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

Eurostat, the European statistics agency, recently released the Q3 2012 results for its pan-European house price index (HPI).  The data charts house prices on a standardized basis for 2007-2012, baselined against Q2 2010 (=100).  The index tracks price changes of residential properties purchased by households (flats, detached houses, terraced houses, etc.), both newly-built and existing stock. The Member States’ HPIs are compiled by the national statistical institutes, while Eurostat calculates the euro area and EU HPIs.

The AIRO team have compiled these data into an interactive data visualization accessible on the AIRO website.

What the data allow is a comparison of whether house prices have gone up or down over time with respect to the baseline.  For example, if we consider Ireland against a baseline of 100 in Q2 2010, in Q3 2007 house prices were indexed at 151.7 but had fallen to 75.3 by Q2 2012.  In other words, house prices had halved in valued over that period.

What the data reveal is that during this period of European financial crisis property markets behaved in four different ways across Europe.

1. Prices have declined continuously, either steeply in the case of Ireland, Spain, Romania and Bulgaria or more modestly such as the Netherlands and Cyprus.

2. Prices declined and then have either levelled off (e.g. Denmark, Slovenia) or have bounced back modestly (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, which all experienced very dramatic and rapid declines).

3. Prices have bounced along within a few percentage points of the baseline (e.g., Austria, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, UK) and effectively have flatlined.

4. Prices have increased modestly but steadily (e.g., Belgium, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Sweden).

These differences arise due to issues such as the nature of the national housing markets (e.g. proportion of renters/owner-occupiers), the robustness of the wider economy during the crisis, and wider property market issues such as levels of oversupply where excess supply, coupled with a financial crisis linked to property, work to depress prices in the absence of sufficient demand that would halt decline.

There is tentative evidence that the Irish decline might be starting to level off, but we need a few more quarters of data to reveal whether this is a sustained trend.  The decline, however, has been the worst in Europe in terms of sustained, rapid decline with no levelling off or bounce back.

EU house price index

Justin Gleeson, Eoghan McCarthy, Rob Kitchin

This afternoon sees the start of the “Rankings and the Visibility of Quality Outcomes in the European Higher Education Area” conference in Dublin Castle, part of the events associated with Ireland’s Presidency of the EU.  A good chunk of today’s proceedings focuses on the adoption and roll-out of the EU’s new university ranking exercise, called U-Multirank, which aims to be live by 2014.

Since the initial global university ranking in 2003, there have been a plethora of ranking systems developed, with the big three being the ARWU (Shanghai) ranking, QS ranking, and the Time Higher Ed ranking.  These rankings have become key benchmarks for comparing universities within regions and across the globe, seized upon by some universities for marketing, and the media and government to either promote or denigrate institutions.  They are undoubtedly being used to shape education policy and the allocation of resources and yet they are routinely criticised for being highly flawed in their methodology.

Somewhat ironically, a sector devoted to measurement and science has been evaluated to date by weak science. There are several noted problems with existing rankings.

The rankings use surrogate, proxy measures to assess the things they purport to be measuring, and involve no site visits and peer assessment of outputs (but rather judgements of reputation, alongside indicators such as citation rates).  An example of such proxies include using the number of staff with PhDs as a measure of teaching quality; or the citation rate to judge quality of scholarship.  The relationship in both cases is tangential not synonymous.

The rankings are highly volatile, especially outside the top 20, with universities sliding up and down the rankings by dozens of places on an annual basis.  If the measures were valid and reliable we would expect them to have some stability – after all universities are generally stable entities, and performance and quality of programmes and research do not dramatically alter on a yearly basis.  And on close examination some of the results are just plain nonsense – for example, several of the universities listed in the top 20 institutions for geography programmes in the QS rankings in 2011 do not have a geography department/programme (e.g. Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Yale, Princeton, Columbia; note the link automatically redirects to 2012 results for some reason) and other rankings barely correspond to much more thorough assessments such as the UK departments vis-a-vis the UK research assessment exercise (very few geographers would rank Oxford University as being the best department in the UK, let alone the world).  Such nonsense casts doubts on all the results.

