Companies supported by Enterprise Ireland saw a "steady" level of exports in 2020 despite the immense challenges from Covid and Brexit during the year, new figures show today.

Enterprise Ireland said that Irish exporters are generally optimistic that growth of up to 8% can be achieved by the end of 2021 as economies around the world re-open.

Today's figures show that companies supported by Enterprise Ireland recorded €25.48 billion in exports last year, an increase of 0.3% on 2019.

Exports to the euro zone continued to grow last year and increased by 1.6% to a total value of €5.85 billion in 2020. The euro zone now accounts for 23% of exports - double what it was a decade ago.

While the UK remains the country's largest export market, the market there contracted by 3.8% in 2020.

Enterprise Ireland said that the UK now accounts for 29% of total exports, down from 40% 10 years ago but still accounting for €7.51 billion of exports compared to €5.5 billion at that time.

Meanwhile, export sales to North America and the Asia-Pacific region both fell by 1% to register sales of €4.46 billion and €2.14 billion respectively.

Today's figures show the main sectors of growth were construction, up 12% to €2.51 billion, while consumer retail rose by 6.1% to €989m and fintech increased by 2% to €658m. Food grew by 0.6% to €12.17 billion in export sales.

But the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was evident in some markets with exports to the Middle East, Africa and Indian market contracting by 7% to €1.15 billion.

Enterprise Ireland said it approved €198m in Covid-19 funding to more than 1,600 companies. It said this funding protected more than 27,500 jobs over the year.

Leo Clancy, chief executive of Enterprise Ireland, said the figures highlight the underlying strength of the country's export sector during 2020, adding that they are a great credit to the agency's "excellent" Irish companies.

"Enterprise Ireland has worked intensively with these companies to support them through this challenging period both in Ireland and across the world," Mr Clancy said.

Enterprise Ireland's new CEO Leo Clancy

"Last year, through our 40 overseas offices, we helped Irish companies win over 1,400 contracts," he added.

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar described the figures from Enterprise Ireland as "very robust" and noted that despite the disruption of the Covid pandemic and Brexit, there was a small increase in exports.

"2020 was a year like no other and Irish businesses pivoted and innovated to ensure they could continue to trade and, in some cases, increase or win new business," Mr Varadkar said.

"However, like our domestic economy, there were some sectors that have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. The hospitality, travel and education services sectors for example, witnessed a severe contraction in 2020," he said.

"Government policy since the outset of the pandemic has been to support these businesses, to sustain them and their staff until trading conditions improve," he added.

Looking to 2021, Enterprise Ireland said the outlook for Irish exporters was positive and that Irish exporters surveyed by the agency were anticipating a boost in export sales by the end of this year of up to 8%.

The actual outcome will depend on developments during the year in terms of both the course of the pandemic and on global market conditions, it added.

During the first half of 2021, Enterprise Ireland secured 585 new contract wins, a 14% increase compared to the same time in 2020, while it also saw a doubling of engagement with companies looking to export into the euro zone, with this rising from 108 in the first five months of 2020 to 247 for the same time this year.

The agency also said that it has already physically reopened 27 of its 40 overseas offices and it plans to physically reopen the remaining 13 international offices in the third and fourth quaters of this year - subject to Covid-19 restrictions.

It is also planning to restart its programme of in-market trade missions from September to the UK, eurozone, North America and the Middle East.

"As economies around the global rebound and open, our client companies are forecasting a return to growth and we will also be supporting them through the full reopening of our overseas office network, trade mission programme and in-market supports," Leo Clancy said.

"We take nothing for granted however and need to acknowledge that the second half of 2021 will continue to be challenging," he added.