Waiting for the goldrush

Northern Irish law firms are wondering about the 'peace dividend', the much heralded predictions of economic revival which were expected in NI in the aftermath of the ceasefire. So far, there have been some signs of increased business activity but no major rush to invest in the war-weary province.

“It is slow to percolate through,” says Brian Stewart, name partner at O'Reilly Stewart, echoing the view of a number of firms.

“We hear all this on the news about the peace dividend and lucrative investment but so far nothing tangible,” says John Johnson & Co partner Paul Tweed. He adds that solicitors and estate agents would be the first to see such a dividend. “Estate agents keep talking about a property boom. However, there's no goldrush.”

Even financial aid designated for NI from places like the US is tied in with complex employment requirements.

There are certain areas of work which have almost disappeared as a result of the IRA ceasefire. Criminal work, for one, has taken a pounding. Firms which specialised in terrorist cases are having to look for other areas of work as are the barristers most frequently involved in these cases. And criminal damage and injury work is on the wane. “Every firm would lose out on that. The large bomb damage claims are gone,” says Stewart.

Pearse McDermott, spokes-man for the Criminal Bar Association, the group of criminal solicitors who set up as a pressure group to lobby the Government on issues such as fees, says political work has “completely dried up”.

He adds: “There are very few big trials – all the scheduled cases will be finished by the end of the year.”

However, ordinary crime has taken an upturn, with increasing incidences of joy-riding and burglaries. There are also more traffic offences as the Royal Ulster Constabulary has much less to do and has become vigilant on this score.

The drugs problem has also reared its ugly head on the hitherto drug-free North as paramilitary control weakens. “There are a lot more drugs on the scene,” notes McDermott.

In general, the magistrates courts are busier while the Crown Courts are quiet.

The changes in the jurisdiction of the County Court to provide that all the cases it deals with involve less than £15,000 is still causing a stir as 75 per cent of the work has fallen out of the High Court and into the County Court. The reduced High Court workload affects both barristers and solicitors who are looking to expand other areas of commercial litigation to compensate.

Some firms report that the peace dividend is beginning to be seen at the upper end of the property market, according to partner John George Willis of Tughan & Co. “We are receiving a lot of new instructions as a result of the peace development, more than expected.”

The firm has seen growth in inward investment and recently acted for the Guinness pension fund in its purchase of Enniskillen Shopping Centre as well as the redevelopment of the Anderson & McAuley building in Belfast. The firm has also acted for Pillar Caisse in a joint venture between Pillar Property Investment and Sitq Pension Fund of Canada in its purchase of the Fairhill Shopping Centre in Ballymena.

Of the increase in commercial property business, Willis says: “There was a feeling it was going to happen anyway, but because of the ceasefire a number of English property investment companies and property developers are looking at the NI market.”

Neil Faris, partner at Cleaver Fulton & Rankin, echoes this, adding that his firm “was very busy from April last, before the peace process although it has got appreciably busy in the past two to three months”. He notes an increasing interest in the market from British retailers who are not yet established in NI. “Internal work has not kicked off yet. The interest is from people outside who had NI on their agenda,” he says, adding that within NI, “people are more cautious”.

The rumour that Sainsburys is planning to open six outlets in the North is seen as evidence of confidence in the market.

The perennial question of whether NI firms can compete with English firms who pick up work in NI is still relevant. In 1992, three firms took the

unprecedented step of banding together to form the CME Law Group to increase their chances of landing big ticket commercial work, which might otherwise go out of the province. However, the venture has not been a particular success for the firms, Carson & McDowell,

Elliott Duffy Garrett and Mills Selig. Although the link still exists, “no real work has come from it,” says Elliott Duffy lawyer Brian Deeny.

President of the NI Law Society Aidan Canavan sees lawyers playing a major role in the rebuilding of NI. “Through the trauma of the past 25 years, lawyers have played a very important role which has been much underestimated,” he says. “The fabric of society in NI meant that a lawyer was the only person you could go to deal with problems to do with the troubles. We are respected as having no side regardless of religion or politics,” he says. He adds that even those lawyers who were seen by the media as biased because of their clientele were still “highly regarded by everyone because of the impartial advice they gave”. For this reason, lawyers could now make enormous contributions to their communities not only by economic rebuilding but also by social regeneration.

Mary Heaney is a freelance journalist.