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.

Last month, negotiations on the exit of the UK from the European Union commenced. As noted elsewhere, Brexit constitutes a critical milestone of game-changing significance not just for the UK but also for the EU and indeed for the Republic of Ireland. In November 2009, it was argued in the initial post on this blog, that the establishment of NAMA represented a critical moment for Irish Geography. Brexit represents a critical moment of transformation with perhaps similarly far-reaching consequences for geography of the island of Ireland. Brexit represents a reconfiguration of territoriality with direct implications for North-South, Ireland-EU and Ireland-UK relations. I argue here that Brexit thus requires critical and sustained engagement from the geographical community. To date, much of the discussion and debate on Brexit has occurred at macro-level against the backdrop of an implied simplistic geography of ‘London and ‘Brussels’ or the UK and Europe. Discussion of a ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland has occurred for me the most part without due reference to the complex territoriality of Northern Ireland post-1998.

A Briefing Paper recently published by the Centre for Cross-Border Studies sets out the specific geographical implications of ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’ for Northern Ireland post-Brexit. Significantly the paper highlights the potential role of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) as a political framework for territorial relations ‘on these islands’ post Brexit. The GFA is composed of three strands concerning the devolved governance for Northern Ireland (Strand I), North-South (Strand II) and British-Irish (Strand III) relations. Crucially these strands are mutually interdependent:

To reach a negotiating outcome that undermines any one of the strands of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the geographical spaces they represent would be to undermine the entire Agreement given that they are all interdependent (CCBS, June 2017).

 In this context, the Irish and British governments have pivotal roles as co-guarantors of the GFA. The interdependence of the three strands goes to the heart of the territoriality of Northern Ireland. It follows that this territoriality must be understood relationally – in relation to the UK, the Republic of Ireland and, indeed the EU. This perspective serves to relativize the perception of Northern Ireland as a bounded container space within the UK. Katy Hayward has argued cogently on QPOL that different normative ideas on sovereignty are at the heart of the Brexit debate:

At the heart of this Brexit debate are two different conceptions of sovereignty. If the EU is about the growth of sovereignty by sharing it, Brexit is, in essence, a move to deepen sovereignty by restricting it to the territory of the UK (QPOL, June 2017)

A relational understanding of territoriality helps in moving beyond black/white, either/or solutions to the Northern Ireland question. Maintaining a (for the most part) porous and open border does not need to lead to a border poll and political unity. A hard Brexit does not need to lead to a hard border. The CCBS Briefing Paper sets out a possible post-Brexit geography whereby the island of Ireland under Strand II of the GFA becomes an in-between space allowing access for goods and services from Northern Ireland (but not the rest of the UK) to EU / European Economic Area markets. An alternative model would allow free movement of goods and services between Ireland and the UK due to Ireland’s status as a co-guarantor of the GFA. A recent House of Lords report on the implications of Brexit for devolved governance in the UK, has furthermore suggested that Northern Ireland could maintain compliance with EU law in order to minimise discordance the impact of the border on North-South relations.

Both of the above approaches indicate the potential for imaginative solutions (not necessarily the political will), which requite innovative engagement with territorial relations on the island of Ireland, but within the context of existing frameworks. In the period since the GFA, the island of Ireland has emerged as a coherent functional space with extensive effort gone into the development of shared cross-border spaces for cooperation at community, local authority, regional and inter-jurisdictional levels. Reflecting this, as discussed in a previous post here, the proposed National Planning Framework (RoI) makes substantial reference to the North-South, island of Ireland context and the work of the border area networks. The International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) among other organisations has played a key role behind the scenes, in fostering spaces for cooperation in spatial planning and local and regional development within the border region. Reflecting the near-invisibility of the border in the landscape, a comedian quoted anonymously in Garrett Carr’s The Rule of the Land wryly remarked, “We are going to need the border again… if anyone can remember where we left it”.

The shared border region, and indeed the idea of the island of Ireland as a functional space may be understood as soft, non-territorial spaces. They are informal spaces, located outside the regulatory sphere of nation-state territoriality but very much located in shadow of territory and dependent on formal territorial relations, including in this case the GFA. It is likely that in the post-Brexit context such soft spaces will acquire increased significance whether on the island of Ireland or in terms of Ireland-UK or indeed Northern Ireland-Scotland relations. Indeed a number of scholars of European integration and EU reform (e.g. Jan Zielonka, Andreas Faludi), the future of European integration lies in precisely these forms of soft space, in moving beyond the straitjackets imposed by dominant conceptualisations of the EU as a ‘club of nation states’ and embracing flexible boundaries, soft spaces and variable geometries.

Brexit will lead to paradigmatic shifts in the political geographies of these islands as well as of Europe more broadly. These shifts will play out at multiple scales from that of the EU to the micro-geographies of the Irish-Northern Irish borderland. It is imperative that current and future debates on post-Brexit geographies are informed by critical, theoretically informed perspectives recognising the complex relationships between shifting territorial spaces and the lived places that lie behind them.

Dr. Cormac Walsh

University of Hamburg and ICLRD