April 2020

In July 2017, I posted a piece on this blog, arguing that the exit of the UK from the European Union constitutes a critical moment in Irish geography, with far-reaching consequences for the island of Ireland. I was (and continue to be) convinced that there is a strong spatial dimension to Brexit which is often overlooked in the mainstream academic and policy commentary. Brexit is fundamentally about territoriality. Brexit does not simply have geographical consequences; the act of the UK leaving the EU ruptures our taken-for-granted understandings of the position of Ireland within Europe and, in relation to the UK and, perhaps most North-South relations on the island of Ireland. Brexit is metageographical. The future of ‘European space’ is at stake. All of this makes, I believe, a persuasive case for a critical and sustained engagement by geographers and other spatially inclined thinkers with the phenomenon of Brexit and its implications, both in a critical, theoretical sense, in terms of how we understand territoriality in Europe, and in an applied in sense, in terms of addressing the challenges posed by this geopolitical moment (see also Boyle et al 2018).

Image source: The Irish Times

Since July 2017, things have of course moved on. Yet the fundamentals have remained the same. The UK formally left the EU on 31st January 2020. Yet, Brexit continues to have a Beckettian quality. ‘Leaving’ is a gradual process (as Jim was fond of reminding us) and there continues to be much uncertainty concerning the end of the transition period as a substantial agreement on the future relationship seems as far off as ever. Meanwhile, the current public health crisis has prompted a return to hard borders within Europe and restrictions on movement that few would have thought possible, just a few short months ago. Once again, the ideals of the European project are tested by a crisis of existential proportions. Much depends on the willingness of EU Member States to effectively demonstrate solidarity within Europe.

In May 2018, Gavan Rafferty (Ulster University) and I convened a session at the Conference of Irish Geographers in Maynooth focused on the implications of Brexit for cross-border cooperation and spatial planning on the island of Ireland. This session drew on the expertise of the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) in engaging with planners, policy-makers and other stakeholders at local, regional and national levels concerned with regional development and spatial planning in the border region, North and South, in the period since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The papers from this session subsequently formed the backbone of a Special Issue of Irish Geography, which has been published online just this week (official publication date November 2019). The papers explore the process and practice of creating spaces for cooperation across the Irish border, pre- and post- Brexit. Drawing on both critical theoretical debates on territoriality, soft spaces and spatial imaginaries as well as applied practical experience, the papers in the special issue highlight the scope for, but also the challenges of working with the ‘island of Ireland’ as a ‘soft space’ in the context of Brexit. It is argued that soft forms of public policy, working under the radar, in the shadow of territory should continue to play a significant role post-Brexit, but that sustained institutional and political support will be required to support these informal practices.

It is hoped that this publication will foster further critical reflection and engagement on the issues it raises as the implications of Brexit for the North-South and East-West relations become clearer.

Cormac Walsh (University of Hamburg and ICLRD)

The individual papers in the Special Issue are available to download (open access) from the Irish Geography website.

From 2013 to 2017, I lived and worked in Ireland. At University College Cork, I undertook my doctoral research project on the consequences of Ireland’s harsh austerity policies on youth living in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods (van Lanen, 2017). I employed qualitative methods, predominantly interviews with young adults, to investigate their encounters and experiences of austerity. Thus, I spoke with youth aged 18 to 25 in Knocknaheeny (Cork) and Ballymun (Dublin). These two neighbourhoods are among the most deprived locally and nationally, due to a combination of low educational achievements, high levels of unemployment, low incomes, and several other indicators. With this project, I aimed to understand how austerity is experienced in everyday life by a group that is vulnerable to the negative consequences of crisis, recession, and austerity.

