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Fintan O’Toole: It’s a united Ireland, but not as we know it

Star Trek predicted Irish unification in 2024. It’s not inconceivable the series was right

Captain’s log, stardate 43010.7. In an episode of Star Trek broadcast in 1990, the Starship Enterprise visits the planet Rutia IV and the crew gets caught up in a violent conflict.

A separatist group demanding independence for its homeland of Ansata has launched a ruthless campaign of terrorism against the central government. Dr Beverly Crusher is kidnapped by the terrorist leader with the suspiciously Irish name of Finn.

The super-rational android Lieutenant Commander Data asks Captain Jean-Luc Picard "why are their methods so often successful? I have been reviewing the history of armed rebellion, and it appears that terrorism is an effective way to promote political change".

Picard is uneasy but Data persists: “There are numerous examples when it was successful: the independence of the Mexican state from Spain, the Irish unification of 2024 and the Kenzie Rebellion.”  Some of the Star Trek writers were unhappy with this episode and nicknamed it “Breakfast in Belfast”.


The situation we are actually in is one that would have melted even Data's android brain

Even more unhappy were RTÉ and the BBC, which both refused to show it. It is easy to see why. The IRA’s terror campaign was still very much alive. Not long before the episode first aired, it had reached a new low – the deliberate shooting dead of the six-month-old daughter of a British army corporal in Germany.

Everybody knew that Star Trek was a fantasy but Data’s list of examples of successful terror campaigns was cleverly unsettling – Irish unification was placed chronologically between a real event (Mexican independence) and a made-up pseudo-historical episode (the Kenzie Rebellion).

Picard’s reply “yes, I am aware of them” suggests that the IRA’s violence paid off in the end and therefore might be seen in the distant future as a terrible means, ultimately justified by a good end.

Superficially at least, Data's date for Irish unification – 2024 – now seems astutely chosen. Recently, the Troubles historian and political analyst Brian Feeney (formerly an SDLP politician) told Gerry Moriarty in The Irish Times that there will be a "nationalist voting majority" in Northern Ireland in 2023. He expects a united Ireland to follow soon afterwards.

“It is going to be somewhere in the 2020s; that is the speed change is moving at.” So maybe Data’s “positronic” brain had it all worked out – we are five years from being the fulfilment of a Star Trek back story.

Except that Data is also utterly wrong. He cites Irish unification as evidence that “terrorism is an effective way to promote political change”. The meaning of his example (and the reason the episode could not be shown in Ireland) is that it was the IRA’s “armed struggle” that had led to unification in 2024. We are to understand that this would be remembered and taken to be obviously true by people in the far distant future.

But the actual truth is that even if Irish unity does happen in 2024, it will prove the opposite – it will have happened in spite of and not because of the IRA’s 30-year campaign. And if we are ever to be able to think straight about such a momentous possibility as a united Ireland we need to disentangle it from the mythology of terrorism.

The irony of Data’s retrospective “prediction” is that even as it was being made, the IRA’s own leadership was reaching a precisely contrary conclusion – that terrorism was not an effective way of promoting political change. Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and their allies were beginning, very belatedly, to admit to themselves that trying to kill and bomb their way to a united Ireland was not merely futile but actively counter-productive.

Irish unity will ultimately require a political settlement with unionism. Bloodshed and bitterness make such a settlement impossible. Every atrocity and counter-atrocity further deepened divisions and unity cannot be built across that abyss. There has never been an admission of this truth of course, but it is effectively conceded in the way Sinn Féin has reshaped the “armed struggle”. It was, in this retelling, never really about a united Ireland at all. It was about equality and “parity of esteem” for Catholics within Northern Ireland.

And yet the mythology of the armed struggle still looms over the very real need to think about Irish unity and what it might mean. It generates fierce emotions – triumphalism on one side and revulsion on the other.

For some people, it makes Irish unity the “reward” for a grotesque conflict in which 3,600 people were killed and 47,000 injured in a place with the population of Phoenix, Arizona.

For others, it makes Irish unity a shameful surrender to a brutal campaign of armed intimidation. Neither of these emotions is at all helpful to us in our current situation.

The situation we are actually in is one that would have melted even Data’s android brain. If Irish unity does come about in the next 10 years, it will not be the product of the IRA’s atrocities. It will not even be primarily driven by Irish nationalism. It will be the result of a plot line too far-fetched even for Star Trek: Brexit.

Brexit is creating the very real possibility of the break-up of the British state. In this, it is both consequence and cause. It comes in large measure from a rising yet incoherent English nationalism but it has, in its turn, rendered the current British political system inoperable. It is Westminster, not west Belfast, that is creating anarchy in the UK. Beam me up, Scotty.

We don’t know where this will end up – maybe nowhere. But maybe the UK itself will cease to be, as Scotland votes for independence within the EU and England descends into a long-term crisis of identity. This will make Northern Ireland in its current form unsustainable. Something big will have to be done, and the Republic will have to be involved in doing it.

But we have to remember two vital things. One is that, if Irish unity does emerge out of this mess, it will not be the climax of an old nationalist story. It will be the result of a whole new story – the Brexit story – and it will require a whole new way of thinking about the politics of belonging on these islands.

The other is the Prime Directive. In Star Trek the Prime Directive is non-interference: the voyagers in the Starfleet must not interfere with the right of other life forms to develop in their own way.

In Ireland’s future, the Prime Directive must be non-coercion. Wherever we are impelled by the strange forces emanating from Planet Brexit we have to navigate, not by the mythologies of violence, but by the need to arrive at some kind of democratic consensus.

We are not going to be beamed up to some kind of magical national destiny. The galaxy we are entering through the Brexit wormhole may be Irish unification, Jim – but not as we know it.