salim Darwiche

Dublin was recently ranked 34th out of 231 global cities on the Mercer Quality of Life Survey 2017It ranked higher than London, which came 40th, and every single other city in the UK and Ireland.

The city’s strength is wide-spread, and spans culture, the economy and the environment. Noel O’Connor, Consultant at Mercer Ireland, remarked that Dublin offers “an excellent choice of consumer goods, lower levels of air pollution, and a stable political and strong socio-cultural environment”.

As such, the Irish capital continues to be an attractive option for businesses seeking a base in north-west Europe, at a lower cost of living than London or Paris.

Indeed, the Irish economy as a whole has enjoyed strong growth in recent years. Last year’s 5.2 per cent growth rate meant that Ireland remained the fastest growing economy in the European Union for the third consecutive year.

Twilight for Dublin? Image: Hans-Peter Bock.

Growing pains

However, the UK’s decision to leave the EU may have already begun to hurt Ireland. Consumer spending growth slowed to 3 per cent in 2016, down from 4.5 per cent in 2015, with a significant dip in the second half of the year. Export growth was the joint lowest that Ireland has seen since 2008, at just 2.4 per cent.

The terms of the trade deal between Britain and the EU are yet to be agreed. Pat Leahy, political editor of the Irish Times, argues that the worst possible outcome would be no agreement between the Britain and the EU, meaning that World Trade Organisation rules (including tariffs of up to 50 per cent on agricultural goods) would apply. “Such an outcome would have the potential to devastate Irish exporters to the UK,” he says.

At a time when export growth is already slowing, this is bad news for the Irish economy. While Ireland’s main export market is the US, with whom it traded €26bn of goods and services in 2015, it still relies heavily on exports to the UK. However, it is worth noting that in the same year, Irish exports to Belgium exceeded the value of Irish exports to the UK.

Such a large trading relationship with the US means that the Trump administration’s preference for protectionist trade policies is of course another significant threat to the Irish export market.

Nobody's quite sure about the big stick but it looks cool. Image: Robzle.

The Home Front

On the domestic front, the outlook is far more promising. The Economic and Social Research Institute is hopeful that the renewed boom in the construction sector could bring Ireland to full employment (defined as a level of unemployment below the post-crash low of 5.6 per cent) by the end of 2018.


The ESRI report found that the housing market is now the main driver of growth in the domestic economy, and emphasised the importance of managing this growth in a sustainable way. Dr. Kieran McQuinn, the report author, commented: “We’re treading a fine line between driving the economy to produce more houses and pushing it into overheating territory.”

Danny McCoy, chief executive of the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation, is also optimistic about the prospect of domestic growth acting as a shock absorber against uncertainty in trade relations with the US and UK. He said:

“The economy is now facing some major external threats… [but] we are facing those threats from a position of economic and fiscal strength…

We must use that position of strength to take more decisive steps to relieve competitiveness pressures which are within our control, by massively ramping up investment in infrastructure, R&D and education.”

Another gratuitous picture of Dublin. Image: Doyler79.

Invest to be the best

While Ireland is now running a budget surplus, and there are signs of strong domestic growth, it is understandable that industry leaders such as McCoy are calling for increased capital investment to protect against external shocks. Directly after the UK triggered Article 50 last month, industry leaders called on the Irish government to exert as much influence as possible to ensure that key exporters receive the best deal possible.

Paul Kelly, director of Food Drink Ireland, said: “The agri-food sector exports €4.1bn of food and drink to the UK and accounts for 43,000 Irish jobs. Agri-food is the Irish sector most exposed to trade disruption, and the Irish Government must do all within its control to ensure minimum impact to the free flow of goods.”

Despite these calls, the fact remains that, as just one of 27 EU states, Ireland has limited influence over the final outcome; this despite the significant implications for trade, immigration and the north/south border.

While the forecast for the export market is fairly bleak, the domestic economy and national budget are both strong. As this Irish writer can confirm, Dublin remains one of the best cities in the world.

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Brexit is an opportunity for cities to take back control

Leeds Town Hall. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Leeds City Council on the future of Britain’s cities.

As the negotiations about the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU continue, Britain’s most economically powerful cities outside London are arguing that the UK can be made stronger for Brexit – by allowing cities to “take back control” of service provision though new powers and freedoms

Core Cites UK, the representative voice of the cities at the centre of the ten largest economic areas outside London, has just launched an updated version of our green paper, ‘Invest Reform Trust’. The document calls for radical but deliverable proposals to allow cities to prepare for Brexit by boosting their productivity, and helping to rebalance the economy by supporting inclusive economic growth across the UK.

Despite representing areas responsible for a quarter of the UK’s economy and nearly a third of exports, city leaders have played little part in the development of the government’s approach to Brexit. Cities want a dialogue with the government on their Brexit plans and a new settlement which sees power passing from central government to local communities.

To help us deliver a Brexit that works for the UK’s cities, we are opening a dialogue with the EU Commission’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to share our views of the Brexit process and what our cities want to achieve.

Most of the changes the Core Cities want to see can already be delivered by the UK. To address the fact that the productivity of UK cities lags behind competitors, we need to think differently and begin to address the structural problems in our economy before Brexit.

International evidence shows that cities which have the most control over taxes raised in their area tend to be the most productive.  The UK is significantly out of step with international competitors in the power given to cities and we are one of the most centralised countries in the world.  


Boosting the productivity of the UK’s Core Cities to the UK national average would increase the country’s national income by £70-£90bn a year. This would be a critical boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economic success.

Our green paper is clear that one-size fits all policy solutions simply can’t deal with the complexities of 21st century Britain. We need a place-based approach that looks at challenges and solutions in a different way, focused on the particular needs of local communities and local economies.

For example, our Core Cities face levels of unemployment higher than the national average, but also face shortages of skilled workers.  We need a more localised approach to skills, education and employment support with greater involvement from local democratic and business leaderships to deliver the skills to support growth in each area.

The UK will only make a success of Brexit if we are able to increase our international trade. Evidence shows city to city networks play an important role in boosting international trade.  The green paper calls for a new partnership with the Department of International trade to develop an Urban Trade programme across the UK’s cities and give cities more of a role in international trade missions.

To deliver economic growth that includes all areas of the UK, we also need to invest in our infrastructure. Not just our physical infrastructure of roads, rail telecommunications and so forth, but also our health, education and care infrastructure, ensuring that we are able to unlock the potential of our core assets, our people.

Whether you think that Brexit is a positive or a negative thing for the UK, it is clear that the process will be a challenging one.  Cities have a key role to play in delivering a good Brexit: one that sees local communities empowered and economic prosperity across all areas of the UK.

Cllr Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council.