The measures do not simply measure performance but also reputation judged by academics. The latter is highly subjective based on opinion (often little informed by experience or on-the-ground knowledge of the relative performance of universities in other country systems) and is skewed by a range of factors such as the size of alumni, resources and heritage (their past reputation as opposed to present; or simply name recognition), and is inflected by wider country reputation.  The sample of academics who return scores is also skewed to certain countries.

Because the measures add weight to data such as citation and research income they favour universities who are technical and scientific in focus, and work against those with large social science or humanities faculties (whose outputs such as books are not captured by citation and require less research funding to do high quality research).  They also favour universities with large endowments and are well resourced.  The citation scores highly skew towards English-Language institutions.

The rankings take no account of the varying national roles or systems of universities, but looks at more global measures.  Universities in these systems are working towards different ends and are in no way failing by not having the same kind of profile as a large, research-orientated university.

None of the ranking standardise by resourcing, so there is no attempt to see who is performing the best with respect to inputs; they simply look at the scale and reputation of outputs and equate these to quality and performance.  This conflation raises some serious questions concerning the ecological fallacy of the studies.

These failings favour certain kinds of institutions in certain places, with the top 100 universities in the three main rankings all dominated by US/UK institutions, particularly those which are science and technology orientated.  There is clearly an Anglo-Saxon, English language bias at work, hence the new EU ranking.  Very few people who work in academia believe that the UK has many more better universities than those in Germany, or France, or the Netherlands, or Sweden, or Japan, or Australia, etc.  Yet only a handful of universities in these countries appear in the 100, and hardly any at all in the top 50.

Whether the U-Multirank system will provide a more valid and robust ranking of universities, time will tell.  The full final report on its feasibility suggests a wider vision and methodology and some concerted attempts to address some of the issues associated with the other rankings.  One thing is certain, rankings will not disappear, as flawed as each of them are, because they serve a useful media and political function.  However, they should be viewed with very healthy scepticism, mindful of the criticisms noted above.

Rob Kitchin

For an interesting set of blog posts and links to media stories re. university rankings see these collections at Global Higher Ed and Ninth Level Ireland.

Published in today’s Irish Times.

If Irish voters approve the European fiscal treaty in the referendum on May 31st it will no doubt set off a heated debate as to the reasons for that vote. But it appears already that there are two sets of reasons for which Irish voters might vote Yes to the treaty – each with different implications for the future of Europe and for Ireland’s place in it.

First, out of fear – a fear based largely on the consequences of a No vote.

Most narrowly, this is based on worries that Ireland might not have access to further external funding if needed after the current funding programme runs out in 2013.

More broadly, the peripheral countries fear that the fiscal compact will leave them isolated as the healthier economies in Europe insulate themselves from the difficulties across the euro zone as a whole.

These fears won’t trouble Europe’s elites too much if Ireland delivers a Yes vote and the fiscal treaty marches on. But they should.

Support for the European project is declining rapidly in the very countries that were once Europe’s greatest backers. Eurobarometer surveys show that the percentage of people in Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain who “tend to trust the EU” fell from 57 per cent before the crisis in April 2008 to 42 per cent in May 2011.

This collapse in institutional legitimacy extends not only to the ECB but to the previously popular commission and even parliament. A damaging split is opening between the periphery and even the smaller countries of the core.

This should certainly trouble German chancellor Angela Merkel who, in recent speeches, has argued that the fiscal treaty is a strongly pro-European response to the crisis that will rebuild trust in finances and between governments, and will require greater strengthening of the centre in Europe and deeper political union.

Her speeches echo in arguments that the treaty will be a “gateway”, a platform from which policymakers can undertake future efforts to rebuild the European economy. She calls, therefore, for a second kind of Yes vote – a vote for the treaty as the foundation stone for rebuilding Europe.

