Saturday 23 February 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Our values are guided by geography - so let's put common sense on the Brexit map'

Departing: A lorry leaves the Eurotunnel in Folkestone, Kent. Photo credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Departing: A lorry leaves the Eurotunnel in Folkestone, Kent. Photo credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It is welcome news that there are plans to restore history as a core subject in primary schools. It can't be said often enough: unless we understand the past, we cannot proceed to the future.

But if history plays a key role in comprehending our world, geography plays a commanding one. If every formal discussion of Brexit was to be preceded by projecting a relevant map on the wall, there might be more understanding - and possibly more flexibility of approach all round.

Northern Unionists like to refer to their "precious union" with Great Britain: that's their entitlement. But look at the map, guys. All people in Northern Ireland share an island territory with people in the 26 counties of the Republic, whether they like it or not. Whatever national identity is cherished, there also have to be practical applications to the operation of this shared piece of territory.

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Or examine the geographical place of Ireland on a larger map. Again, whether Irish people like it or not - and some don't - geography has placed Ireland next to Wales and England. However much Irish politicians - from Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney to Mairead McGuinness and Phil Hogan - affirm that Ireland stands with the 27 continental nations, it remains a fact that Liverpool is more proximate, in every way, than Ljubljana, and Anglesey more relevant to Irish interests than Gdansk.

It's perhaps regrettable that maps issued by the Royal Geographical Society still feature a page describing Ireland and Britain as "the British Isles". I'm all for renaming these islands (perhaps "the Atlantic Archipelago"?), and maybe we should claim Rockall into the bargain, but that still won't change the fundamental geography of the map. Nor the inescapable fact that for Irish truckers, Wales and England are a bridge to continental Europe. "These islands" are a geographical grouping.

All around the European Union, there are nations in special groups based on geography, culture and common interests, like the Visegrad Group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia), or the EU Med Group (Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain). The Nordic Council has always had its own grouping (not all being in the EU), and there is also the Nordic-Baltic Eight - Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden.

Ireland is a member of the New Hanseatic League group established last February between certain EU nations with "shared views and values" - the other countries being Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden and the Netherlands. It's useful to be part of a club where there is mutual support, yet the geographical positioning starkly illustrates Ireland's Atlantic setting.

While the other Hanseatic League countries are clustered around the Baltic or on the North Sea, they draw on Germanic, Nordic or Ungaro-Finnish language groups, and on historically Protestant cultures (with the exception of Lithuania). As the league was founded by the finance ministers, perhaps culture and geography don't really matter: yet there is a certain geographical incongruity here, as Barry Andrews has suggested. (Scotland, a North Sea nation, could claim to be as deserving of a place at this table.)

Geography and propinquity define values. In the Eurovision Song Contests, nations with geographical-cultural links to one another notoriously favour each other.

But the map also illuminates why different perspectives arise. France and Italy are presently engaged in a bad-tempered spat over migration. The Italian deputy prime minister has accused France of returning migrants across the border to Italy (and of having "neo-colonialist" African policies); while France has accused Italy of not allowing rescue boats to dock. There is politics involved, but there's also geography: look at the map of Italy and its proximity to the troubled areas of North Africa.

Belgium can't understand why any nation would be opposed to, or even critical of, the EU. But Belgium is in the geographical cockpit of the European continent, every passing war fought on its territory, and itself a deeply divided society only held together by EU institutions (and possibly its monarchy).

In England, too, however much it's repeated that the electorate voted for Brexit, the proximity to France and the Low Countries is a fact of geography. At Shakespeare Cliff, near Dover, swarms of swimmers gather each summer to swim those 20 short nautical miles between the White Cliffs and Gris Nez, near Calais. Between the ports of Dover and Calais, more than 80 ferries ply back and forth every 24 hours, and up to two million goods vehicles cross via the Channel Tunnel annually.

There is a special relationship between Kent and the Pas-de-Calais area in France - based on the imperatives of geography, and the shared context of that Channel trade.

The Border backstop in Ireland has become the central issue in finding a deal for the UK's orderly exit from the EU: and, it seems, the most difficult obstacle to a solution.

But if, instead of hanging blue and gold flags, the map of "these islands" and continental Europe hung large over every negotiating meeting, would the geography of common sense prompt more movement towards pragmatic compromise?

Irish Independent

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