Northern Ireland and the Humpty Dumpty World of Schrödinger’s Cats

Note: this article is a co-publication with the award winning Slugger O’Toole portal as the first in the Future Ireland series.

Apparently you follow the rabbit down a hole and you emerge in a wonderland ….

Ken Clarke – House of Commons

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Lewis Carrol – Alice in Wonderland

The naming of cats is a difficult matter
It isn’t just one of your holiday games
You may think at first I’m mad as a hatter……..

T S Elliot – Old Possum’s  Book of Practical Cats

Who am I?

Even the question is ambiguous. Is this going to be an autobiography or is it an exhortation to look at the (wo)man in the mirror? A mixture of both? Are we as a society and individuals a complex and subtly interwoven tapestry, or a set of shattered insular debris, defined by fear of other? Identity questions go to the very heart of the soul. It is also probably wrong to consider such things in binary terms, because, in reality, individuals and societies are never as good as their best or as bad as their worst. The identity of NI is similarly complex but I prefer to think of it as more tapestry than debris, or at the least I hope it’s moving in that direction. In the NI context the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is constructively fuzzy and pushes in the right direction. The Saint Andrews Agreement (SAA) may however have had unintended consequences and maybe a brake on moving forwards.

I am a Dubliner: Irish, an honourary Geordie (by the power vested in Lord Stephens of Kirkwhelpington – formerly Sir John Stephens) and a proud European. Much of my PhD was spent in the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the US, and despite America’s faults I still feel very much at home there. So, possibly I am a citizen of the world – or a citizen of nowhere in the eyes of the current Prime Minister.

I spent far to much of my undergraduate UCD Physics degree studying Quantum Mechanics, where a particle could be in a superposition of states and “lived” quite ambiguously until the quantum state is collapsed by the harsh process of measurement. In popular culture this has been popularised by Schrödinger’s cat which is simultaneously both alive and dead until the measurement is made. One needs to think however of multiple cats in the apparatus.

It seems, however, that the GFA has put NI in a superposition of quantum states and that Brexit is analogous to measurement. Thus, while Northern Ireland is still a very divided and traumatised society the Brexit measurement process forces individuals, communities and society in general to choose one state or another, and in a rather brutal manner. However, I believe NI is not yet ready for that process – there is still too much hurt and history.

Nevertheless, it now seems certain that fundamental questions – such as a land or sea border – may have to be resolved in a matter of weeks. And there is even the possibility of a poll. My preference would be to get the assembly back up to do its job. Meanwhile, nobody can escape the fact that Brexit has also made the question of a United Ireland of much more immediate relevance than it was even a year ago.

For the first time in 300 years NI is central to to the future direction of Europe. But what is intensely frustrating – unless you are a loyal DUP supporter, of course – is that power and decision making centres on London, Brussels and Dublin. Even worse, and as mentioned previously, the NI assembly, which has never been more important in charting the future direction of NI, is not even sitting.

Politics are not the focus of this article, however. Rather this is an attempt to look at the labels we give ourselves and explore this further. In quantum mechanical notation some  important superpositions of states are <Nationalist|Unionist>, <Loyalist|Republican>, <Catholic|Protestant>, <Irish|British>.  Do we tick these census like questions off without thinking? What do these labels mean anyway? These quantum states (cats) are very ambiguous and mysterious creatures, however. So I want to start this discussion by exploring the naming of the first superimposed  “cat”.


There are many forms of nationalism, but two of the most widely recognised are civic and ethnic nationalism. Civic nationalism is characterised by blindness to ethnicity, race, colour, religion, gender or language and belief in equal rights for all citizens. Ethnic nationalism is characterised  by language, religion, customs and traditions.

The pillars of civic nationalism are sometimes given as: unity by consent, democratic pluralism, liberty and the belief that the individual creates the nation. Those of ethnic nationalism are: unity by ascription, ethnic majority rule, fraternity and the belief that the nation creates the individual.

If I am a nationalist I am most certainly very much a civic rather than an ethnic one; almost 100%, but “fraternity” does speak to me, so maybe I have some ethnic nationalism after all. Civic nationalism is not unusual in IE, indeed it’s almost ubiquitous in the circles in which I move, and is true, I think, with Irish nationalism in general. Believers in ethnic nationalism are outliers; indeed a certain “Irish Nationalist” who frequented this forum recently was so much of the ethnic nationalist persuasion that he looked like an imposter.

