To 2031 and beyond … Neil Hegarty’s vision of this island in ten years’ time #imaginebelfast

It’s bread and butter for fiction writers to construct (more or less) believable worlds with backstories, consequences and pivotal moments. I talked to Neil Hegarty ahead of his Wednesday 24 March talk at Imagine! festival, and found the writer and novelist well placed to imagine what this island might look like in 2031.

“The state of Northern Ireland, and of Ireland, ten years hence was an idea I’d been thinking about for a while” Neil tells me.

“Its form, its shape, its politics, and the social and especially the environmental changes that might take place – and probably are going to take place – between now and the. They’re going to have, I think, a huge impact on the way life is going to play out …

“I think a lot of people have this idea that Northern Ireland is stuck in the past, that we’re obsessed by the details of a violent, disturbing history. But in fact, it’s the future that’s taking up more of the bandwidth these days [with] increasing speculation, especially, on matters demographic and on census results.

“Perhaps this is as disturbing as any obsession about our history, because it’s a discourse that boils down to an unhealthy analysis of sectarian headcounts. And it seems clear enough that sectarian headcounts aren’t going to cut it in the years to come. There’s a lot more change taking place.”

The State of Us is the strapline for this year’s Imagine! Festival, so Hegarty’s talk is bang on message. But is he in crystal ball territory? Working from a fiendishly complicated spreadsheet? Is his dining room table littered with Post-It notes ahead of Wednesday’s talk? Or is this about having a good sense of history and the realisation that everything repeats itself?

“It’s interesting that when I was writing this piece, I discovered that all of the stuff was in my head [and] these ideas have already been percolating and distilling. So my table and my desk were very, very neat!

“I took as a bottom line the sense that I go with things that you can fairly easily imagine happening. So there isn’t anything outlandish that’s going to make anyone’s hair stand on end … “

Ten minutes into the talk we’re not going to be flooded by a huge tsunami coming from a meteor hitting the Atlantic?

“I don’t need those interventions. That’s not to say that there won’t be floods. It’s just that they’re not happening as a result of something coming from outer space. They would be the result of something that we do, of conditions that we set in place ourselves.”

An innovative Irish process of evolution and development, indeed, caught the attention of the world. Was this a new ‘Second Republic’, a new ‘Springtime of Peoples’? – the terms were indeed bandied about by the pundits, alongside references to the 1848 Year of Revolutions. Indeed, the phrase Second Republic even made it into the preamble to the new draft Irish Constitution – until historians observed that the French ‘Second Republic’ of 1848 had lasted a mere three years; the nomenclature was dropped hastily. [quote from a blog post written for Imagine! Belfast by Neil Hegarty]

History has a role to play in reminding us that countries and structures that seem permanent can turn out to be quite temporary.

“Change is the essence of history. And we need to be prepared for change, huge change, as part of our futures – even our near futures – too.”

I sense that Hegarty is providing a public service. Warning us that we need to think through what some of our futures might look like because we tend to deal with change very badly on this island – despite there having been a lot of it – and our reaction tends to involve bloodshed and violence.

Without spoiling his talk, expect to hear Hegarty predict big party political level changes with more broadly based parties across the island which have the interests of their own regions at the heart of their agendas.

Are parties currently listening to the people who voted for them in the past as well as those who might do so in the future? While he senses conversations are happening below the surface, he suggests that there’s a lack of leadership if parties avoid telling voters that change is coming.

“Political parties are a public service too. And it’s time all politicians looked at the change coming …”

Having prepared for his 2031 talk, does Hegarty feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future or futures he sees for the island?

“I’m optimistic in the sense that we can still influence it, that we can still play a part and that we’re not simply twigs bobbing along on a torrential river. There are still some steps that we can take – up to a point – to influence in environmental terms.

“But the politics really is up to us. The change in our political states is going to come as a result of what we choose to do and what we mandate our politicians to do for us … It’s up to us … we have a duty. We have a responsibility to be engaged citizens.”

Join Neil Hegarty: 2031 on Wednesday 24 March at 7.30pm and discover whether he’s bringing a beacon of hope or sounding the siren of disaster! Gavin Esler picks up some similar themes of regions and nation states changing in his latest book: he’s in conversation with me on Saturday 27 March at 8pm. And in the meantime, why not use the comment section below to make and debate your own less predictable changes that might have come about on this island by 2031.

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