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The political upheavals of 2016 and early 2017 have dominated the Northern Ireland legal, socio-political and economic landscape this year. Brexit has thrown up particularly challenging questions for the country for numerous reasons, but none so much as the fact that they are the only UK country with a land border with the EU. Further to this, the power-sharing government collapsed in early 2017, compounding the uncertainty in the country. At the time of writing the parties are in the process of forming a new government.

Despite this political uncertainty law firms are optimistic and report continued transactional activity after a lull during mid-2016. Foreign investment into the tech and manufacturing sectors is still growing and domestic transactional activity in the agri-food sector also remains strong. A defining feature of the all-Ireland market is the real estate sector, and this has seen a major uptick in Northern Ireland, particularly surrounding the construction of student accommodation, office space and hotels in central Belfast, along with residential developments in the surrounding towns. Universities are particularly active and Queen’s University Belfast has been building two student accommodation developments worth £70m. Ulster University is also in the process of constructing a new £250m central Belfast campus; these are two of the most significant real estate deals in the Northern Ireland market.

The construction of waste-to-energy plants is a growing trend in Northern Ireland. Whilst wind farms and solar panels remain a stable sector, anaerobic digestion is the latest trend. Infrastructure projects into roads are ongoing, and a new £250m gas transmission pipeline, Gas to the West, is currently being constructed.

The legal market has seen considerable developments this year, with the merger of C&H Jefferson and DWF, and the entrance of Keystone Law through a merger with McMahon McKay Solicitors. They enter a highly competitive market with key players in Northern Ireland, including indigenous full-service firms Carson McDowell, Cleaver Fulton Rankin and Tughans; Dublin-headquartered firms Arthur Cox Belfast and A&L Goodbody, both of which have strong presences in Belfast; and UK-wide firms such as Pinsent Masons Belfast LLP, Kennedys and TLT. The marker has also attracted a number of London-headquartered firms that are using Belfast as a ‘near-shoring’ hub for legal and business service centres: Allen & Overy LLP, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP and Baker McKenzie have all adopted such an approach.

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