Belfast Telegraph

John Stevenson: Like Schrodinger's Cat, the border can exist and not exist at the same time... until Brexit makes us choose

Road ahead: with Brexit the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic suddenly becomes an issue, forcing people to take sides again
Road ahead: with Brexit the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic suddenly becomes an issue, forcing people to take sides again

By John Stevenson

Anyone who has had a passing acquaintance with physics has heard of Schrodinger's Cat. Indeed, those of us who watched the Big Bang Theory TV programme can probably have a go at explaining it. So, here goes.

It was a thought experiment designed by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger to illustrate the bizarre and mysterious behaviour of sub-atomic particles as described by quantum mechanics.

They exist in a statistical ambivalence known as a super position, in which they are simultaneously in two or more states until they are observed, when they then collapse into a particular and, until recently, unpredictable state.

In the hypothetical experiment, into the box with the cat is placed a small amount of a radioactive substance, which has a 50-50 chance of decaying and releasing a particle which will trigger the release of cyanide and kill the cat.

So, like the quantum particles, until the box is opened, and the cat observed, it exists simultaneously in two different states, namely "dead" and "not dead".

No, I do not understand it either, but it does remind me of the position of the Irish/Northern Irish border.

Since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, we have had a "quantum" border, which has been allowed to exist and not exist at the same time. It is a border, yes, and can be seen as a wiggly line on the map with the Republic of Ireland on one side and the United Kingdom on the other. However, for those of us who cross it regularly, it effectively ceases to exist.

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Apart from motorists working out how many kilometres-an-hour is 70mph, or how many miles-an-hour is 120kph, we drive through unimpeded. As both sides, Irish/Northern Irish, or Six Counties/Twenty-Six, are in the European Union and customs posts, soldiers and watchtowers have disappeared, effectively the border is also simultaneously not a border.

Until you look at it. Until you talk Brexit and the border/non-border becomes a major issue. Until it is observed and we are forced to make up our minds about it.

Then, it will collapse into a single state, which is either a real, hard border, or a virtual, backstop border, or something else, and at that point, people are forced to take sides again.

Up to this point, a delicious, but vulnerable, ambiguity has allowed Irish nationalists to see no border and British unionists to see a border, even though they are both looking at the same thing. Crucially, both can be seen to be content with the status quo at one and the same time.

Once we are forced to make up our minds about it, the two traditions will see it differently and there will be winners and losers as the relatively peaceful super position evaporates.

The ambivalent state has provided a sort of stability, but a real border, or a genuinely absent one, forces us to take sides again.

Politicians often use the phrase, "Let me be absolutely clear about this" when they want to convince us about something. However, sometimes clarity can be dangerous.

The ambiguous nature of the border since 1998 has been a major strength and a vital part of the tentative and complex political and social jigsaw puzzle that has delivered a relatively peaceful normality for us all since then.

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, it seems that we are in danger of losing our Schrodinger border and having something else in its place.

The real worry, then, is we may well have killed the cat.

John Stevenson is a former principal of Sullivan Upper School in Holywood. This article first appeared on Northern Ireland current affairs blog Northern Slant (

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