One inherent problem is that Unionists argue that although they live in Ireland they are not Irish. When they think of the Irish Republic, most of them regard it as not just a different country but a hostile one.
The rest of the world clearly has little sympathy with this definition, and with the northern Unionist view that the Catholics who share Northern Ireland with them are a sort of fifth column of the Republic. The most common Protestant abuse of Catholics is 'Fenians', which harks back to republican organisations in the 19th century that staged armed uprisings against British rule. For many loyalists, just being a Catholic is a potentially subversive act.
This helps to explain why the practice of discriminating against Catholics in jobs and housing was historically sanctioned by the Unionist community.
In one celebrated case a Unionist councillor asked a Catholic applying for a job: 'Are you loyal?' The councillor's suspicion was that as a Catholic the applicant might owe his allegiance to Dublin rather than to the Northern Ireland state and the British crown.
The persisting stream of cases in which employers have been heavily fined for discriminating against Catholics shows that old suspicions are not dying out.
A source of great Unionist insecurity has always been that, while they constituted a majority in Northern Ireland, they were, and are, very much in a minority on the island of Ireland as a whole. This is why the border and the 'constitutional position' are so important to Unionists: having for years been steeped in majoritarianism, they fear that removing the border would leave them as an impotent minority subject to anti-Protestant discrimination.
Their central fear, that of being subsumed into a 32- county Irish Republic, has many aspects. They fear losing their British citizenship and heritage; they fear the financial loss involved in belonging to the Republic, which could not afford the substantial subsidies that Britain is prepared to supply; and they fear the power of the Catholic Church, which they believe would trample on their rights.
Different figures in the Unionist political spectrum emphasise different points in this list. The Ulster Unionist party leader, James Molyneaux, above all treasures the union with Britain for its own sake, and not just as a device for staying out of a united Ireland.
Mr Molyneaux, who served in the RAF during the last war, places great store on apparently minor adjustments of parliamentary procedure, arguing that Northern Ireland should as far as possible be treated in the same way as other parts of the UK. By contrast, the Rev Ian Paisley elevates the religious question above all others and personifies the Ulster Protestant's fierce streak of independence.
Unionism embraces many such distinctions of emphasis. An unusual feature of the present moment, which many Unionists view as a potential crisis, is that in times of emergency the disparate strands are generally woven together by Protestant public opinion. Instead of forming a common front, however, Mr Molyneaux and Mr Paisley remain far apart. Differences are also evident within the loyalist paramilitary groups. One Unionist fear is that in any negotiations they will face a formidable pan-nationalist front including Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Dublin government and Irish America. The loyalists, however, show no sign that they could form a pan- Unionist front to deal with this prospect.Reuse content