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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen