Prisoners of an unforgiving history: Jonathan Bardon, a Dubliner in Belfast, on the past that has made a witty and generous people appear dogged and defiant

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AS I WAITED for a bus a bitter wind snatched at my newspaper while yet again I tried to read the 12 paragraphs of the joint declaration. It was Thursday afternoon and I was standing on the Lower Newtownards Road in east Belfast, wondering whether there would be peace. Looking around, I reflected that this district had been convulsed by intercommunal violence in 1886, 1920, 1921, 1935 and in the early years of the present 'Troubles'. Now it is quiet: the Short Strand - a Catholic island - is sealed from the surrounding Protestant sea by an elegant peace line, tastefully reinforced by impenetrable shrubs.

Will the Protestants say 'No' yet again? The murals opposite the bus stop did not inspire confidence. One scene showed an open Bible and the words: 'Our faith and our nationality.' Another proclaimed: 'Our message to the Irish is Simple. Hands off Ulster. Irish Out. The Ulster Conflict is about nationality.'

I raised my eyes to the huge yellow cranes perched over the shipyard. Once the largest shipbuilding complex in the world, its output is so reduced now that not one of my classes here has ever been interrupted by the sounds of manufacture. The ropeworks up the road, once also the largest in the world, have become a shopping centre. Loyalists become ever more conscious of their dependence on Westminster's bounty.

I remember my final remarks to that morning's class: talking about medieval history, I had observed that the invading Normans had blended in so quickly with the natives that the chronicler Gerald of Wales complained they were becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves. I see not the slightest sign that Northern Protestants will follow suit. I could point out - I often do - that Gaelic and planter blood has been mingled so much over the centuries that any talk of racial difference is nonsensical. Why else would there be Catholics with 'British' surnames, such as Adams and Hume, or Protestants with 'Irish' surnames, such as Maginnis and O'Neill?

It makes no difference. Even if loyalists have difficulty defining their identity, they do not doubt it is threatened. So they are likely to say 'No' to the joint declaration. Ulster Protestants have been consistent over the centuries: they have always said 'No'.

Since the Plantation, Protestants have been on the defensive. That Jacobean scheme to colonise Ulster was only a partial success: it was not until 1861 that Protestants achieved numerical superiority in the nine-county province. Every able-bodied colonist had to be ready to defend himself against the dispossessed. The 1641 massacres, and the Derry and Enniskillen sieges of 1689, stamped themselves permanently on the Protestant consciousness as proof of the need for perpetual vigilance.

If Ulster Protestants feared their Catholic neighbours, they also learnt not to trust their fellow Britons on the mainland. They were loyal, but only on condition that Westminster supported them. 'We know our duty to our Sovereign and are loyal,' they declared at Dungannon in February 1782: 'We know our duty to ourselves and are resolved to be Free. We seek for our Rights . . . '

On that occasion, Ulster Volunteers forced a Westminster government to give the Protestant parliament in Dublin legislative independence. Eighteen years later, Pitt the Younger engineered the dissolution of that parliament: most Orange lodges opposed this Union for fear Catholics would be emancipated, and sure enough, in 1829 Westminster voted to let Catholics be MPs.

By the end of the 19th century reform and the secret ballot had given over most of Ireland to nationalist representation, and Home Rule was the call. Only the campaign led by Sir Edward Carson and Viscount Craig and the menace of the Ulster Volunteer Force stopped Home Rule on the eve of the First World War, and after that war the Ulster Unionists were allowed to seal off for themselves the largest area they could hold with safety - the six north-eastern counties.

What did they fear? That a Catholic and nationalist Dublin parliament would impose tariffs and taxes to subsidise southern peasants, thus dealing mortal blows to the industrial north; that the Catholic Church would threaten their schools and way of life; that a Gaelic revival would marginalise their culture. For nearly 50 years Northern Ireland retired into obscurity and its Protestant rulers enjoyed a free hand. Then, from 1968 onwards, they reaped what they had sowed.

Ulster Protestants may well respond to the joint declaration in a manner taught them by their history. Once again they feel unwanted and defensive. Eighty years ago Carson warned them there could be no stopping place between Home Rule and complete separation. They feel British, but the British do not want them.

As a Dubliner who has worked in Belfast for 30 years, I cannot subscribe to the view that Ulster Protestants are dour by nature; I have seen too much of their generosity and wit. Yet their politicians often appear humourless, becoming articulate only when angry. Why? They have always been required by their electorate to be dogged and defiant. Innovation has never been a central requirement: Unionists are conditioned to oppose, whether it be Catholic emancipation, Home Rule, power-sharing or the Anglo-Irish 'diktat'.

British governments, however sedately they go about it, intend to ease the Ulster Protestants out of the 8UK. That Britain no longer has an economic or strategic interest in Northern Ireland is no more than the truth - a truth John Hume has been trying to drive home to Sinn Fein for many years. Still, it is a shock for Protestants to read it in cold print.

In Northern Ireland both sides suffer from selective amnesia, particularly in relation to atrocities perpetrated by their own. Ulster Protestants tend to remember the peace of the pre-1968 era and forget the corruption and malpractice that stoked the fires of protest. Now they see perpetual retreat. They note the signs: some of the toughest fair employment legislation in the world; full state funding for Catholic schools; and increasing legitimacy given to Gaelic and nationalist traditions. They hear evidence of southern obscurantism on divorce, abortion and the like.

Last week I took part in an educational trip to Dublin. Many of the A-level students, Catholic as well as Protestant, had never been there and were awed by the cosmopolitan atmosphere. The highlight of the trip for almost all of them was a visit to a mosque.

The writer is author of 'A History of Ulster' (Blackstaff, pounds 14.95)