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Northern Ireland and the challenge of Brexit

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What will a post-Brexit Northern Ireland look like? Some 44.2 per cent of Northern Ireland voters wanted to exit Europe, forecasting a future free of European bureaucracy. Meanwhile, 55.8 per cent voted for this part of the UK to remain in the EU, wary of ‘hard borders’ and economic stagnation.

Political division remains with us – thankfully not to the same degree as in the not-so-distant past. For example, even while the economy rebounds, more so-called ‘peace-walls’ have been erected and many communities remain segregated.

Yet Northern Ireland has benefited greatly from a peace process underpinned by a strong commitment from both British and Irish governments. This commitment, too, has been given added strength by all of the British Isles being part of the EU, with no hard borders. 

But globalisation presents a dilemma. On one hand, greater connectedness has helped the coordination that tended to be commonplace within nations to transcend upwards across nations. On the other hand, Brexit and Trump’s election indicate that populism is on the rise and liberalism is losing ground. 

Is it because we live in such a hyper-connected world that some people feel their identity and economic prosperity are under threat? I am curious about how the rise of place-based thinking of localism and regional devolution is coinciding with nationalistic rhetoric. 

“I am curious about how the rise of place-based thinking is coinciding with nationalistic rhetoric” 

Place-based approaches allow us to experiment with collaborative ways to put communities at the heart of place-shaping to address complex social-economic issues. But what happens if the emphasis on place-based empowerment is replaced by provincial and regressive thinking? Does it create the conditions for supporting populist thinking that opposes ‘the elite’, and could it be manipulated to legitimise exclusionist, protectionist and insular nationalistic perspectives? 

It could pose political and planning challenges for shaping a liberal and progressive future. But planning must challenge spatial injustices and promoting a cohesive society. 

Northern Ireland has never had a ‘proper’ conversation about how we build a shared narrative about the relationship between people and place. Brexit is not making this easier. While planning and environmental law will remain ‘as is’ after the Great Repeal Bill, the province’s future is less certain. Local politics will continue to shape the constitutional questions as we emerge from Brexit. But the new planning system also has a role to further sustainable development, improve well-being, and to create shared space.

Gavan Rafferty is a lecturer in spatial planning at Ulster University





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