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

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 honorary 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?


*This article is also featured today on Progressive Pulse.

** Part of the Future Ireland Series. Questions, ideas, pitches to Claire – [email protected]; David – [email protected]. Contributions from economists, social policy specialists, and those with knowledge of a specific sector especially welcome.

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