• Open Insights: An Interview with Caroline Magennis

    Posted by Paula Clemente Vega on 2018-06-29


#Agreement20: Capturing the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in Open Access

An  Open  Insights  interview  with Caroline Magennis


Dr Caroline Magennis is a Lecturer in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature at the University of Salford and the Chair of   the British Association for  Irish Studies. She co- organised together with Dr George Legg (King’s College London) and Dr Maggie Scull (King’s College London), #Agreement20, an academic public engagement project on the 20th Anniversary of the good Friday Agreement. The conference was held at the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester, on 6-7 April 2018. Participants included academics, writers and journalists from across the world who discussed the cultural, social and political legacy of the Belfast Agreement and explored its variety of inter-disciplinary perspectives. Open-access peer-reviewed articles associated with the conference are now published in the #Agreement20 special collection of the Open Library of Humanities.


OLH: Hello Caroline, many thanks for agreeing to talk to us. To start, tell us a little about the context for #Agreement20 and what you set out to achieve.

CM: A few years ago, some colleagues and I noticed the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was approaching. Maggie Scull (a historian at KCL), George Legg (a cultural theorist at KCL) and I started debating how we would like to mark this momentous anniversary, particularly in light to the threat posed to the Agreement by the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

George and I had already organised an event on the twentieth anniversary of the Manchester IRA Bomb and found an appetite for debate and discussion among a wide range of people, from academics to the local community.

George and I had already organised an event on the twentieth anniversary of the Manchester IRA Bomb and found an appetite for debate and discussion among a wide range of people, from academics to the local community. Maggie has a track record of public engagement projects, including co-organising events such as Four Nations History, Rethinking the Hunger Strikes and the London Irish Seminar. However, with #Agreement20, we stepped up our ambitions for the impact of this project as we wanted to showcase the wide variety of inter-disciplinary perspectives on the legacy of 1998. After we gained funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Government of Ireland for an academic conference which was affordable to PhDs, the precariously employed and the local community, we sought opportunities to maximise the impact of the work of our impressive roster of contributors. 


OLH: What ethical principles did you and your colleagues want to embed into the project?

CM: We wanted to ensure that a plurality of voices were heard. Quite often the conversations around Northern Ireland are dominated by heterogeneous voices which often elide the critical and experiential perspectives of women, the LGBTQ+ community and those economically marginalised. It was important for us to use our networks of contacts to ensure that newer perspectives were represented. 


OLH: How has the collection and conference helped to re-evaluate the Good Friday Agreement 20 years on?

CM: That would be quite a claim to make! I think that the process of living with and re-evaluating the Agreement takes places in homes, schools and workplaces across Northern Ireland every single day.

I think that the process of living with and re-evaluating the Agreement takes places in homes, schools and workplaces across Northern Ireland every single day.

We sought, instead, to open up conversations and questions about the inequalities and interpretations of an Agreement whose effects have been deeply uneven. We had speakers from across the UK and Ireland, Europe, Asia and North America and were truly blown away by the range of contributors and, in particular, the new generation of scholars adamant that existing paradigms must be challenged as a matter of urgency. 


OLH: Why do you think it is important that an academic collection on such a significant political anniversary is open access?

CM: Yes, I think it’s absolutely vital. Many of those who invested in the future of Northern Ireland do not have access to academic research about their own lived experience. The political situation is one of the most studied in the world and yet writing is so often hidden behind a paywall. There is also an international interest in the process as a case study for conflict resolution and the uneasy legacy of decades of violence. There is a renewed interest in Northern Irish politics following Theresa May’s electoral deal with the DUP and the prospect of a hard border so we wanted to ensure that current debates were available to all. 

There is a renewed interest in Northern Irish politics following Theresa May’s electoral deal with the DUP and the prospect of a hard border so we wanted to ensure that current debates were available to all. 


OLH: How have the conference and the collection interacted most productively?

CM: Our articles were published in the lead up to the conference, with more scheduled in the months to come. The rationale for this was to allow colleagues from across the world who were unable to attend the conference to participate in the conversation as their work was freely available to all delegates and shared by us on social media. In the coming months, we will publish articles on literature, politics and history which will keep the conversation going in this anniversary year. 

For us, this was a much more dynamic format than the standard conference proceedings volume as it allowed us to make interventions before, during and after the Anniversary.

For us, this was a much more dynamic format than the standard conference proceedings volume as it allowed us to make interventions before, during and after the Anniversary. This was vital as contributors sought to respond to a changing political situation. The standard format is often very limiting and often offers a skewed range of voices: with the more flexible online journal collection we were able to incorporate a wider range of voices. 


OLH: What advice would you give to someone designing a project like #Agreement20 that you would have appreciated receiving yourself?

CM: We were very well advised by Caroline Edwards and Martin Eve in producing the Open Library of Humanities Special Issue. Martin Doyle of The Irish Times and Alan Meban of Slugger O’Toole were invaluable in designing the digital public engagement, and Julie Mullaney at the Irish World Heritage Centre helped us every step of the way in planning, funding and other sundry support. That is to say: surround yourself with good people who are committed to public engagement and open access and learn from them. Every project is different: ours had a shifting political landscape to contend with but we found a boon rather than a burden. 

Be clear in your aims and objectives and as open as possible about who you want to join the conversation. For us, a mix of registers was ideal so that people could engage with our topic by watching videos on Youtube, reading our newspaper articles or our special issue. 

The practical advice I can give is to start early with your organisation and applications but also to be unafraid if there are larger, more established events happening. We saw Belfast having Blair, Ahern and Clinton speak but that was never what we set out to achieve. Instead, we had a wealth of PhD students that left me in no doubt that the future of the discipline is in the good hands of people who question established doctrine around the narrative of the Agreement. Be clear in your aims and objectives and as open as possible about who you want to join the conversation. For us, a mix of registers was ideal so that people could engage with our topic by watching videos on Youtube, reading our newspaper articles or our special issue. 


OLH: What interventions are humanists best placed to make in debates surrounding the island of Ireland, and how can their voices be amplified?

CM: Humanists have been making interventions in Ireland for many years, and the body of research on Ireland and #IrishStudies topics is substantial. The novelist Glenn Patterson asserts that “There is more than one way to live in Northern Ireland and more than one story to be told”. It is this impulse that I move towards in my own critical writing and that I respond to most enthusiastically in the work of others, including the best writing in the collection. There is a sense in lazy interpretations of the North, that there is an irresolvable dichotomy of sectarian conflict and identification, when a consideration of issues of class, gender, sexuality and race would yield a richer analysis. 

There is a sense in lazy interpretations of the North, that there is an irresolvable dichotomy of sectarian conflict and identification, when a consideration of issues of class, gender, sexuality and race would yield a richer analysis. 


OLH: What are your aspirations for the collection, particularly as we approach a political phase that seems to be re-igniting old tensions?

CM: We seek to showcase the best, innovative work on Northern Irish which produces imaginative yet critical engagements with culture, history and society. We want to illuminate the perspectives that are often left out of mainstream conversations around the Agreement and focus on the resonances it has left throughout the last twenty years. With #Agreement20 we did not seek to espouse one view of conflict resolution or the current impasse but rather debate and discuss these ideas. As the situation evolves, these articles will stand as important documents on how the twentieth anniversary was responded to by academics. 


Our  thanks  to Caroline,  and  keep  an  eye  out  for  more  #EmpowOA  Open  Insights  soon!  


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