On the matter of uncertainty and principle…

With all due apologies to students of quantum physics out there, Brian Feeney’s ‘poetic’ use of the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in today’s Irish News (£) to explain the SDLP’s apparent confusion over the last fortnight is too good to resist:

The principle suggests that the closer you get to establishing the position of a particle the harder it is to work out the speed of its movement [or rather its momentum – Ed]. Conversely the closer you get to working out its speed of movement, the harder it is to work out its position.

You will understand immediately that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle applies perfectly to the SDLP. What they have in common is that as soon as you think they know where they are at a given moment, they’ve moved the next time you look.

Touche! Although Feeney goes on to argue that the SDLP has broken the GFA [who hasn’t, already! – Ed], that won’t be clear unless and until Sinn Fein, or more likely Paul Kavanagh, successfully brings case to the European Court of Human Rights (97% of all cases lodged against the UK are dismissed as inadmissible).

More interestingly he points to a piece of research from Professors John Brewer and Bernie Hayes who’ve been working on a Leverhulme funded project at Queens.

The full examination of the qualitative data has yet to be fully processed and released, but they do have the results of a survey on attitudes across Northern Ireland towards four hard line populist policy options (I’ve requested sight of these).

The findings, psychologically at least, are interesting in light of the current debate:

We found that irrespective of the proposed sanction considered, individuals who had experienced victimisation – either directly, indirectly or both – were notably more likely to oppose these measures than those who had not.

Moreover, this relationship held even when a range of background characteristics, such as gender, socio-economic status and political identity, were included in the analysis.

That is to say, victims are less punitive toward ex-combatants than non-victims and much more tolerant than many of the hard line people who deem to speak on their behalf imply when they give voice to victims’ attitudes.

Though the professors also make this rather penetrating observation:

Part of the problem associated with the politicisation of victim issues is that the real voices of victims are often drowned by the political rhetoric of those who choose to place themselves in the position as their spokesperson.

Well, quite. Feeney’s point about uncertainty is well made against a party machine which should have been tightening the internal conversations, airing dissent and building an internal consensus before facing the political consequences of taking such a leap on the employment conditions of SpAds.

As for the politicisation of victims it is by now deep and inveterate within our solid state political ecosystem.

But it is interesting that victims as a subgroup of the whole NI population are looking for less recrimination than the rest of us who in the Professors’ terms have “experienced no direct or indirect conflict-related harm.”

Note too that the SpAd vote happened not at the behest of a group, nor a spokesperson, but one victim, moderate in her demands and speaking powerfully for herself and her family’s singular experience who (to borrow the dFM’s memorable terms) picked up the whole body politic at Stormont by the tail and swung them around their own political fundaments.

Perhaps there is a place for uncertainty and principle in politics after all? [Don’t hold yer breath though! – Ed]

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Old Mortality

    More a case of ‘look at my erudition’ than shedding any new light on the SDLP. Vanity, vanity

  • Reader

    Brewer and Hayes: Moreover, this relationship held even when a range of background characteristics, such as gender, socio-economic status and political identity, were included in the analysis.
    That is to say, victims are less punitive toward ex-combatants than non-victims and much more tolerant than many of the hard line people who deem to speak on their behalf imply when they give voice to victims’ attitudes.

    Have they corrected for the “background characteristic” as to whether the victims are close to perps of their own community? For instance, does Paul Kavanagh (victim) have a tolerant attitude to Paul Kavanagh (perp)?

  • “[Ann Travers] picked up the whole body politic at Stormont by the tail and swung them around their own political fundaments.”

    In particular, she challenged the hypocrisy of Martin McGuinness on the use of violence to forward a political cause. She obviously didn’t swing Jim Allister by the tail; as I understand it, it was Jim who suggested the Spad bill.

    In her own words:

    “I think the thing that struck me through all of this is that if you speak out and you say how you feel in a very real and human way you are accused of not accepting the peace process and trying to rock the boat in some way. That is a vile accusation to put on to someone.”

    Ms Travers, who is recovering from breast cancer, said she hoped her victory would spur other victims to speak out. “I certainly hope I can encourage people not to be afraid to speak out.

    “People should not have to talk through the media to get a result and to be listened to. I did everything I did out of my love for Mary. She was my big sister and I lost my relationship with her and she lost her life far, far too young. It is something I will never understand and they will constantly try to justify. Victims should not be dismissed as hysterical because of their emotions.”

    IMO there’s been far too much bashing of the SDLP in these Slugger threads. We can’t know just how much pressure SDLP elected representatives may have been exposed to during the course of this past year on this and other themes; I should imagine their freedom of speech has been severely curtailed.

  • Morpheus

    Not another SDLP bashing thread…

  • carl marks

    Indeed it is easier to forgave a perp if they did not harm you,
    Inside both communities we see this, republicans/ nationalist(while outside SF most of that community have no illusions about what the IRA did) have less problems sitting with terrorists from their side of the fence and loyalists/unionists have little trouble sitting with terrorists from their side of the fence (indeed inside that community there are very many who don’t even recognise loyalist terrorists exist) this is a common trait around the world, people tend if not to believe their own propaganda at least tend to accept the “after all the other side started it” line and refuse to look at things with a open mind.

  • “four hard line populist policy options”

    People were asked about their attitudes towards the release of political prisoners as part of the Good Friday Agreement and given an option to express their support for a series of popularly canvased hard line policies for dealing with ex-combatants voiced by some vociferous victim spokespeople – that political prisoners should be exiled from Northern Ireland; that they should forced to pay compensation to their victims; that they should be forced to say sorry to their victims; and that they should be barred from public and state employment. .. Brewer link on thread.

  • “The progressive and tolerant views victims articulate compared to non-victims suggests that as a result of the victimisation experience many victims develop an empathy, and sense of charity and mercy that are wonderful pointers to the future.” … Brewer and Hughes pt2


    Stockholm syndrome, or capture–bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors or abusers, sometimes to the point of defending them, and sometimes the feeling of love for the captor shows.Wiki source

    It can also be pointed out that a few sweeties for a few perpetrators is small beer compared to what victims and their families and friends have been put through; victims generally will have a different perspective to those who have not been traumatised.

  • cynic2

    What Brian missed out on was the even more important lesson of quantum mechanics the SDLP in the paradox of Schrodinger’s Cat or in this case lets call him SDLP. This is based upon issues from quantum entanglement (or in SDLP’s case political entanglement)

    If we put little SDLP in a box and close the lid so that no light or radiation of any kind can get in or out and then pose the question “Is little SDLP alive or dead?” then the true answer is neither. It could be in either state but the mathematics shows that the wave function that ‘is’ little SDLP stays frozen until someone opens the box and observes little SDLP when it collapses into either a live or dead state

    Thus with the SDLP

  • cynic2

    Can I pose a genuine question about the genesis of the troubles.

    If it was mostly about one man one vote why now, almost 50 years later, is the Irish Senate elected on a much less Democratic franchise system that that in Stormont in 1969? The Taoiseach can even appoint his own cronies.

    Given this, why did SF not wage war on the Government in the State to overthrow this heinous imposition on the people’s rights?

    Surely it cannot have been because in the North it was Proddies mainly in the Government while in the Repubic it was Catholics.

    Was it a fundamental position of principle or was it just becasue

  • Reader

    carl marks: Indeed it is easier to forgave a perp if they did not harm you
    Actually, the article suggested otherwise – that victims had a more forgiving attitude than the uninvolved. I was wondering why.
    My suggestion as above was that the victims of republicans were likely to be near neighbours of loyalists, and vice-versa. That is, victims tend to know a few perps, perhaps because of the neighbourhoods they live in. As an example, I live in a nice area, I am not a victim and I don’t think I know any perps. I would be at liberty to suggest lock em all up and let em rot, without thinking too hard about the effects on anyone I know. A victim of the Shankill Rd bomb may have a more diverse social network.
    An alternative explanation may be that victims are desperately keen to break the cycle of violence, and see forgiveness and reconciliation as a means to that end. A victim of the Shankill Rd bomb may be particularly keen not to repeat the experience.

  • weidm7

    carl marks, you forgot the other terrorists during the troubles, the British Army.

  • mac tire

    “Can I pose a genuine question about the genesis of the troubles. If it was mostly about one man one vote…”

    One man, one vote (as you simplistically put it) was the genesis of civil rights.

    The genesis of the troubles – well you can go back to 1966 there, to the UVF and their declaration of war against the IRA. Within a month 3 people were killed and others injured.

    Off course they also set of bombs in the north and south of Ireland, killed a police officer and intimidated entire streets out of their homes before the Provisionals even existed.

  • Mick Fealty

    We are drifting guys…

  • carl marks

    Interesting that in the cases of victimhood you use twice where protestant/loyalist victims (i would no doubt do the same only on the republican side) my original point was that our automatic reaction when we think of victims is to look to our own side!.
    Mick Fealty
    You are right we drift, i liked cynic2’s reference to the famous cat but I think the SDLP is dead but it’s not only a outside observer who does not know wither its alive or dead but the SDLP themselves.
    Wee Jim’s bill had nothing to do with victims it was all to do with attacking SF (nothing wrong with that by itself but to dress it up in crocodile tears and exploit a women’s grief over the foul murder of her sister is wrong) when i see Jim showing the same concern over the victims of loyalist or state terror (happy weidm7) then i will take him seriously.
    The SDLP have played into his hands shown themselves to be a party that can be manipulated by the rump of unionism and done themselves no good at all among the nationalist population.
    Unfortunately this will leave the shiners with even more seats in the next assembly as the SDLP are running out of feet to shoot themselves in, wouldn’t it be ironic if wee Jim was indirectly responsible for the Shinners becoming the biggest party in the assembly!

  • cynic2

    I used to be like Snow White …..but then I drifted

    Mae West

    Sorry Mick

  • cynic2

    To expand my analogy, what state are we in now?

    If the SDLP dead or alive or has everyone just stopped watching it so we are never really sure?

  • 6crealist

    Can you imagine the mopery if there’d been well over a dozen Shinner-bashing articles on this website in less than a week?

    What did Bad Al ever do to you, Mick?

  • son of sam

    Notwithstanding the ammunition that they may have given him,does Brian not take a particular relish in putting the boot into his former party which apparently didn’t appreciate his talents sufficiently ?

  • Mick Fealty


    You should get onto twitter if you want to see some real old fashioned Stoop bashing…


    With respect, this began with victim taunting. And the bill is a very precise measure to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Its measure of success is that everyone in power is constrained by law from doing it ever again.

    Now, on the politics of the thing, if SF got hurt in the making of this law it is only because they pushed their luck too far in making the Culture Minister CO in the RA her special advisor.

    Ann’s Law is very modest. It does not address wide concerns of victims, but that does not mean that it does serve some serious concerns held by many, if not all victims.

    I recall that in first interview on Joe Duffy and on Talkback the next day Ms Travers was told compassionately by another member of a victims family that nothing would come of her passionate outburst.

    Well, you know what, that guy was wrong. To use a well worn analogy, she was not prepared to sit at the back of the bus where other victims had been told they have to sit.

    I suspect talk of an appeal to the ECHR will end up like appeal on the Gormley verdict, non-viable.

    But it will keep the talking points going long enough to cover the fact that SF has had its eye wiped by a woman who asked for nothing more than consideration, respect and acknowledgement.

  • 6crealist
  • Mick Fealty

    Dirty politics, but it has a limited shelf life…

  • carl marks

    Mick, I have the greatest respect for Ann Travers, members of her family were murdered in a dirty war (is there a clean one) , but as has been pointed out by many people “hard cases do not make good laws” this is a bad law that feel s right, the GFA was meant to bring those who committed these crimes and those who encouraged people to commit these crimes ( not all those in the assembly who fall into these categories are republicans) into real politic, this law may be a minor thing as you suggest but it breaks the spirit of the GFA.
    In my opinion this will in the long term do the Shinners no harm, it will even give the dissidents a bit of propaganda (look how they treat us, our people can’t get jobs but plenty of community workers picking up government money on the other side) if the shinners make a legal challenge there is a good chance it will succeed on a human rights basis.
    Ann Travers will be dragged through more TV interviews. Jim will pretend outrage and a lot more victims will be ignored because there story does not suit the agendas of those who just want to score points.

  • Alias

    The problem is that she wasn’t a casualty of a war: she was just a young girl shot in the back as she left a place of worship with her family.

    If she was a casualty of a war then her death could be processed by her family on that level. So you have a situation that is simply criminal murder but where a different set of processing rules are retrospectively applied by various vested political and state interests to the act – different to those that apply de jure and that are applied by the family.

    The GFA did not say that the members of the murder gangs were not criminal murderers: their convictions stood and they were released under criminal licence. De facto, however, these murders are being written out of the narrative and the murderers are being socially re-branded as ‘solders’ or the politically-correct but no less insidious euphemism ‘combatants.’

    If they are to be considered as murderers by society as the GFA deems them to be then there is a reasonable expectation that society ought to treat them as such.

  • Alias

    In regard to the ‘uncertainty principle’ and the SDLP’s self-sacrificing propping up of the Shinners: it is long overdue. They need to understand that they are competing with the Shinners for votes; and that the purpose of the democratic competition is to benefit the voter by offering a better deal. They’ll continue to lose votes, and to be regarded with contempt, for as long as they continue Hume’s agenda of ‘supporting’ the Shinners’ baby-steps into the political process.

  • Mick Fealty


    I’d like to hear someone unpack that ‘hard case/bad law’ line? What are the unintended consequences? What human rights have been violated?

    Any challenge at the ECHR will have a tough test even to make the starting line.

    Last year there were 65 applications concerning Ireland, of which 63 were declared inadmissible or struck out.

    There were 2 082 applications concerning the United Kingdom in 2012, of which 2 047 were declared inadmissible or struck out.

    In most cases the flaws were so basic the Court did not even notify the country concerned.

    Now, given the AG thinks the law is sound (though not necessarily ‘good’), what grounds do you think they’ll have for not striking this one out?

    And when it comes to the court of public opinion, what are they going to argue? That it is their human right to taunt victims with insensitive public appointments?

    That hand was folded long before Ann’s Law came in.

    In a couple of years, the SDLP and others may be less reticent at calling them on what really has been pretty rank behaviour.

    And given both FF and FG are looking for any opportunity to stick the IRA’s unanswered for deeds on SF politically, this is not a political fight they can afford to look for.

    Three years out from the next southern election they are already losing momentum in opinion polls, in part because of the troubles swamp they’ve been pushed into.

    I’m not convinced that reminding southern voters of how they discipline their own citizens in Northern Ireland will help their recovery…

  • Reader

    Carl Marks: Interesting that in the cases of victimhood you use twice where protestant/loyalist victims (i would no doubt do the same only on the republican side) my original point was that our automatic reaction when we think of victims is to look to our own side!.
    It’s funny how these things work out. The essence of my response was that these explanations could be entirely symmetrical.
    And I deliberately gave loyalist examples because I didn’t want to give needless offence by suggesting that some of the survivors of the Ormeau Road massacre might not be too keen to see a load of Provos locked up. So I gave you a story of prod victims with questionable mixed feelings. If I had given the alternative case wouldn’t I just have received a different complaint?

  • carl marks

    The human rights aspect might well be the denial of work to someone because of a past that the GFA had agreed that as long as you stayed out of trouble was behind you. also that the same law does not apply across the board to all those receiving public money (community workers, other party workers, drivers etc) who have convictions over 5 years, I’m not a lawyer but it seems like there may well be a case, wither the Shinners take it as a party or get a affected individual to put it forward is to be seem but I can’t see them taking this lying down.
    Certainly the appointment was insensitive but i don’t think it was a deliberate insult or attempt to hurt anyone, rather another one of many that have been made since the assembly opened, which begs the question of why no movement on this issue before this appointment.
    If I had given the alternative case wouldn’t I just have received a different complaint?
    I’m sorry if you thought i was complaining, I was merely trying to show (perhaps badly) that we all have a bias consciously or not as to who is a victim and who is not. I also believe that the place where we live also conditions us to look at the armed groups on our side of the fence as somehow not as bad as those on the other side, I will put my hand up and be the first to admit that because of the place where i was raised and the politics of the family i was born into, I would have been conditioned to believe that republican violence was justified and loyalist/ state was not.(I now believe none of it was justified but still on occasion still have to struggle against my conditioning)
    I think that the reverse is true of many unionists,

  • cynic2

    “What did Bad Al ever do to you, Mick?”

    ……. his party will follow him anywhere – if only out of a sense of curiosity

  • cynic2

    “it breaks the spirit of the GFA”

    Not handing over all the weapons as promised

    Smuggling oil on an industrial scale

    Robbing the Northern bank

    Gross discrimination in public appointments

    All these things break the spirit of the GFA to a far greater extend than saying that a murderer should be paid £90k for a sinecure at Stormont awarded in secrecy and with no fair competition

  • Mick Fealty


    There may well be. But the fact that you or I cannot say precisely what it is should be a heavy hint that we may be being played with by what is little more than a PR line.

    You may also be right on the lack of deliberate insult. But Ms Travers case is that the burden of SF’s activist past should be born by the party not its victims.

    Or indeed, the wider taxpayer.

    I think the reality of the current settlement is only sinking for some genuine and decent republicans.

    Whatever the GFA says moral responsibility for past actions remains with individuals. They are also, under public statute in two states, still regarded as criminal acts.

    The appeal test (yes, there is one) in this legislation demands some form of distancing from their criminal actions in retrospect.

    I certainly understand why someone refuses such a test, but less sure why the moral/economic cost of sticking to that principle should be paid for by their own victims.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Yip, I feel Feeney does have apologise. The whole principle of the Heisengburg Uncertainity Principle is determining the Degree of Uncertainity, everything is uncertain, indeed the momentum and position are both uncertain but the point is that the uncertainty of their mutual relationship is limited, otherwise what we know about Quantum Mechanics collapses.

    Also in physics the uncertainty is really the degree of accuracy.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I.e. not degree of confusion.

  • 241934 john brennan

    Is the SDLP alive or dead?
    Two things we know for sure:
    1. The SDLP never killed anyone.
    2. A lot of people presently alive, would presently be dead, were it not for the SDLP.
    During the Hume/Adams talks, many of the SDLP rank and file foresaw and forecast the inevitable outcome of clasping a viper to one’s bosom. But Hume’s argument was irrefutable. “If we can save even only one life, are we not obliged to try?
    Give credit where credit is due. The rank and file went along with Hume, even though some of its elected reps well knew that it far exceeded the call of duty to lay down one’s political live, not for a friend, but for a political enemy.