The late John Whyte famously observed that ‘relative to its size Northern Ireland is possibly the most heavily- researched area on earth; hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been published since the current troubles began there in 1968’. (1990: viii). Since his seminal ‘Interpreting Northern Ireland’ was published 25 years ago, many thousands more research studies have been undertaken, books and articles written. However a number of experienced academics voices are raising concerns about the tendency to consider Northern Ireland as a ‘place apart’ or to think about its problems ‘in isolation from the wider international and UK society’ (Gilligan, 2008). Is there a danger that an over emphasis on understanding the region through studies of community, conflict and ‘cultural difference’ could lead to ‘stereotyping’, as the general and largely unexceptional experience of living and working in Northern Ireland tends to slip out of view? And what about the ‘researched community’? Could Northern Ireland be suffering research fatigue? And in what ways are the subjects of research able to engage with and respond to research findings?
With this in mind, we held a one day conference at the University of Manchester on 10 May 2016 aimed at building dialogue and exploring relationships between academic researchers and communities who are the subject of research in Ireland, mainly focusing on experiences in the North and Border counties. The day began with a panel discussion to explore the question ‘Northern Ireland – Over-researched and Misunderstood?’ chaired by Pauline Hadaway with discussants Sheelagh Colclough (Belfast-based Arts Practitioner), Chris Gilligan (Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of West Scotland), Roger Mac Ginty (HCRI, University of Manchester) and Laurence McKeown (Playwright and Filmmaker). This was followed by a presentation of the Liverpool Postgraduate Journal of Irish Studies by Sean Hewitt (Institute for Irish Studies, University of Liverpool), co-founder and general editor. The day ended with the Manchester premiere of ‘You Were Never Big On Luxuries: Art, Life and Conflict’ with a discussion with the filmmaker Laurence McKeown led by Alison Jeffers (Drama, University of Manchester). The event attracted twenty-three speakers and participants, including emerging and established academics in the Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, Irish Studies, Drama and Performing Arts, Humanitarian Conflict and Response, Politics, and Screen Studies from eleven universities, alongside arts practitioners and activists.
Based on the delegates’ feedback, it seems there is sufficient interest to continue as a research community, supporting greater dialogue and collaboration between academic researchers and the people and communities who are the subject of research. Our key focus would continue to be on Northern Ireland and Ireland’s border counties and our plans are informed by two ideas: firstly, we that research matters, not only in the way it frames academic thinking, but also because it influences policy makers and shapes public opinion. Secondly, we recognise the interdependence between researchers and the communities who are the subject of research. We are interested in exploring some of these interdependencies with a view to identifying opportunities for people to exchange ideas and knowledge, to shape, inform and develop research projects. To this end, we are proposing a follow up workshop during the first week of November, where people are invited to share their own research project or interest, thinking and talking about it from the perspective of relationships or interdependencies between the research and the people and places that are being researched. If you are interested in becoming involved, please contact us at email@example.com.
Link to film of the panel debate with Chis Gilligan, Sheila Colcough, Roger Mac Ginty and Laurence McKeown, chaired by Pauline Hadaway: Northern Ireland over researched and misunderstood?
Link to filmmaker Laurence McKeown in conversation with Alison Jeffers
Many thanks to Dan Clayton for filming the conference.