Overview of Northern Ireland business
Northern Ireland is one of the fastest growing regions of the United Kingdom. It offers small and medium-sized enterprises excellent opportunities for growth and prosperity.
Regulation is kept to a minimum and running costs are lower than in other parts of the UK. There is also a young, skilled and highly educated workforce.
Northern Ireland has a modern public transport system. The road network makes it easy to do business within the region and with the Republic of Ireland. Direct routes by air and sea to other countries make it easy to trade within Europe and globally.
This guide explains how you can take advantage of the many business opportunities that exist in Northern Ireland. It provides demographics of Northern Ireland, as well as business premises and rates in Northern Ireland.
It will also show you where to get help with starting up or expanding a business.
Free business start-up support
Access free start-up business support from your local council. They will organise one-to-one mentoring sessions with your local business adviser and provide tailored guidance to develop your business plan.
Complete a short enquiry form or call 0800 027 0639 to register for this free advice and guidance.
Demographics of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland's population is one of the youngest in Europe, with 55 per cent of the population under the age of 40. This young population and can offer you a skilled, highly educated labour market.
Belfast is the capital and largest city. It is home to 268,000 people (NI Census 2011). Other Council areas in NI include:
- Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council
- Ards and North Down Borough Council
- Armagh City, Banbridge & Craigavon Borough Council
- Belfast City Council
- Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council
- Derry City and Strabane District Council
- Fermanagh and Omagh District Council
- Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council
- Mid & East Antrim Borough Council
- Mid Ulster District Council
- Newry, Mourne and Down District Council
Economic figures in Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland, the local labour market continues to improve throughout 2019-20. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) provide information on the Northern Ireland labour market.
The Department for the Economy (DfE) also provide a monthly economic update on Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland exports
A number of industries in Northern Ireland have been identified as having high potential to trade in services internationally, ie export outside the UK. The breakdown of these services is as follows (DfE, Exporting NI Services Study):
- computer & related activities
- research & development
- market research
- business & management consultancy
- architectural & engineering
- technical testing & analysis
- creative entertainment
Total sales by companies in Northern Ireland (NI) were estimated to be worth £68.4 billion in 2018, an increase of 3.5 per cent (£2.3 billion) over the calendar year (Northern Ireland Broad Economy Sales and Exports Statistics 2018 - published 19 December 2019).
The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) provides further information on economy sales and exports statistics.
Business and commercial environment of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland offers many advantages to those starting up or expanding a business.
Key sectors in Northern Ireland
Knowledge-based sectors attract investment into Northern Ireland. Software, contact centres and financial services are growing fast. Other key sectors include:
- health technology
- the service industry
The Tourism industry in Northern Ireland is also growing and attracting investment - the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) provides NI tourism statistics.
Researching your idea
If starting a business in Northern Ireland it is important to research your sector with care.
Invest NI's Business Information Centre can assist you with market research.
Invest Northern Ireland can give you:
- market information
- company profiles
- agent and distributor details
- sales leads
Tax and government support
You should be aware of the tax rates that might apply to your business.
Corporate tax rates charged on profits are among the lowest in the EU - HM & Revenue Customs (HMRC) provide guidance on Corporation Tax rates.
Value added tax (VAT) is payable on goods and services. The actual amount payable depends on your profits - HMRC outline VAT rates for different sectors.
The UK government has a research and development (R&D) tax relief scheme for all businesses in the UK - HMRC provide information on R&D tax relief schemes.
You might need funds to get your business up and running. You may be able to get government grants for capital expenditure and for some start-up running costs - our Business Support Finder can help you search for financial support for your business.
Finding local knowledge
Business networks are a good place to get advice, and may be able to help find sources of funding. It is also a good idea to search local directories and media for help - see directories and local media in Northern Ireland and business networks in Northern Ireland.
Directories and local media in Northern Ireland
It is important to find out as much as you can about the market in your chosen area. You can search local business directories and media for information on competitors and suppliers. You may also find out about potential customers.
Researching your market
Invest Northern Ireland (NI) offers advice and support to local businesses for market research.
You can also try visiting your local library or carrying out online searches. Find your local library in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland Business directories
The Business Information Centre at Invest Northern Ireland has access to a number of worldwide company directories and can also help with market research.
You can also use our Northern Ireland companies directory, which has contact details for companies located throughout Northern Ireland.
Talk to trade associations in your sector to see if they have a directory of members.
Media and promotion in Northern Ireland
Promoting your business is essential. Business directories and local media are an excellent way to promote your business in the region. They are also a great source of information about potential customers, suppliers and competitors.
The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce (NICC) have a searchable directory of members.
You should consider using the media for research and promoting your business. Major newspapers in Northern Ireland are:
- Belfast Telegraph
- Irish News
- News Letter
The Belfast Telegraph, News Letter and Irish News also have online resources.
