September marks the end of another Northern Ireland summer. A hot one in meteorological terms. But in political terms it has not been as hot as previous summers, or so the general consensus would seem to be. Certainly, the traditional political warm front associated with the marching season of mid-July did not dominate the whole summer as it has in previous years.
Being predicted, and short-lived, the stoic-as-ever Northern Ireland business community were largely successful in factoring it into their business diaries and managing it accordingly.
Post-Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland continues to be a land of contradictions. The province is often guilty of managing, in public perception terms (though eagerly aided and abetted by world media fixated with the traditional view of the place), to put its worst foot forward. Nevertheless it continues to enjoy a sustained period of economic growth and prosperity, the like of which has not been experienced since the heyday of its chemical and textiles industries of the late 1950s. Throughout the 1990s, Northern Ireland enjoyed the fastest economic growth of any region of the UK with manufacturing output having grown by almost 22 per cent (twice the rate of growth nationally) and industrial production increasing by 17 per cent during the period of 1991 to 1996 (as compared with 11.7 per cent for the UK and 4.3 per cent for the EU as a whole). GDP also grew by 11.6 per cent in real terms during the period of 1991 to 1995 (compared with 5.3 per cent for the UK).
With the exception perhaps of industries such as shipbuilding and textiles whose pain is global rather than local, business is optimistic, indeed bullish, about its fortunes in the early part of the new decade. There is also a recognition that the enviable fiscal environment enjoyed by the Republic of Ireland (where corporate tax rates are destined to stand at a uniform rate of 12.5 per cent for trading income in all market sectors by 2003), at least insofar as emerging technologies business is concerned, is significantly tempered by the salary overhead and staff retention issues associated with an economy currently in overdrive.
There is a general acceptance within the business community that, while there may be some way to go to complete political normality, the level of political strife is unlikely to return to that which characterised Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. With the passing of the troubles, the commerce-based legal profession in Northern Ireland has, in the past few years, been subjected for the first time to the same economic factors and stresses as have shaped the Great Britain legal marketplace over the past 15 years. For example, 10 years ago, there was little if any market in Belfast for corporate lawyers. Demand was being met by individuals moving up through the ranks of what were, on the whole, family dominated practices. Today demand for good corporate and commercial property lawyers far outstrips supply, with most of the Belfast-based commercial firms being on constant look-out for available local talent and individuals minded to return to the Province for family or quality-of-life related reasons.
It is unlikely that the Northern Ireland commercial marketplace will ever sustain practices of the size or degree of specialism of some of the larger Great Britain-based national firms. However, there has emerged a small tier of firms which, in addition to providing all mainstream corporate finance and commercial property advice, can justifiably claim to be equipped intellectually and resourced physically to service instructions in areas such as public private partnerships.
With political stability and economic prosperity, new horizons abound for Northern Ireland’s legal community. Several Belfast firms have announced strategic alliances with Dublin practices which is evidence of an increasingly international outlook. This is built largely on the premise of significant inward investment, particularly from the US, to shore up economically what has been achieved politically and in anticipation of the likelihood of increasing cross border commercial activity and infrastructure projects.
Life for managing partners in Belfast is unlikely to be dull during the next few years.
David Jamison is corporate partner at Carson McDowell in Belfast.