Northern Ireland's ploughshare option

"IF terrorism is taken out of the equation, then we must do better," commented one Northern Irish lawyer of last week's momentous events. The axiomatic quality of his statement, is tempered by the conditional. False dawns aplenty have broken.

But doing better will mean significant changes for the legal community, which has often had its pattern of work dominated by the violence.

The criminal injury and damage compensation work has meant recovering up to u100 million a year from the authorities. One bombing could result in perhaps 200 claims.

Criminal work has been affected by the heavy load of scheduled offences, perhaps a third of all Criminal Court cases, accounting for most of the work of the Bar, some say. But with a big backlog, it will be some time before this is eliminated.

The economy has been damaged both as to inward investment and locally generated activity. Law firms, as others, have paid the price in the foregone opportunities for business.

But the real price has not been economic. The quality of justice has been strained, with emergency and other legislation curtailing rights, the Diplock courts with their restrictions, and the removal of the right to silence. Having judges with 24-hour guards meant the judiciary was not a job for the faint-hearted and more competitive recruiting may be a feature in future.

The results of law enforcers' misunderstanding of the role of the legal profession, particularly those representing nationalist activists, has had some lawyers fearing for their safety. The unresolved questions over the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane are also part of the legacy. But there are signs of the police wanting to rectify relations.

However, in the frequently dire conditions of the past 25 years, it has been the professionalism and determination of the legal community which enabled the system to function. In lesser hands, it would have faltered completely.