Clustering on the Island of Ireland: A Gap Analysis

Published: January 2022

Executive Summary

The principle aims of the Clustering on the Island of Ireland a Gap Analysis of report is to examine and inform the strategic development and operation of clusters across the island, through identifying a series of gaps in the overall ecosystem which are inhibiting growth.
Recommendations are proposed to close these gaps and to strengthen and deepen the knowledge, coordination and sharing across an all-island clustering ecosystem.

To understand the challenges, opportunities, and current needs for cluster development across the island of Ireland, the Cluster Research Network facilitated a series of six workshops to better understand the views and perspectives of six different cohorts who are integral to the quadruple helix. These included:

i) Cluster Managers;
ii) Local Economic Development Personnel;
iii) Regional Economic Development Personnel;
iv) Cluster Business Leaders & Directors
v) Policy Makers; and
vi) Academic Researchers.

Three primary questions were asked of each cohort:

  1. What is their organisation’s experience with clusters and clustering?
  2. What challenges for clusters exist - from their organisation’s perspective?
  3. What policy and implementation supports are required?

Six stakeholder workshops took place between September and November 2021, via two-hour  online Zoom calls with breakout rooms, where required, to allow over 104 participants the opportunities for sharing their considerations of the discussion questions.

Each stakeholder workshop was designed to include contributions from Northern Ireland and Ireland-based participants, and there was an overall 40:60 split in respondents. The workshops are reported on here with accuracy and confidentiality made the key priorities.


The six workshops were quite consistent in identifying the same ‘pain points’ and concerns. Table 1 in the Gap Analysis section (page 24) highlights this commonality of themes identified. Each theme (e.g. lack of cluster policies or training and education) was identified in at least four of the six workshops. The report identifies the subsequent gaps under three headings:

  1. Moving to clarity from confusion
    A consistent view across the workshops was that ‘cluster’ as a concept remains confusing and lacks an agreed definition, and that this position is likely to continue  without Departmental leadership across the island driving ahead with cluster goals, programmes and criteria.
  2. Policy development, implementation and funding
    The workshops echoed similar views about the need for any cluster policy that would be developed on the island to take account of factors including life cycles of clusters, the need to include both mature and nascent industries, the scale (geography and resources) at which clusters best operate and the understanding that the trust and collaborative relationships upon which clusters thrive take a longer-term timescale to develop.
  3. Learning, education and career progression
    The need for the development of a professionalised group of cluster managers was stressed across the workshops as a pre-requisite for the success of any cluster policy and that this needed  to be backed up by an appropriate support infrastructure.


  1. Leadership and buy in is required at national government level if a clustering programme of substance, aligned with international best practice, is to be formalised to drive competitiveness in key areas of national importance across the island.
    The Department for the Economy (DfE) in Northern Ireland and the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment (DETE) in Ireland are the appropriate bodies to provide the necessary leadership and drive the development of clustering goals and programmes.
  2. Agree appropriate definitions for Cluster, Cluster Organisations and Cluster Initiatives to  be applied in the development of policy, programmes and infrastructure across the island of Ireland and differentiate them clearly from alternatives.
    From an all-Island perspective it would be optimal for DfE and DETE to jointly agree on a definition in order to support alignment and encourage potential for deeper co-operation around cluster development on cross-border and all-island bases.
  3. Develop a Cluster Policy which includes programmes with appropriate time scales and cycles.
    Medium to Long term time scales and cycles are key to any successful Cluster Policy, along with agility and dynamism in the policy making process to support clusters of national importance which have different sectoral requirements and cultures. Cluster organisations and initiatives should target best international practice and examples by developing explicit links with strong international clusters in areas identified as appropriate for learning, given local (on the island) needs.
  4. Establish a Centralised Cluster Financing Programme which is based on Key Performance Indicators relevant to the cluster focus aligned with strategic priorities.
    Presently, agencies in both jurisdictions offer several funding options so that certain activities receive different levels of cluster funding under a particular programme but are not even eligible under others.
  5. Provision of professional and accredited Training, Education and Career Progression Opportunities for Cluster Managers and practitioners operating within cluster ecosystems.
    The cluster development professionals across the island of Ireland who support the establishment, maintenance and ongoing development of cluster organisations to drive competitiveness, need training and support to appreciate best practice consistently. A varied basket of skills is required to support the development of cluster organisations both for cluster managers and economic development professionals, and CPD opportunities provided for this cohort of interested individuals would support career progression in tandem with their management remit.
  6. Develop a centralised hub to connect and inform clusters across the island of Ireland and promote them nationally and internationally.
    DfE and DETE would be the optimal organisations to commission centralised resources to showcase clusters across the island to help cluster organisations promote their activities and provide opportunities for other interested companies (locally and internationally) to directly connect with clusters and their members. DfE and DETE would manage which ‘clusters’ are showcased on the ‘hub’ to reinforce all recommendations above. Furthermore, the hub and its staff would be in a position to connect, educate and support those organisations seeking to transform their activities towards clustering, or realignment of their activities to gain more traction and impact for members regarding R&D and internationalisation.


The gap analysis identifies a series of potential opportunities and recommendations that the authors believe can lead to better defined and more sustainable supports for the development of clusters across the island of Ireland with the mutual benefits this can give rise to. The opportunities are designed to be picked up by actors across the quadruple helix who gave of their time in this research. Where the opportunities are specifically cross-border in nature or where all-island coordination is appropriate, InterTradeIreland can take a lead role.


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Report cover with images of overlapping circles.