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

There has been a lot of media coverage concerning cross-border traffic flows over the past year or so, mostly focused on cross-border shopping (IAN post here). We have been trying to source some data that would reveal the numbers of cars crossing the border on a daily basis. In our naivety, we thought it might be a relatively straightforward task given the number of traffic cameras and traffic management induction loops on the principal roads, but such data has proven quite tricky to come by. Recently though we have received some data generated by the Department of Regional Development in the North. They monitor traffic flows at 12 traffic census points along the full length of the border. The data is a little out of date at this stage and relates to 2007 flows, and it is a little limited in nature, but it does give us some picture of cross-border movements.

The first map shows average cross-border daily flows for Monday to Friday, although it does not breakdown the hour or direction of the flow (although a sizable proportion of the vehicles are moving across the border and then back later in the day). The roads with the greatest flow of traffic run between Donegal and Derry (A2, Letterkenny/Derry (18,290) and A38, Lifford/Strabane (19,290)). Next, and a little way behind, comes the M1, Newry/Dundalk route (14,140). In total, on an average work day in 2007, 97,190 vehicles crossed the border. Assuming that the vast majority of journeys are bi-direction and have 1 to 2 people in the car, the data would indicate about 1-2 percent of the population of the North and South (c.50,000-100,000 people), cross the border daily.

Average daily cross-border traffic flows, 2007

The second map details the hour of peak AM flow in each direction. Interestingly, the peak hour of traffic flow on the three routes with the highest traffic is 11am in both directions with the exception of the M1 southbound which is 8am. This suggests that a large proportion of the cross-border journeys, in both directions, are not related to either work or schooling (although such flows undoubtedly occur, but as a smaller proportion of all trips). Along the south-west part of the border, between Leitrim/Sligo and Fermanagh, however, it appears that there is relatively substantial work related morning trips in both directions, but especially from the South to the North.

Peak hour of cross-border traffic flow in each direction, 2007

Clearly we’re only provided a limited snapshot here of cross-border traffic flows, but it’s a start. Hopefully we can source some more timely data that has hourly breakdowns that detail how many vehicles are travelling in each direction.

Justin Gleeson and Rob Kitchin

The CSO have released their first report on the new cross-border shopping questions on the quarterly household survey (collected April-June 2009).  The full report can be found here.

The results make pretty interesting reading.  The headlines are:

16% of households made at least one shopping trip to Northern Ireland in the 12 months before the Quarter 2 2009 survey. The highest proportion of households who shopped in Northern Ireland was recorded in the Border region (41%).

More than one in ten households in the Border region (11%) reported that they made 13 or more trips and a further 14% reported making between six and 12 trips in the period.

Total household expenditure on shopping in Northern Ireland between Quarter 2 2008 and Quarter 2 2009 was €435 million. Households spent an average of €286 on shopping on their most recent trip to Northern Ireland.

Households spent most on Groceries, with an average of €114 spent on the most recent trip.  Almost 80% of households who shopped in Northern Ireland bought Groceries on their most recent trip

The likelihood of having made a shopping trip to Northern Ireland varied by household type. Households with children were the most likely to have made a shopping trip while households where one person aged 65 or over lived alone were least likely to have shopped in Northern Ireland.

Clearly, cross-border shopping is an important aspect of the retail geography of the island, with a substantial number of shoppers crossing into Northern Ireland to take advantage of cheaper prices.  According to retailers this has led to 11,000 retail jobs being lost in the Republic (see Irish Times).  Presumably most of these jobs have been lost in Border areas and also the mid-East, but at present we do not have good data on the effects of cross-border trade on local retail or job markets.

To my mind, these data show a better picture than I was anticipating, albeit it is still worrying for Southern retailers.  €435m is approximately €100 per person per annum, a small fraction of the total amount spent on retail in a year.  Indeed, the flight of capital out of the state is probably far less than through foreign holidays, property investments overseas, and financial investments overseas, which are more likely to be less spatially skewed.  And retail spend has more likely dropped much more substantially in the South through people ‘tightening their belts’ and spending much less in general.

Rob Kitchin