Panic buttons have been installed in South Belfast. Catch them now while they’re in philosophical mode. They are signless intercoms, offering a dangerous communication with a currently unnamed correspondent. They give no indication of what they’re there for, so you could ask them any question you like. Where’s the nearest chip shop? Is the Cartesian self an idea made redundant by the technological complexities of today’s world?
Officially these are Emergency Contact Points, and they’re meant to reassure you, the decent citizen, that you will be protected from them, the ‘troublesome’, as the publicity puts it. Not only will you know that Big Brother is watching you but you can give him a ring and ask for a bit of help. The Emergency Contact Points have been installed as part of the Get Home Safe initiative, jointly run by Belfast City Centre Management and PSNI. It’s well meaning enough if the idea is to stop people beating the crap out of each other on a Saturday night, but the whole enterprise has ominously corrective overtones. The campaign has the following ‘catchphrase’: ‘It is up to you to decide how your evening will end. It’s your choice. It’s your life. Think Twice – Get Home Safe’. Simple enough. Let’s not quibble over contradictory contractions (why ‘It is’, then the more informal, of-the-people, ‘It’s’ in the next sentence? Sense a change of voice here?). But ‘evening’: who goes for an ‘evening’ out? It’s such a polite word. Someone who goes for an evening out never goes for a night out. ‘Evening’ makes of Cinderella a tale in which the struggle to be home by midnight was meant to prove that she was a proper lady after all. Anyway, the slogan is intended as a hard-hitting and stern reminder of your own responsibilities. It speaks with the voice of a teacher talking to a bored pupil. If you get into trouble it’ll be your own fault. (As a campaign slogan it unhelpfully equates drunken violence with careful driving – Think Once, Think Twice, Think Bike, remember that?). But if Get Home Safe is all about us standing up straight, putting our shoulders back, and facing up to our responsibilities on our ‘evenings’ out (say, at the Opera House), what do we need the panic buttons for? Because the ‘troublesome’ are out there, somewhere, and where they must be controlled is South Belfast.
There are five Emergency Contact Points in ‘South Belfast’. It says this on the website. When I rang Musgrave Street PSNI Station to ask where exactly they were I was first told that that information couldn’t be given out because of Data Protection Laws. I know, I didn’t understand this either. Maybe it’s a stock response, like ‘that would be an ecumenical matter’. Still, there’s some ironic justice in the idea that the intercoms are provided to protect the fragile citizen’s body but to protect that body’s rights you cannot be told where these things are. They’re on Donegall Square North (City Hall), Great Victoria Street (near the Europa), Dublin Road (outside the cinema – imagine seeing one of these just after watching Matrix Reloaded – weird), and at the top of Botanic Avenue, near Duke’s. There is a fifth one, but the PSNI man I spoke to had to ask around for where the fifth one was. On High Street near Castle Court. Strange that it should be the one that is least memorable. The further north they go the less they stick in the mind. It’s clear enough that this small example of the much loved idea of public-private partnership funding knows where its money comes from. Businesses, who are stumping up money for this initiative, pay for the safety of their customers, and those are the people out for an ‘evening’ in South Belfast. West, North or East would all be places where a call for help might sometimes be useful, but then we’ve moved on from the days when the Confidential Telephone was the best way to have a heart to heart with the police. If the pilot five contact points are successful they may spread through the city, but will they ever reach the Shankill, Falls, Limestone Road, Newtownards Road or Antrim Road? For now, like internet connectivity, they are a register of social standing, and they tell us who is worth protecting when private money has a say in policing.
If you’re still unsure as to how you’ll know an Emergency Contact Point when you see it, they rise from the ground as small blue pillars. They’re really the new Police Box, like an updated Tardis. Press a button and you can speak to a CCTV operator in Musgrave Street PSNI station (‘I’m a decent citizen, get me out of here’). Cynically you might say that he or she can now not only watch you being assaulted but will be able to hear your groans. The PSNI see it as a way to reach their customers, to give out information (on where to get a taxi was the example I was given), to send out help if it’s needed and keep an eye on the person needing the help while it’s coming. Fair enough. If you aren’t lucky enough to be within pressing distance of the buttons when you get in a spot of bother on your evening out their usefulness might pale. You’d also need to know where the pillars are of course, and their current steely minimalism doesn’t help. At the moment they’re inscrutably unsignposted. They seem like more like a psychological test (do I dare press the button to see what happens) than a public utility. The signs are coming apparently, though there’s an undefined issue holding things up there – perhaps a teething problem to do with public-private money (expect ‘This Emergency Contact Point is sponsored by …’). Let’s hope they get a more effective response than the recorded message that’s on them now. Or a voice saying that they can’t possibly answer that question because of Data Drotection laws. Or worst of all ‘If you are being physically attacked press 1; if you believe you are about to choke on your own vomit press 2; if you require a taxi look behind you; for all other queries please hold. And remember we can see you. All our CCTV operators are busy right now. Your call is valuable to us. Please hold while we try to connect you’.
The panic buttons have made it into Westminster debate already. In that curiosity of direct rule, where Northern Ireland business is carried out in an annex, the 16th June 2003 had a few tidbits in the written answers which throw light on this new phenomenon, where securocrats and technocrats seem to blend to dictate the future of Northern Ireland. The only mention of real economics was, appropriately, a question about the location of call centres in Northern Ireland. The Rev. Martin Smyth, MP for the now heavily protected South Belfast was reassured by Jane Kennedy about the status of public funding for CCTV coverage of Belfast City Centre and South Belfast, including the five new Emergency Contact Points. These should, the minister said, ‘reduce the fear of crime’. She didn’t explain why they wouldn’t increase the fear of crime by suggesting that it had been likely to happen at the very spot where the contact points are and was now likely to happen a hundred yards farther down the road out of sight of the cameras and out of poking distance of the contact points. Other Northern Ireland MPs also had security and technology on their minds on 16th June. Roy Beggs, in a fit a philosophical pedantry, asked the Secretary of State to ‘define a security response’ and also, while he was at it, to define ‘a community safety initiative in the context of dealing with interface conflict’. Paul Murphy reached for his dictionary and came up with CCTV. Cameras will be installed at ‘interface locations’ (a lovely euphemism; let’s have an ‘evening’ out at an ‘interface location’, said one ‘troublesome’ Belfast man to another). No mention by Mr Murphy of the necessity for those who will be observed by the CCTV cameras on the interface to have Emergency Contact Points so that they could chat to those surveying their neighbourhood, or ask for help in stopping the bricks coming over the wall. Only in South Belfast can you speak back to those watching you. The voiceless are still voiceless in a world and a Belfast of call centres and cameras. So give in to it, this globalised world of surveillance. Get down to your local Emergency Contact Point and make a call. Ask for anything you want (try ‘Two quarterpounders and fries, please’) before they start answering back. And don’t forget to give them a wave.
[The Vacuum, 2003]