29 October 2001
Things in Northern Ireland regarding old political certainties, however, move at an altogether slower rate. While the world waits to see how the picture will look after the dust settles, the pace of political change in Northern Ireland, as far as the business community is concerned, moves inexorably, and some may say imperceptibly, towards some form of a long-term settlement.
The Northern Ireland Assembly, it is assumed by the business community, is here to stay in some shape or form. There is undoubtedly - both in the business and the legal community - a physical and psychological proximity to government that did not exist five years ago. More importantly, from the local lawyers' perspective, there is evidence of a willingness on the part of the government to engage the commercial law firms in Belfast rather than referring automatically to the City. While there are clearly transactions that the Belfast firms, by virtue of their size, are unable to service, the trend now is to instruct local lawyers who could call upon London assistance as and when required.
With the matrix of legislation that underpins the basis of a long-term political settlement, and the general shift of legislative power to Northern Ireland, has come a widening of the gap between the systems of law in Great Britain (GB) and Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Act 1998, for example, gives Northern Ireland its own 'mini' human rights legislation (targeted largely at addressing the specific historical ills which have beset the community for the past 30 years). Like the Human Rights Act, its application is broad and needs to be borne in mind when advising both private enterprise and public bodies.
|"There is evidence of a willingness to engage the commercial law firms in Belfast rather than the City"|
Moreover, the assumption that company law and insolvency law in Northern Ireland will necessarily follow GB can no longer be made. Indeed, as things currently stand, insolvency law in Northern Ireland is now different in significant respects. This, together with a system of land law, landlord and tenant law and employment law that has always been materially different, has resulted in an increasing reluctance on the part of GB firms, bar the unwary, to advise on matters of Northern Irish law.
As a result of the continuing peace process and the buoyant economy in the Republic of Ireland, business between the two jurisdictions continues to flourish, and the international markets increasingly treat Ireland as a single economic unit. For this reason, a number of alliances have been set up between Belfast and Dublin law firms to provide legal services on an all-Ireland basis. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see what will happen when Northern Ireland becomes, with effect from 1 January 2002, the only part of the UK which shares a land border with Euroland.
There remains a tangible increase in the degree of interest manifested by both GB and US law firms in Northern Ireland as a source of instructions. What will happen to the US interest as a consequence of 11 September remains to be seen. However, despite the continuing interest of GB law firms, Northern Ireland remains the one part of the UK in which the broad-based national firms are unrepresented.
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