A united Ireland isn't approaching at warp speed but it's far from being a fantasy

A 1990 episode of 'Star Trek' predicted Irish unification in 2024. Although north and south still have some way to travel before coming together, the idea is firmly back on the political agenda

Actors Sir Patrick Stewart, left, and Brent Spiner debate the morality of political violence in their roles as Cpt Picard and Lt Commander Data in a 'Star Trek' episode that first aired in 1990. The episode was not shown unedited on UK television until 2007. Paramount Television
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One of the most interesting predictions for 2024 wasn’t made by some polished TV pundit this month, but rather a fictional TV character in the 24th century. Or more accurately, I suppose, by the screenwriters who scripted his lines more than three decades ago.

In The High Ground, a 1990 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the captain of the starship Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard, debates with Lt Commander Data, a hyper-intelligent android, the merits of using violence to achieve political aims.

During the brief discussion, Data gives Cpt Picard a list of successful armed rebellions in ages past, including “the Irish unification of 2024”. This prospect – debated between an entirely fictitious robot and a spaceship captain – was deemed by the BBC to be so objectionable that the episode was not broadcast unedited on UK television until September 2007, nearly a decade after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement that largely ended the 30-year conflict known as the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this idiosyncratic prediction of an imminent united Ireland has resurfaced online as 2024 looms, giving quite a few people a wry smile. Despite Data’s fictitious future-history being just a niche moment in popular culture, it is worth examining where the prospect of a united Ireland stands in the real world on the cusp of 2024. The country, north and south, has been through a lot and many of the certainties that formed the backdrop to Star Trek’s brief foray into Irish history and politics have changed.

When the Good Friday deal was struck in 1998 after many difficult years of talks, Ireland and the UK were both in the EU. This shared membership of the European bloc was an important ingredient in the diplomatic and constitutional mix that resulted in the historic compromise between Irish nationalists – who wanted to see the island united and independent of British rule – and unionists who wanted to keep Northern Ireland in the UK. This joint involvement in the EU was upended following the Brexit referendum of 2016 when majorities in England and Wales chose to leave the bloc, taking Northern Ireland with them.

The tortuous outworkings of that decision have destabilised Northern Ireland’s already imperfect and volatile political institutions. At the time of writing, the region’s government – intended to be an exercise in power sharing between nationalists and unionists – remains in deep freeze amid wrangling over post-Brexit economic and trade arrangements that many unionists regard as isolating them from the rest of the UK.

Ireland has been through a lot and many of the certainties that formed the backdrop to Star Trek’s brief foray into its history and politics have changed

Many in Northern Ireland are exasperated at this seemingly unending cycle of inconclusive talks that are followed by yet more political stasis. This drama plays out amid more day-to-day concerns, such as a cost-of-living crisis and the future of the region’s health service. This inertia has led an increasing number of people to wonder aloud if this post-Brexit malaise and palpable sense that Northern Ireland just doesn’t work requires a more radical solution: a united Ireland.

But is a coming together of the island really on the cards? According to the Good Friday deal, a united Ireland can only come about when a majority of people in Northern Ireland want it. When Ireland was partitioned in 1921, the north had its borders drawn in such a way as to guarantee a unionist majority but the demographic and political picture in 2023 is much changed. Now it is more accurate to talk of three minorities in Northern Ireland: a bloc of unionists, a bloc of nationalists and a third group who are often referred to as undecideds – those who, for various reasons, are open to persuasion either way.

In this context, opinion polls still do not indicate an imminent majority in the north in favour of uniting with the Republic of Ireland. An Irish Times/ARINS poll published at the start of December revealed that just over half – 51 per cent – of all northern voters would reject unity in the event of a referendum. Nevertheless, the same polling showed a solid majority in the south still in favour of a united Ireland. This will be good news for the Irish republicans of Sinn Fein, the largest party north of the border and one that seems set to play a leading role in the Republic after the next general election there, due to be held before March 2025.

Although a united Ireland may not be around the corner just yet, it is figuring in the political conversation in a way that many who drew up the Good Friday agreement might be surprised at. Aside from regular opinion polling on the topic, there has been an increase in serious academic research into the economic aspects of uniting the two jurisdictions. Civic groups such as Ireland’s Future are bringing together a range of people in politics and beyond for exploratory conversations about what a united Ireland may look like. The persistence of a united Ireland as an option for the future has been recognised by the Irish state. It established a Shared Island Initiative in October 2020, which has since made €500 million in capital funding available for investment in “collaborative North/South projects”.

One of the tacit understandings underpinning the 1998 agreement’s constructive ambiguity was that the issue of a united Ireland would be parked for a generation or more as the two parts of Ireland tried to move on from the violence of the Troubles and find a way of co-existing. Brexit, changing demographics and the emergence of more nuanced attitudes on identity and politics have revived interest in a united Ireland. So, although Star Trek’s prediction of Irish unification in 2024 can be looked upon as a cultural oddity, such a development taking place peacefully 10 or 20 years from now is far from the stuff of science fiction or speculative fantasies.

Published: December 27, 2023, 2:00 PM