More than Lines on a Map? Towards Regional Governance for Irish Marine Space

Last month, I spoke at the Conference of Irish Geographers about the current developments and future challenges in marine protected area (MPA) management and maritime spatial planning (MSP) in the Irish context. In this commentary, I further develop some of the key arguments and proposals from that presentation.

As an island nation, Ireland is surrounded by the sea and has an extensive maritime territory (Figure 1 below). Nevertheless, the sea has often occupied a peripheral position in the national consciousness and politics. There is a prevailing sense that successive Irish governments have ‘turned their backs on the sea’, neglecting this rich resource (e.g. Tom MacSweeney 2008, Kevin O’ Sullivan 2019). Currently, however, Ireland’s marine territory is subject to significant policy attention, indicating perhaps, the beginning of a new relationship between the land and the sea. Irish marine governance is evolving rapidly with the adoption of a National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF), the preparation of a Marine Planning and Development Management Bill, and ambitious targets for the large-scale expansion of Ireland’s MPA network, in line with international commitments. Yet, blind spots and a sense of disjointed policy-making continues with, for example, the lack of marine biodiversity characterization or sensitivity mapping to support the preparation of NMPF. Indeed, by all accounts (the final NMPF will not be made public until June 17th), the NMPF does not provide a map of spatial strategy or an indication of priority areas for specific uses and activities at sea. In this sense, it is very much a policy framework rather than a spatial plan and barely meets the requirements set out under EU MSP Directive. This apparent lack of willingness to provide strategic policy direction in relation to the spatial distribution of activities and priority areas for ecosystem protection at sea is disappointing. As pressures for the development of marine space increase, there is a real risk of a reactive, development-led regime emerging by default. 

Figure 1: Ireland’s maritime territory (continental shelf). Source: Marine Institute.

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