Ireland has had the best part of 100 years struggling with nationalism and is now firmly on the civic nationalism side. What is encouraging too is the direction of travel of Scotland – there has over the past 20 years been a real debate and the SNP are definitely civic nationalist.

England is more troubling – there simply has not been a debate. Furthermore, in some English minds it’s clear that there’s confusion between Britishness and Englishness, which complicates matters even further. There are strands of both civic and ethnic nationalism in England which seem to ebb and flow. The 2012 London Olympics were to me a display of civic nationalism at its best. During 2016 – both in the referendum campaign and its aftermath – ethnic nationalism seemed to be getting the upper hand. England is not alone; the difference in the characteristics which caused the US to vote for Obama and then Trump can be viewed as the struggle between civic and ethnic nationalism.

In the NI context is unionism a form of civic UK nationalism or is it a more ethnic NI centric “Ulster” one? On the “nationalist” side is it as civic as I would hope, or underneath the surface is there an element of ethnic nationalism?


Philosophically the Union is an excellent idea, but the UK has not been top down designed, rather its system of governance has evolved over the centuries. Putting my Chartered Engineer hat on, a central tenant of modern design is:  you can’t fault correct for quality. You don’t build a good car or product by first designing a bad one and then iron the faulty bits out over years. Modern quality cars are designed from get go and should have no faults. Not perfect, of course, but cars these days are vastly more reliable than those a generation ago. In engineering terms quality is simply fitness for purpose. Brexit is stress testing the Union and the entirety of the UK governance structures, possibly to breaking point and beyond.

Many other European countries  have top-down, defined, written constitutions which are revised periodically. France, for example, is currently on its 5th generation model (1968), The Fifth Republic. Germany has an even more turbulent constitutional history and is currently being governed through the “Basic Law” (1949). One of the interesting things about the German constitution is that referendums are illegal at federal level. This is because Hitler used referendums and populist arguments to advance the strength of Nazism – with disastrous consequences, as we all recognise.

The Union can of course refer to the Union between Scotland and England or the Union between NI and Britain. One possible future is also that Ireland rejoins the UK. There is also a fundamental  ambiguity in the Union, best put, perhaps, by Prof Brendan O’Leary in his Dalriada document:

The United Kingdom is a multi-national state, a partnership of peoples, a country of countries, a nation of nations. It is neither an English nation-state nor a British nation-state. It is a union-state, not a unitary state. English politicians in particular have frequently told the Scottish and the Northern Irish as much, especially after they have been reminded that the UK is not a synonym for Britain. Yet political steps currently being considered — and demanded — may well destroy forever the merits of defining the UK as a multi-national union-state. If these steps are completed, they will emphatically confirm the claims of those who have maintained that the UK is mere camouflage for what has always really been Greater England (or Greater England & Wales).

I am comfortable with a multi-nation state, where its constituent parts are valued. I am deeply unhappy with Greater England. The way Brexit is playing out emphatically seems to emphasise that the UK is indeed mere camouflage. The winner takes all mentality so evident in May’s initial attitude towards Brexit is more reminiscent of ethnic nationalism and an immature and fledgling democracy such as Egypt, rather than a modern European one.

There was a chance about a century ago to form an improve devolved more federal structure but it proved too difficult.  If some good comes of Brexit it is that the UK will have to have a long hard look at itself and truly become a democracy fit for the 21st Century. This is explored in detail in Anthony Bartnett’s the Lure of Greatness. Bartnett argues that Brexit will provide the impetus for major constitutional reform and that the UK may at last develop institutions and structures fit for a modern 21st cent. European country.

Are We Even Using the Correct Labels?

Names and characterisations are flexible things. Brexit has caused the old binary classification/certainty of left/right to be questioned. David Goodhart in The Road to Somewhere  gives this binary classification as “anywhere people” and “somewhere people.” Anywhere people have been the winners over the past generation. These are typically well educated, highly skilled, are internationally mobile and can survive anywhere. Somewhere people are typically those at the lower end of their class in school, tied to menial jobs and are very rooted in their locality.

In the pre-Thatcher era there were lots of well paid jobs in the likes of mining and shipbuilding where the “somewheres” could have immense pride and success. These jobs have disappeared through globalisation and automation. The “somewhere” people have been shamelessly treated by subsequent governments. Goodhart argues that these “somewhere” people made a major contribution to the Brexit Leave vote. Whatever comes of Brexit I would argue (as many others do) that it is imperative to have a major rethink about inequality and how to provide help and hope for all in society.

Possibly we are not defining left/right correctly. Prof Richard Murphy argues that rather than defining Left/Right in terms of socialism/capitalism, it’s simply a question of how widely the definition of “us” is.  The more left wing you are the wider the definition of “us”. Left wing people see refugees and can see themselves in their shoes. Right wing people see refugees as other and a threat. This might make some sense in the NI context. The positions taken by SF and the DUP tend to polarize in terms of left/right wing. Is this simply whatever “themuns” do we need to do the exact opposite? Is it simply because historically the Unionists have been wealthier and more middle class than the nationalists? In terms of “us” are nationalists happier with the EU because of a wider definition of “us”, whereas Unionists think of themselves as insularly British?

Correlations are strange. Certainly one of the  highest  correlations in the analysis of Brexit and social attitudes is between “Leavers” and the wish to restore the death penalty. Maybe we should think outside the box and define ourselves differently?

A rather fun test (Fig 1.) is the Political Compass which is designed to grade an individual along a Left/Right and Authoritarian/Libertarian axis. Libertarian in the Political Compass meaning of the word means liberal, rather than the small state, privatise everything sense that the word is used in the UK. As you can see, it is possible to be both left wing and a liberal.

Fig. 1 Political Compass. Dot represents author’s score


Is this all sophistry and fog? Is Humpty Dumpty right when he says “The question is, which is to be master—that’s all.” If master is interpreted as sovereign then should we cut through the fog and fuzziness and ask if in NI the UK is sovereign and IE has no business pushing its nose in. Alternatively, Brexit now raises the possibility of United Ireland within a few years.

I’m not sure if Humpty Dumpty is known for his deep philosophical and analytical wisdom. In my view, the GFA has created a welcome fuzziness and glass a half full rather than half empty attitude. It is essential that remains.

To me NI is a unique place. The subtle interweaving of people and histories are far more appealing than crude binary classifications. As the Buddah said “it is better to travel well than to arrive” and as Yeats says “for peace comes dropping slow”. Evolution rather than Revolution then?


  1. Graham -

    Your quote from “Dalriada” about the UK being a nation of nations while true at a superficial (propaganda?) level is not true at a political level, and is and always has been more like the Greater England O’Leary describes.

    Since there is no written constitution setting out the political powers of the 4 nations in Westminster and how their respective interests might be protected and advanced (as Nations of Equals, promised after IndyRef) then it is clear that it is and has been the will of the English members of the governing party which has prevailed, even when there has been a Scottish PM. This is compounded by the fact that there is no Scottish Labour or Conservative party – they are branches of the main English-based parties and are fundamentally Unionist parties and are committed to maintaining the myth of the Union and to putting the interests of this mythical State before anything else.

    We see this most clearly in the way that SNP MP’s have been treated at Westminster in the last two parliaments where they have formed the majority of Scottish representation, yet without an iota of power to influence or change the policies of the Conservative government (who have 13 MP’s from Scotland) and who are constantly heckled and abused in the chamber. And of course, Sinn Fein have refused to sit at Westminster arguing that it should have no power over Irish affairs.

    As a supporter of Scottish Independence, I feel the same and believe that the SNP missed an opportunity in 2015 to remove their 55 MP’s from Westminster and set up an Independent Scotland.

    It occurred to me that, as you have previously stated, demographics in NI favour SF and in due course they will probably have the majority of MP’s and could bring about an united Ireland; and if the DUP had any sense (which they may not have) they should start preparing for this eventuality by thinking about how they might have some political influence and input to this process of almost inevitable Irish unification. But I suspect that, unlike Cnut, they think they can turn back the tide.

    1. Sean Danaher -


      thanks. I would love to write a lot more about Scotland, which is a country I love. If I were Scots I would be totally hacked off with Westminster at present. This must be the worst government in my lifetime by a country mile. It baffles me that there is not a super-majority for independence.

      There is a very ugly aspect of a certain class of English people. This includes belief in a god given right to rule, a belief in racial superiority which would not have been out of place in Nazi Germany and a contemptuous dismissal of the Irish and Scots as ethnically inferior. Of course there are also millions of thoroughly decent and indeed wonderful English people. I suspect May be one of the former.

      Regarding the DUP they are a very strange bunch. You are also absolutely correct that a United Ireland is pretty much inevitable in a 20 year time frame unless the Nationalists are happy. The big change since Brexit is that they are not – particularly in the case of a hard border.

      It is difficult to get inside the DUP mindset but they in a sense are very similar to a the certain class of English people discussed above in that they feel they are the master race and have a god given right to rule. They repeatedly turn down any opportunity to liaise with the Irish Government.


      1. S D -

        As an English person living in Scotland this is a brilliant explanation of how I feel.. pro Indy and belonging to Scotland but not Scottish .. anti Brexit..

        On the Question of why there isn’t a super Indy majority now I think as in rUK there is something I would call Brexit Denial Syndrome.. which isn’t about denying Brexit will happen (although hopefully it might not) it’s about denying it’s impacts.. not wanting to acknowledge the mess of the Brexit process is but also the constitutional mess that the UK is… although it I think it is becoming harder and harder to ignore / deny. If Brexit does happen deal or no deal I suspect that super majority for independence will become very very apparent.

  2. phil crummy -

    “To me NI is a unique place” No it’s not. go look anywhere in the former “British Empire”. Worked out well didn’t it.

    Further there is no “subtle interweaving of people” to suggest such is to show ones total ignorance which is allowable as “I am a Dubliner”. “NI” is purely “Us” and “Themuns” it is and will ever be.

    Crude as it is , it’s a numbers game and to suggest otherwise is to put substance to the nonsense of Schrodiners cat, the cat is either dead or alive , outside observation is not required and can not change the status of the cat RIP Kitty!!!

  3. Graham -

    “RIP Kitty!!!” OT, but I can report Kitty is alive and well, if a little long in the tooth, and having made her peace with the Copenhagers is being well looked after in her dotage.

    It happened like this, just as the radioactive particle was about to decay, which she sensed through those super-sensitive whiskers that cats have for just such an eventuality, a wormhole opened up into a parallel universe which had just been created from the enormous sneeze her twitching whiskers had caused. With a huge quantum leap Kitty travelled through the wormhole into the safety of the new universe, which, fortuitously, was free of any busybody physicists or cosmologists who, on witnessing her inexplicable arrival, might have chorussed “reality is not what it seems.” When Schrodinger opened the box, he found it to be empty, apart from Kitty’s Grin.

    1. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

      Graham, I love that you have brought this all the way back to the beginning with the reference to Carrol’s Cheshire Cat.


      1. Graham -

        Cheers, Andy.

  4. Pingback: Nationalism comes in a variety of forms
  5. Peter May -

    I’d suggest that any island has very mixed ethnicity but it also has very obvious borders. So for ‘This Island Race’ Churchill was right about the ‘Island’ but not about the ‘Race’.
    You have only to look at the variety of regional accents, which change character in such short distances in Britain to know that its population was washed up from all sorts of different places. Derby to Sheffield, or Bath to Southampton say – all very roughly 50 miles or an hour apart are recognisably different sounding even often to non native speakers. After all as late as the First World War the different county brigades often could not understand each other. I imagine, but don’t know, that Ireland has similar variations.

    To me it is all about belonging and in effect it is like layers of identity rather like at the opticians who often builds up lenses to give you 20:20 vision. Having an identity because you came from Little Pudlington doesn’t preclude you feeling you also come from Essex, and England and Britain and Europe and so on.

    For me I tend to think of nationalism -civic or ethnic -as invariably destructive. It is ‘othering’, one way or another. I don’t believe we’d have had Brexit if we’d all have felt wanted and thought we belonged.

    We should be ‘othering’ the big corporations not other people!

    1. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

      The sense of belonging can be very local (as you say dialect can position a person to a village, let alone a city in a different county)

      Where it all goes to bagwash is when people assume that any outsider wishes to rob the natives of what they have and hospitality dies in a welter of selfish paranoia.

      Civilised societies have a tradition of hospitality offered to strangers; feel flattered, and honoured that some stranger would wish to join them to live, or in passing to break bread. And the ‘deal’ is the assurance of reciprocation , maybe ….sometime…maybe never.

      There is no payback demanded. There will be pay forward at some unspecified time. And that’s how ‘civilised’ people relate.

      There is also a convention of not overstaying one’s welcome, and not ‘taking advantage’ of another’s generosity.

      What happened to all this in modern Britain ? It isn’t all down to Margaret Thatcher. And anyway the miserable old trout is long dead.

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