Yet at a time when extreme nationalism may be poised to abandon at least for now the use of violence, Unionism has ossified. The governments of the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom are deep in discussion about the future of the province. Unionist leaders stand aloof, holding on to the past with no apparent vision of the future. There is a danger that the Protestant community, ill-served by its representatives, will be left stranded as the tide of history sweeps around it.
The Unionist inability to change is illustrated by our report today of widespread job discrimination. Between the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 and the civil rights campaigns of the Sixties, it was common to see the comment 'No Catholics need apply' on job advertisements. Official tolerance of such prejudice symbolised the unashamed division of the society. Unionist-controlled institutions supported these practices and Westminster colluded.
But direct rule was supposed to have stamped out discrimination. Research published today shows that in many areas, those with powers of patronage remain set in their ways. In the past three years, fair employment tribunals have tackled hundreds of cases of, in the main, Catholics who have unfairly lost out to Protestants.
Those findings damage the Unionist cause. The evidence presented will justify the view held by some Catholics that they will never be treated fairly. It lends support to those who argue that salvation lies only in a politically united island. Those who would like nationalism to be tempered can only hope that the delivery of justice, however tardy, will reduce alienation of the minority population.
More important, this episode shows how Unionists are desperately hanging on to the vestiges of an old order. It is a strategy that worked in the past - intransigence, combined with thinly veiled threats of violence, saved them from rule by Dublin after the First World War. It also destroyed the power-sharing Sunningdale Agreement in 1974. But times have moved on. Catholics are said to make up 42 per cent of the population of Northern Ireland now, rising to 50 per cent for those of school age. The future is on their side. Even Belfast City Council, which Unionists have controlled for a century, is now held by only a tiny majority. While Protestants remain predominant, their leaders should use that strength to pursue a far-sighted settlement. This might secure their culture and their rights irrespective of demographic change. They could focus upon the search for a sustainable constitutional link with the rest of the United Kingdom, aimed at preserving their unique identity, drawn from the Ulster Protestant relationship with Scotland, England and Ireland.
The alternative to an innovative set of policies, which also accommodates Catholic aspirations, is demoralisation. Emigration is already telling the story. Where once only Catholics left in droves, there is now a Unionist brain drain. Within Northern Ireland, Protestants are leaving the west to consolidate themselves in the east. The two communities are becoming increasingly segregated. In 1974, 56 of Ulster's 566 district council wards were virtually exclusively Protestant. Today that figure has increased to 115. A similar pattern emerges among Catholics.
This inward-looking mentality is understandable given 25 years of violence. Many Protestants feel besieged and abandoned. Unionist politicians have little incentive to challenge these views. The fall of moderate figures such as Terence O'Neill and Brian Faulkner demonstrates that Unionist extremism is rarely punished at the ballot box.
However, if Unionist MPs do not lead their people into the future, they will find themselves increasingly irrelevant, as the community looks to the paramilitaries. The same phenomenon has plagued Irish nationalism. It would be a terrible irony if, just as republicanism stripped itself of violence, Unionists went in the opposite direction.
James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, has shown wisdom, holding back from derailing the Downing Street Declaration in spite of provocation from elsewhere in the Unionist ranks. In a manifesto published last February, his party set out a generally disappointing programme for maintaining Unionist power, but it backed a Bill of Rights, outlawing discrimination. More vocal support for and active development of such measures, instead of disgruntled complaints about compensation awards, would be a step in the right direction.
Unionists are still far from champions of an inclusive, liberal democracy that could meet the interests of all in Northern Ireland. Mr Molyneaux, Deputy Grand Master of the Orange Order, still heads a tribe that wants no Catholic recruits. His potential challengers wait to cry 'betrayal'. The task of leading Ulster's Protestants out of the impasse calls for a figure of rare distinction.Reuse content