The Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland said its lending levels had passed the €1 billion mark by the end of March this year.

In a progress reports, the SBCI said it had supported a total of 26,762 SMEs by the end of March.

Today's progress report reveals a strong geographical spread of SBCI loans across all regions, with the south-western region of the country the biggest user of SBCI loans. 

The report also shows a strong sectoral spread for SBCI loans. 

Agriculture continues to be the largest sector supported by SBCI loans, with 29.4% of total new loans last year. 

Construction services, wholesale and retail, Administration and support, and manufacturing services also feature heavily. 

Last year saw the SBCI significantly expand its portfolio of available credit supports for SMEs and it also launched its second risk-sharing product last year - the €300m Government of Ireland Brexit Loan Scheme.

This came after the success of its first risk-sharing product in 2017, the €150m Agriculture Cashflow Support Scheme. 

The Brexit Loan Scheme - offered through AIB, Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank - allows eligible businesses access low-cost loans of up to €1.5m at a maximum rate of 4% to address the challenges presented by Brexit.

The SBCI last year also launched its third risk-sharing product, the €300m Government of Ireland Future Growth Loan Scheme.

This scheme is supported by the Departments of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

It opened for eligibility applications last month and will be offered by up to five lenders, with AIB, Bank of Ireland, KBC and Ulster Bank all saying they want to participate. 

The scheme will support SMEs in making strategic long-term investments and offers loans of up to €3m at rates from 3.5%.

Nick Ashmore, CEO of SBCI, said that 2018 saw the SBCI extend its capabilities as a risk-sharing provider, partnering with banks, non-banks and European institutions to maximise the benefits available to SMEs that need low-cost funding. 

"We have built on our early years as a conduit for channelling low-cost funding to SMEs to successfully expand our role through risk-sharing, which allows us to meet the needs of a bigger and broader range of SMEs", Mr Ashmore said.

He said that while it is still early days for the Brexit Loan Scheme and the Future Growth Loan Scheme, the SBCI was confident that take-up levels will increase in line with greater clarity and certainty emerging on the precise shape that Brexit will take and as businesses seek to make longer term investments.

"We will continue to expand our role as an intermediary for the effective use of EU financing supports relevant to Irish businesses and the delivery of additional types of financial instruments which will enable SMEs to grow and scale-up their businesses," Mr Ashmore added. 

The SBCI was set up with funding from a number of sources including the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund and the European Investment Bank with the aim of trying to ensure access to lower cost and longer term funding for Irish businesses. 

"The SBCI is delivering on its mandate to provide effective financial supports for Irish SMEs and ensure a diverse range of types and sources of finance for them as they provide sustainable economic growth," commented Paschal Donohoe, the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform.