A Commentary on Economic Data in Northern Ireland

This report considers the quality of the data available on the Northern Ireland economy and proposes ways in which existing datasets could be enhanced.

Pictured: James Gillan (NISRA), Eoin Rooney (NICVA) and Michael Burke

Key Findings

An examination of the data available for Northern Ireland reveals significant shortcomings and time-lags, enough to harm or impinge on evidence-based decision making.

  • The Northern Ireland Executive’s Economic Strategy seeks to increase the level of exports but the export data is not disaggregated by component or destination. There is therefore little information to suggest ways in which to diversify or further trade links. The Strategy also aims to bring about private sector growth but the absence of data relating to Gross Domestic Product and Gross Fixed Capital Formation, makes it difficult to ascertain the scope of activity of all key sectors of the economy, households, government and business. Another objective is to improve competitiveness, but the absence of a reliable measure of Gross Domestic Product limits the scope to compare the competitiveness of Northern Ireland against other economies.
  • There are significant omissions in public finance data. Much of the spending allocated to Northern Ireland is simply a convention of UK Treasury accounting rather than the actual level of spending. Concrete data of revenues generated in Northern Ireland are almost entirely absent.
  • The Northern Ireland Composite Economic Index (NICEI) is based solely on estimates of output (plus some data on employment), not on the trio of output, income and expenditure required for Gross Domestic Product data. Both foreign trade and net factor income from abroad are missing.
  • The Annual Business Survey could be usefully expanded to facilitate geographical analysis. Such information would be invaluable in attracting inward investment and stimulating growth.
  • Summary publications such as Regional Economic Indicators are limited by the absence of data on Gross Domestic Product, inflation, Gross Fixed Capital Formation, and expenditure. It would be useful if the information on business births and deaths was disaggregated by enterprise size and sector. The lack of Input-Output tables is a key omission.


  1. The Executive should produce a detailed and coherent strategy for the development, collection and publication of accurate and appropriate economic data for Northern Ireland which supports both the development of, and the evaluation of the success or otherwise of local economic strategies. This strategy should also support systematic and holistic analysis of the local economy.
  2. The Scottish Government has provided a template for the fullness of economic data that could be produced in Northern Ireland. The Executive should adopt a similar approach.
  3. The Executive, with input from and the support of the relevant UK agencies, should develop a mechanism through which to illustrate Gross Fixed Capital Formation, Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product at the Northern Ireland Level.
  4. The Executive, together with the relevant UK agencies, should provide income-output data at a level that allows a detailed understanding of the import and export relationships that exist between Northern Ireland and other areas.
  5. Consideration should be given to mechanisms to address the information gaps relating to public expenditure and revenue in Northern Ireland.
  6. The sample size for the Annual Business Inquiry needs to be increased. This could mean it becomes a census. At present it is not possible to explore the data geographically, meaning it is not possible to understand which sectors are successful in which areas. This information is extremely important in the context of understanding how to attract and grow investment.

Hard copies of the report are available on request.

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