The main business magazines are:
- Ulster Business
- Business Eye
- Business Month
The main Northern Ireland broadcast media include:
- BBC Northern Ireland
- UTV Radio
- Cool FM
- Downtown Radio
- City Beat
- Today FM
You should also look into the local media in your area. ABYZ Newslink provide a list of NI newspapers, magazines and broadcast media.
Business premises and rates in Northern Ireland
If you are starting up or expanding, you must think carefully about your needs. Both the property and the location must suit your business. You should also consider the rates you will have to pay.
Finding premises in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland has a variety of workspaces for new and expanding businesses. This includes property in business parks and industrial estates. You can find new, purpose-built office space throughout the province.
Invest Northern Ireland (NI) can advise you on finding a property.
You can also search our commercial property database.
Estate agents can also help you find suitable property. Most estate agents have details of agricultural and commercial properties as well as homes - the National Association of Estate Agents offers an estate agent search.
For more information, see choosing business property.
All businesses pay rates to help fund local and central services. The amount you will have to pay depends on the rateable value of the property. It also depends on the rate set by the local council. It is calculated and collected by the Land and Property Services and they provide an online rates calendar that you can use.
Infrastructure in Northern Ireland
Good communications are vital for your business. Northern Ireland has good internal transport links, and is also well placed for trade with Europe and the USA.
There are good transport links between commercial centres and industrial areas. Road is the main form of internal transport for people and freight. The M1/Westlink connects the M1, M2 and M3 motorways within Belfast. The M1/A1 links Belfast and Newry to Dublin.
Freight from Northern Ireland can reach most places in the world within 72 hours. Freight can reach European countries by air within 24 hours and by road and sea within 48 hours.
Road and sea are major options for moving freight. The main working seaports are Belfast, Derry, Warrenpoint and Larne. Major routes are from Belfast to Stranraer and Liverpool, and from Larne to Fleetwood, Troon and Cairnryan.
There are daily direct flights out of three Northern Ireland airports to destinations such as Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Amsterdam and New York. London is only an hour away by air and all four major London airports are serviced directly from Belfast. The George Best Belfast City Airport serves the region's main city. The City of Derry Airport serves the North West.
Belfast International Airport is the main gateway to Northern Ireland. Courier businesses run services from the 24-hour centre.
Trading with the Republic of Ireland
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with a euro currency country - the Republic of Ireland (ROI).
The Enterprise Express provides high-speed rail links between Belfast and Dublin. For more information about cross-border trading, see exporting to the Republic of Ireland.
Business networks in Northern Ireland
Networking plays a major part in building a business. You can make new contacts and get advice, and also meet potential partners and clients at decision-making level.
All the main centres in Northern Ireland have Chambers of Commerce. They may also have business clubs. These include the Institute of Directors (IoD) and the Rotary Club, which host business and social events - find your local institute.
Find contact details for your local Rotary Club .
The Northern Ireland Chambers of Commerce (NICC) have more than 4,000 members across Northern Ireland. It represents all types and sizes of business, and can help put you in touch with others in your area.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) aims to protect the interests of small business. Find out about the Northern Ireland branch of FSB.
You may aim to network with contacts in the Republic of Ireland (ROI). InterTradeIreland's Acumen programme arranges contact between businesses in Northern Ireland and people in ROI industries. These could be decision makers in large businesses or public-sector organisations.
How to get the most out of networking
To make the most of any business network, it is important to make the right impression when you meet people for the first time. Carry plenty of business cards. Try to put as much back in to the network as you take out. For more information, see learn and develop through networking.
For further information see Northern Ireland business networks.
Business support in Northern Ireland
If you are starting or expanding your business in Northern Ireland, you will need local advice and support. You will also need to think about where to get professional and legal advice.
Invest Northern Ireland's local office staff have wide commercial expertise. They can provide valuable advice and practical business experience, and can also help you to find useful contacts. Find your Invest NI local office.
Enterprise Northern Ireland has a network of local Enterprise Agencies. These support small business and community enterprises. They provide:
- information on government help for small business
- professional advisers
- low-cost loans, grant aid and other finance
- support for small businesses that are acquiring new information technologies
- support for business growth and development
- industrial and office space
There are 11 local councils in Northern Ireland, all of which can provide local information for business - see local council contact details in Northern Ireland.
Local libraries and business libraries are also good sources of information. Find your local library.
Northern Ireland Business Support Finder
The Northern Ireland business support finder is a searchable database that can help you find publicly-funded and not-for-profit sources of assistance you may be eligible to apply for.
Support may be available in a number of forms, including financial assistance and free or subsidised advice services. There may also be specific initiatives to help with starting up, managing or growing a business.
It is vital to take proper legal and financial advice when setting up a business. The Law Society of Northern Ireland can put you in touch with employment and commercial lawyers.
You may also be looking for financial and tax advice. The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), a leading accountancy body, has an online directory and also offers advice on choosing an accountant.