Indeed, Merkel can make a strong case that fiscal discipline has been a central plank of the European model in the past. However, in these continental and Nordic economies, fiscal discipline was only one part of a broader social and economic compact. A crucial element in the success of those economies was high rates of investment in technology, research and other productive assets.

This was combined with workplaces that emphasised worker participation, ingenuity and empowerment. Together these are the fundamentals of German exporting success.

Furthermore, all this was held together by the best systems of social protection in Europe. In the European model at its most successful, fiscal discipline was part of a mutually reinforcing package of measures that locked together fiscal, economic and social compacts.

These additional elements are missing from Merkel’s vision of a post-crisis Europe. The banking and financial architecture is designed for greater prudence but hardly to lead the necessary productive investment.

Public investment has stalled or contracted. Bailout programmes have emphasised competitiveness through cost-cutting and weakening social protections, rather than through industrial upgrading and worker involvement.

Ireland’s experience of decline in all these key areas is all the evidence we might need that the European strategy is at present disastrously incomplete.

European institutions could play a critical role here. The European Investment Bank and the structural funds could be mobilised in promoting an investment-led recovery. Policy decisions that could provide national governments with fiscal space to generate economic recovery, including rescheduling debt repayments, are largely ignored. The trillion euro or so in liquidity provided to banks comes with few strings attached in terms of the banks’ role in recovery.

Cross-national investments in vital infrastructure for the knowledge economy could be encouraged further. Institutional changes in terms of financial regulation, promotion of active labour market policies and industrial upgrading could be advanced.

European economies do have a distinctive approach based on a mix of fiscal and monetary caution and substantial, collective investments. Little wonder their leaders tire of lectures from the UK and US where looser fiscal and monetary policy combines with more individualised, speculative real economies. But if they don’t undertake the full package of measures that were at the heart of the European model then they simply prove those critics right.

The European model provided social and economic measures that were counterweights to fiscal discipline – providing short-term stimulus, medium-term productive investment and long-term credible collective commitments to social and economic security.

In the absence of these measures, the fiscal treaty simply institutionalises austerity – in practice and, arguably, even by rule.

If the European project is to be rebuilt the case must be made in both core and periphery for a broader project of reconstruction.

The prospect of a fiscal compact may provide enough stability in banking, bond and stock markets, and in the euro zone economy to avoid a disastrous short-term meltdown.

Soon, however, the European approach will need to go well beyond the fiscal compact to generate growth, employment and become a motor of recovery in the world economy.

This will require European governments and institutions to rediscover their historical taste for constructive politics and building European solidarity – fiscal compacts based on rules cannot substitute for political construction of social compacts.

If this treaty is to be a gateway to the future Europe’s elites will need to put some of the building blocks in place for the road ahead.

Sean O’Riain

According to the latest Quarterly National Household Survey (Q2 2010, QNHS) from the CSO the national unemployment rate currently stands at 13.6%. The current rate has increased from 12.9% in the previous quarter and increased from a rate of 12% a year ago.

The QNHS has been in operation since September 1997 (replacing the old Labour Force Survey) and therefore provides a useful means of illustrating and monitoring labour market trends over time. The bulk of the data available through the survey is only available at a national level, however the survey does provide a breakdown of ILO Economic Status (In employment, Unemployed, In Labour Force, Unemployment Rate and Participation Rate) at a NUTS3 regional level. The unemployment rate here is calculated using the number of unemployed as a percentage of the total labour force and is based on the ILO (International Labour Office) labour force classification. This means that it’s also possible to put the Irish unemployment figures (national and regional) in context with international figures.


