It is impossible to mention Northern Ireland without reference to its complex historical and political relationship within the UK and with the Irish Republic.
Eighteen months shy of the centenary of the partition of Ireland and over 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement marked the end to the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s status has recently been subject to heated debate, thanks to Brexit.
Financial advisers in the area see a range of client responses to Brexit, from carrying on regardless to concern about the potential impact on local jobs and the economy.
“It’s just as divisive an issue here as it is in the rest of the UK. Most of my clients don’t want Brexit but some do and you have to respect both sides,” says David Crozier, senior financial planner at Navigator Financial Planning. “Around 50 to 60 per cent of the workforce in Northern Ireland is in the public sector. A lot of the stuff is done here by the civil service for the rest of the UK, so Brexit is a real issue that does weigh heavily on some people.”
Navigator has offices in the small rural seaside town of Warrenpoint, where Crozier is “third generation born and bred”, and in the capital city of Belfast. He says that, with Warrenpoint being the second-biggest port in Northern Ireland, there are concerns about how Brexit will impact the speed of cargo going through the port and how business will be conducted across the Irish Sea.
Working out of Standard Life Aberdeen advice business 1825’s Belfast office, which was the wealth management arm of BDO until earlier this year, financial planner Carol Malcolmson conversely says only one of her clients has been worried about Brexit.
“Clients haven’t been as anxious about it as I had expected and I think that’s because Brexit has been priced in to the investment markets from day one, so it hasn’t had much of an impact on valuations,” she says.
With the devolved government of Northern Ireland having collapsed in 2017, Malcolmson sees the current lack of a Northern Ireland executive as an issue that needs addressing. “We don’t have a local government, so we have nobody to make decisions for us,” she says.
As Northern Ireland is relatively small, clients tend to be very loyal – it is not unusual to have clients that go back 25 years or more.
“Clients don’t tend to move a lot once they feel comfortable with you, which creates opportunities for intergenerational planning,” she says.
In Coleraine, Capital Trust Financial Management director Bruce Macfarlane agrees. “We’ve been around as a business since 1985 and have a reputation as an investment specialist, so we’re now beginning to see the children of clients investing with us.” he says. “I’ve found there is great loyalty and a lot of trust among clients. While I like to think it’s because we treat them well, I think people in Northern Ireland are loyal to businesses – it doesn’t matter whether it’s financial services or any other business.”
Crozier says you get to know people quickly in Northern Ireland, and this can obviously be beneficial when it comes to finding new clients, wherever they happen to be based.
“I’m now at Dublin airport, about to hop on a plane to see a client in Birmingham,” says Crozier.
“I like to see those clients face to face at least once a year. With the way technology is going, a lot of it can be done by Zoom, by phone or email.”
Crozier has plenty of stories about clients who moved over from England, took a pay cut and still have a better lifestyle than they did previously because the cost of living is lower in Northern Ireland.
Lifestyle is also a consideration for advisers who prefer living at a less frenetic pace than they would in somewhere like London.
“It takes me seven or eight minutes to get to work, without queuing or waiting in traffic. There is bit less pressure here,” he says.
Although he admits that Northern Ireland can sometimes feel removed from financial services on the mainland, Macfarlane says even this has its advantages.
“Perhaps you don’t get caught up in the same herd mentality as others do,” he says. “You have the ability to stand back and reflect rather than being part of the lemmings.”