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