Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Stale tale of two cities - built in the same place

The answer to the endless round of street disturbances is for all of us to live in the shared present, says Glenn Patterson

Where do you turn at times like these? The answer for most people is probably not to novels. More's the pity. I would say that, being a novelist myself, but bear with me.

"A novel", my contemporary Robert McLiam Wilson once wrote, is "shoe-swapping on the grand scale". To read one is to engage in repeated acts of empathy, to accept the invitation to see the world as it appears to people other than oneself.

Imagine, the novel says, line by line, page after page. Keep imagining. China Mieville in The City and the City imagines two cities - Beszel and Ul Qoma - inhabiting the same geographical space.

Some streets are "total" - wholly in one city, or the other - some are "alter" - now in this city, now in that - and the remainder are "cross-hatched" - in both cities at once.

Citizens of Beszel and their Ul Qoman counterparts are trained from birth, on pain of punishment, not to see the "aliens" in their midst. But still, on occasion, "breaches" occur, often violently.

Mieville doesn't say whether Beszel or Ul Qoma has a Christmas Market, but he might otherwise have been describing the cities of Belfast in recent days.

Time and again, the words come over the airwaves: "No one sees us, no one is listening to us." The will of the "majority" is variously - often contradictorily - invoked.

Of course, we have a system here whereby the actual will of the majority can be periodically measured. It involves citizens going to a polling station and making a mark on a ballot paper.

If the candidate beside whose name they make their mark does not do what he or she promised, they have the opportunity next time around to put their mark elsewhere.

In most democracies, this leaves open the possibility that at regular intervals another party will form a government. In Northern Ireland, for the foreseeable future, the likelihood is that the exercise will return the same mandatory coalition of DUP and Sinn Fein that has - I hesitate to say served us - since 2006.

"Hesitate to say" because much blame for the current mess must be laid at the door of the DUP, along with individual members of the Ulster Unionist Party, for the distribution of those inflammatory leaflets in the run-up to the Belfast City Council Union flag vote at the start of this month.

Peter Robinson's response to the riots and the death-threat to Naomi Long, as he stood beside Hillary Clinton in Parliament Buildings, was as egregious an example of political hand-washing as you could wish- make that hope never again - to see.

"Our journey is irreversible," he said. "We are determined to go on and while, from time to time we will have setbacks, there is no linear progression to a stable and peaceful society."

Never mind linear progression, there is no sense at all in his words of agency: no recognition that the 'setbacks' might have been at least in part engineered by the party that Mr Robinson leads.

To this extent, his words were perfectly in keeping with political rhetoric here in recent years.

Our politicians may not have mastered the art of speaking out of both sides of their mouths at once, but a good many of them a good deal of the time are adept at saying one thing out of one side and very quickly after something entirely different out of the other, goading political opponents - or sometimes the 'other lot' generally - then taking cover in the platitudes of the peace process.

The playground equivalent is hitting someone a dig, then hiding behind the teacher.

In part, this is a problem with the process itself. The open-endedness coded into the word has long since ceased to be enabling and become destabilising: 'we', or 'they' (depending on your politics), it seems to say are not finished yet.

I don't know about anyone else, but I thought that what I was voting for back in 1998 was an agreement. Yes, peace has to be worked at, but - guess what? - peace always has to be worked at, everywhere. It's called respect for your fellow human beings and, dare I say it, empathy.

We need to demand the same standards of ourselves as we expect of others. (Try this, for instance: if it does not dilute anyone's Britishness to have the Union flag flown on designated days, neither should it dilute anyone's Irishness to call this place Northern Ireland.)

We need to make sure we do not take pleasure in the discomfort of others. We need to take responsibility for the rights of others.

We need to imagine not a future, but a present for us all beyond endless process. Politicians - voters - here is where we are. Now deal with it.

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