From the beginning of the survey up to the end of 2007 the unemployment rate In Ireland initially dropped from 10.4% in Q4 1997 to a low of 3.5% in Q3 2000. From this point up until the end of 2007 the rate remained relatively stable with an average rate of 4.3%. In early 2008 we started to feel the full effects of the downturn with large numbers signing on the live register (see here) and witnessed the subsequent unrelenting climb of the unemployment rate to today’s lofty heights of 13.6% (Figure 1).

Figure 1: ILO Unemployment Rate 2007 to 2010

Much of this increase has been attributed to the collapse of the construction industry and housing boom in Ireland. This has had a major effect on the unemployment rate due to the strong over-dependence of the workforce on construction related employment. A significant number of redundancies in industry related employment have also significantly contributed towards this increasing rate. Figure 2 details the strong dependence of the workforce on construction – at the end of 2006 almost 12.5%(268,400) of the labour force (employed and unemployed) were employed in construction related employment. This figure is now at 5.8% (125,300).

Figure 2: Sectoral Employment as a proportion of Labour Force

Another worrying aspect of the current unemployment trend is the increased number who are now classed as being ‘long-term unemployed’. According to the CSO this relates to those unemployed for one year or more expressed as a percentage of the total labour force. Since the beginning of 2008 the number of people now classed as ‘Long-term Unemployed’ has increased by 97,000. The Q1 2010 figure now represents 5.9% of the total labour force (Figure 3).

Figure 3: % of Labour Force classed as Long-Term Unemployed

European context

As per Q1 2010 the unemployment rate (12.9%) for Ireland was the 6th highest in the EU27 with only the Slovak Republic (15.1%), Lithuania (18.1%), Estonia (19.8%), Spain (20%) and Latvia (20.4%) with higher rates. Our current standing is in stark contrast to the situation 4 years ago when the unemployment rate in Ireland was the lowest in the EU27 at 4.2% (Figure 4). Over this 4 year period Ireland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Spain have witnessed the greatest increases in unemployment rates. On the other hand countries such as Poland, Germany, Auatria and Malta have improved and unemployment rates have decreased (Figure 5).

Figure 4: ILO Unemployment Rate - Q1 2010

Figure 5: ILO Unemployment Rate - Q1 2006


There is considerable variance in unemployment rates across the country with the highest rate of unemployment currently in the South-East (18.1%) and the lowest in Dublin (11.5%). Dublin currently accounts for 23% of all those classed as unemployed in the country with a total of 69,500. This number has increased by 3.8% since Q1 2010 and by 7.5% in the last year. The rate of increase outside Dublin has been much higher and since Q2 2007 the regions that have been hit the hardest are the South-East, South-West and the West (Figure 6).

Figure 6: % of Labour Forced classed as Unemployed, Q2 2007 and Q2 2010

Justin Gleeson

So we know that Europe matters in Ireland. But do we know just how much Europe matters in Ireland after Nama? We know, of course that a good chunk of Nama’s “assets” are located in Europe [tangent: not about Nama as such, but the Sunday Tribune reported that Irish investors own 3,500 apartments and property sites in Budapest… 3,500! And now a vulture capitalist is looking to buy that knock-down prices from, we must imagine, pretty desperate sellers]. And we know that Europe has helped give Nama some shape: it was the European Central Bank that called for the Special Purpose Vehicle, for example, and now the European Commission is in the process of reviewing state assistance to bailed out Irish banks, such as Anglo Irish. What else is in the pipeline? Well, we certainly know that interest rates in Ireland are set to rise if growth does emerge in Europe and we know that that decision is not taken in Dublin – the known unknown here is just what effect rising interest rates will have on the property market and, in turn, on the valuations of our new “assets”. We also know that Lisbon Treaty will kick-in soon and that it will impact on Irish society – perhaps a known unknown is what form that impact will take, for example on Ireland’s strategy for attracting inward investment [Article 207 of Lisbon might raise pertinent questions here]. Perhaps, then, one final known unknown is this: we know Europe will matter in Ireland after Nama but what spatial effects will it have and how can geographers get to grips with these effects?

Alistair Fraser