Ireland is one of the countries that implemented a severe austerity package after accepting an external assistance package from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. I picked Ireland for my research into everyday austerity because its population predominantly speaks English rather than Greek, Spanish or Portuguese. Although sharing a language with youth from Ballymun and Knocknaheeny, I experienced some hesitation in establishing contacts and recruiting research participants in these neighbourhoods. A sudden awareness of my positionality regularly stopped me when I was about to call someone, start a conversation, or attend an event. Differences in social identity and status made me fear that youth from these neighbourhoods would not take me seriously. The Knocknaheeny population was Irish, was sometimes stigmatised, and regularly with low income and lower educational achievements. I was a highly educated, financially-secure foreigner working at University College Cork. I feared this difference was too big, and this fear was so overwhelming I would freeze.

Previously, Claire Mansfield (2011) also conducted research in Knocknaheeny. In her thesis, she writes that she felt an outsider in the neighbourhood because of her differing clothing style, accent, and because she was unfamiliar in the area. Fiona Kelleher (2013) was from Knocknaheeny and investigated teenagers in the neighbourhood. She established contact with local youth smoothly as she was familiar with Knocknaheeny and its inhabitants. However, the fact that she was conducting research clearly influenced her interactions with local youth too. I feared that, if Cork researchers were experiencing difficulties to be accepted and respected, this would be further amplified for a complete stranger.

In Body and soul, Loïc Wacquant describes his fieldwork as a white French academic in a black boxing club in Chicago. Wacquant argues that his French background made it easier to establish contacts in an American ghetto. He writes

‘(…) my French nationality granted me a sort of statutory exteriority with respect to the structure of relations of exploitation, contempt, misunderstanding, and mutual distrust that oppose blacks and whites in America. I benefited from the historical capital of sympathy that France enjoys in the African-American population […] and from the simple fact of not having the hexis of the average white American, which continually marks, if against his or her own best intentions, the impenetrable border between the communities.’ (Wacquant, 2004, p. 10)

Now, Cork is not Chicago, and youth from Knocknaheeny do not possess a different skin colour than me. However, I still found solace in this paragraph. And indeed, in Knocknaheeny, my ‘Dutchness’ proved valuable as it facilitated contact, and both youth and older inhabitants were quickly interested in my presence.

During Cork Culture Night 2014, I was the only ‘unfamiliar’ visitor at the Knocknaheeny hip-hop event. A Dutchman interested in the neighbourhood was received enthusiastically by the present youth. During the whole evening, I was approached by some and introduced to others. Like in the situation described by Wacquant, my ‘Dutchness’ reduced the sometimes tricky and charged relationship of misunderstanding and mutual distrust between Knocknaheeny youth and other areas of Cork city because I was an obvious outsider. Furthermore, especially male attendants were interested in the liberal Dutch attitude to recreational drugs or shared enthusiastic stories about their trips to Amsterdam. The Dutch drugs image thus provided a form of what Wacquant describes as ‘capital of sympathy’.

Ultimately, my status as an outsider, as a highly-educated Dutch qualitative researcher, did not hinder my research project. Perhaps, it even assisted me. Nonetheless, my insecurities never entirely disappeared. Simultaneously, others, like Marielle Zill, have shown that outsider-identities can also frustrate research and access to participants. Personal contact is in the nature of most qualitative research, resulting in a situation where various spheres of personal and academic identity influence the relationship between the researcher and their participants. It is impossible to bridge these differences in identities entirely. Still, it is essential to be conscious of their potential impacts on the relation with participants. Qualitative researchers should carefully consider how we position ourselves, what questions we ask, and how these impact the practice, analysis and results of our research. While this is not always easy, it is essential for high-quality, in-depth qualitative research.

Sander van Lanen


Kelleher, F. (2013). Place, teenagers, and urban identities: A new social geography of young people in Cork. Cork: University College Cork.

Mansfield, C. (2011). Social sustainability and the city: An investigation into the environmental geographies of two neighbourhoods in Cork. Cork: University College Cork.

Wacquant, L. (2004). Body & soul: Notebooks of an apprentice boxer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

van Lanen (2017) Youth and austerity in the city: geographies of precarity in disadvantaged urban areas in Ireland. Cork: University College Cork.