29 October 2001
Northern Irish lawyers cheered along with the rest of the province when in 1998 Sinn Fein and the Unionists signed the Good Friday Agreement. The peace dividend promised Northern Irish firms more work on public-private partnerships (PPPs) and the chance to forge closer links with their Southern cousins.
Three years later, the Good Friday Agreement still hangs in the balance despite a last-ditch change of heart from the IRA on weapons decommissioning. Alongside the political downturn, economic problems are looming both north and south of the border, suggesting a bleak time for firms in the province. However, Belfast firms believe they will weather the economic storm better than their Dublin colleagues and believe that direct rule may even expand their PPP horizons.
Following the Good Friday Agreement, many Belfast law firms looked for best friends in Dublin. Of the top Belfast firms, L'Estrange & Brett has a Dublin buddy in McCann FitzGerald, Elliot Duffy Garrett is tied up with A&L Goodbody, Tughan & Co is in bed with Dublin firm William Fry, and Carson McDowell is linked with Mason Hayes & Curran. For the really brave Southern firms, there is the option of the Belfast office. Dublin firm Arthur Cox took this route when it absorbed Wilson & Co in the North.
The drive to go Ireland-wide initially came from businesses needing cross-border advice. According to L'Estrange's Richard Gray: "The business community was in fact some way ahead of the political process in this. Mammon knows no boundaries and clients made it clear that they wanted an all-Ireland one-stop shop."
Peace also brought the promise of Ireland-wide political bodies and therefore more cross-border public work, although the only institutions established so far are the Irish Waterways Board and the Food Safety Board. "There's a recognition that if you want public cross-border work you need a real presence, but that's not a direct edict to combine resources," says Gray.
The continuing threat to the peace process is a clear disincentive to closer unions because it will hit both public and private cross-border work, but the jury is still out on what actually works best for Northern Irish firms.
James O'Dwyer, the managing partner of Arthur Cox, says that he made a bold move into Belfast because "loose associations don't really work in practice". There have certainly been indications that some best friends are not so loyal. Rumours have been going around for a while that the A&L Goodbody-Elliot Duffy friendship is troubled and that A&L Goodbody is considering a direct move into the North. Meanwhile, Belfast firms without best friends have been heard to observe that most of the referral work seems to be North-South rather than South-North. Whatever the reality of the situation, all eyes will be on Gerry Adams and David Trimble when deciding the next move.
A devolved government in Northern Ireland was heralded as a major boost for PPP. Local firms tooled up for an increase in public sector work, while there was renewed interest in Northern Ireland from the UK's mainland, culminating in the arrival of Scottish firm McGrigor Donald in Belfast.
However, devolution has not quite had the impact predicted. "PPP simply hasn't been that fruitful in terms of remuneration," says Carson McDowell partner Alan Bissett. Gray suggests that the reason for this is that devolution may in fact have been detrimental. He says that when the Northern Ireland Assembly was born, "almost all parties, whether green, orange or in the middle, were sceptical of PPP; it was still seen as Thatcherite - privatisation by the back door".
While Sinn Fein and the Unionists seem to have found at least one thing they agree on, there has been one particular department which has embraced PPP - education, which is ironically under the stewardship of Sinn Fein hardliner Martin McGuiness. The collapse of the peace process led to a hiatus, with projects delayed while politicians were busy with the decommissioning issue, but Gregor Hamilton of McGrigor Donald says: "In the medium term things look positive and we have lots of things in the pipeline." Along with many involved in PFI, he believes that "the London government is more persuaded of the merits of PFI, and direct rule might actually favour projects".
Even if the politics are back on track, PPP is unlikely to be the big money-spinner that it is in the rest of the UK. "We don't expect to see the same huge projects there are on the UK mainland," says Gray, "but smaller projects may well be bundled together to make them more attractive."
The involvement of the UK magic circle firms has been limited, and although Linklaters & Alliance and Allen & Overy have been involved in some projects on the public sector side, it is rumoured that they have not been asked back because the government baulked at their fees. Firms such as McGrigors and DLA, however, have been successful at getting work on the government side, a preference which grates with the local firms. But Hamilton at McGrigors says that his firm is successful because it provides a dedicated public law unit which beats local firms on expertise while beating London-based firms on costs by being in Belfast.
Alongside the political downturn are the same worries of a deteriorating economic climate being felt by the rest of the world. Ironically, though, Gray feels that Northern Ireland's past lack of economic success means that the province is more insulated from a downturn than Eire. It never attracted the huge foreign direct investment experienced in the South, nor has it shared Eire's explosive gross domestic product growth rate. For PPP and cross-border work to really take off, Belfast lawyers want the same thing that most of the Northern Irish people want - a decent period of political and economic certainty.