Star Trek’s prediction of Irish unification in 2024 is upon us, but the full scene muddies the water

Donald Clarke: Reunification will come, but Romulan annexation may come first

Nothing more hurries on time than our catching up with speculative science fiction. Fahrenheit 451 (set in 2022) and Blade Runner (set in 2019) are now in the past. In the year just dawned we tread the heels of dystopian classic A Boy and His Dog and of a key retrospective prediction from Star Trek: The Next Generation. You can barely move on social media for a still from the 1990 episode The High Ground. “The Irish unification of 2024,” Data, Brent Spiner’s ingenuous android, says to Captain Picard. The phrase is offered as a response to an argument that political violence rarely brings about worthwhile change. It is hard to ascertain precisely how this went down with the British and Irish authorities, but, in early 2007, reporting a public screening at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast, the BBC claimed “the episode has never been shown on terrestrial TV in UK or in the Republic of Ireland and initial airings on Sky One were edited”. The informal ban looks to have ended soon after that story.

The speculation – a fairer word than “prediction” – has little chance of converting into fact before the year is out. For all the blather about flags and anthems, the move towards a “Border poll” has accelerated from coastal-erosion pace to nothing more speedy than glacial drift. Reunification will come, but Romulan annexation may come first. Bad news for a 1990 episode set in the 24th century reporting events from 300 years earlier (if you still follow).

Overseas science fiction hasn’t had much to do with what they used to call “the Irish question” and, when it has, the results have often been embarrassing. Look to Frank “Dune” Herbert’s The White Plague, a 1982 novel that has gained notoriety for its cavalier retooling of the then still-savage conflict. A molecular biologist devises a virus that, though carried by men, kills only women, and, in retaliation for the IRA causing his family’s death, releases it in Ireland. By the close, anarchy has broken out and Provo bigwigs have refashioned themselves as pagan kings. In a 2006 article for Argentus, Nicholas Whyte notes “the Irish reader will find much to sneer at in his grasp of the details – why, for instance, would the IRA want to bomb Grafton Street?”

Even that pales beside the episode of Captain Planet, a nauseatingly sanctimonious eco-cartoon from the early 1990s, that found the eponymous superhero healing all our divisions in time for an early tea. It is hardly worth explaining the wider plot, but, suffice to say, the analysis gets little deeper than blaming the violence on atavistic disputes between rival religions. It ends with Catholic Sean (wearing a green shirt) and Protestant Stewart (wearing a blue shirt), hitherto murderous rivals, opening a bakery together. “The divil you say, ‘tis I forgive you first!” Stewart says in convincing shipyard patois. It’s enough to give tolerance a bad name. You’ll laugh your head off. Then throw your laptop through the window.


Apologists for the IRA are unlikely to favour the android’s use of “terrorist”. Unionists will be unhappy with the notion that a united Ireland is inevitable

It is worth remembering that Ireland is no more prone to this sort of misrepresentation than any other country. Smallish nations get a bit more of it, but gross stereotypes of Indian and Chinese mores are still commonplace. We notice it so often because we know what we’re talking about.

The Next Generation case is an odd one. For the most part those inclined to a united Ireland have celebrated the show’s alternative future. The still of Data has been much reposted beside emojis of raised thumbs and clapping palms. But the full scene is more – to use an unavoidable adjective – problematic than that snippet suggests.

“It appears that terrorism is an effective way to promote political change,” Data says. Captain Picard then paraphrases Chairman Mao. “I have never subscribed to the theory that political power flows from the barrel of a gun,” he parries, causing Data to quote the Irish example and that of the fictional Kensey Rebellion. “Your confusion is only human,” Picard concludes patronisingly.

There is not much here for any faction to get behind. Apologists for the IRA are unlikely to favour the android’s use of “terrorist”. Unionists will be unhappy with the notion that a united Ireland is inevitable. Maoists will be furious with Picard. Centrists will baulk at a generally pacific man-machine arguing the effectiveness of paramilitary insurgence. It seems that not everybody associated with the show was content with the episode either. Ron D Moore, a regular writer on Next Generation, later argued: “We didn’t have anything interesting to say about terrorism except that it’s bad.”

Were they even saying that? Oh well. It’s not the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s not the Rosetta Stone. It’s just a TV show.

Anyway, next year time catches up with Stephen King’s The Running Man.