They are becoming a friendless people. Their worst nightmares are creeping into the daylight. If a ceasefire 'works', it will produce a pan-nationalist agenda for Ireland, bringing the old enemies of Sinn Fein and the southern Irish parties together, with the White House's sponsorship. John Major, who was speaking at length with Albert Reynolds yesterday, is not a pan-nationalist himself. But he knows some people who are.
And the idea that a few Tory Unionists at Westminster could stop this is a fantasy. Sir George Gardiner and whose army? Norman Lamont and some on the right will try to rouse the Conservative Party's folk-memory of Bonar Law, Randolph Churchill, and the Unionist heyday. But that whole world has disappeared and ideological Unionists are few in Britain today. In the Commons, any proposal for concessions in the cause of peace, short of a formal sell-out, would be passed by - what? - 500 votes?
We are not there yet. The first problem is how to reconcile an IRA coup with the Letterkenny meeting of Sinn Fein activists a little over a month ago. That seemed to mark a nadir in the politics of Ulster because the Republicans affirmed a policy which cannot bring peace: they required the British government to force the Unionists into the Republic.
That is incompatible with the British bottom line that there should be no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority. 'Consent' is, by definition, something that cannot be forced. In theory, of course, British persuasion might bring about that consent. This, it seems, is what Sinn Fein now hopes for. Danny Morrison, the party's former publicity director, put it like this: 'If the likes of Douglas Hurd or John Major were to turn round and say, 'I can't see us being in Ireland for ever', that would have a dramatic effect on the situation.'
It certainly would: in the current mood among Unionists it would provoke civil war. But there is persuading and persuading. We are probably talking about a jerky, stop-and-start process of talks that goes on for years. The London politicians would be saying that the veto remained intact but would be overheard humming: 'We don't want to lose you but we think you ought to go'. (The song from which those words come, used to recruit Unionists to be slaughtered in the trenches, was called Your King and Country Want You - not the current message.)
These are deep and dirty waters. If Britain is trying to defend the principle of majority consent, there comes a time when attempting to undermine the position of that majority, however subtly and carefully, turns into an assault on the democratic idea itself: when persuasion hardens into bullying. And whatever the numbers in opinion polls or the House of Commons, I cannot really believe that a British government, Tory or Labour, would expel part of the territory of the present United Kingdom against its will - or, if it did so, that our political system would survive intact.
We are left with the likely: a shift in the political chemistry which places huge pressures on the Ulster Unionists to do some sort of deal, probably involving power sharing (and leaving the door open to Irish unity). It is far from clear that Sinn Fein-IRA leaders have the political courage to stay in that process, or can hold their people with them. But if they have realised that Letterkenny was a disaster, and are truly committed to politics, then the pressure on Unionism will become intense, and international, and endless.
And the truth is that the Unionists are badly placed to resist it. The confusion of Jim Molyneaux's response - calming, then irate - mirrors their dilemma. If everyone else is talking peace, and the Unionists promise a salt-water Sarajevo, will they not be giving London an irresistible excuse to betray them? Revolt, as the Republicans may be learning, is a power of a sort, but it is the power of the powerless. On the other hand, if Unionists face up to pan-nationalism and enter talks with Sinn Fein, are they not conceding the inevitability of Irish unity? From a 'no surrender' perspective, war- war and jaw-jaw now look equally dangerous.
It is a weak hand. It would be immeasurably stronger if they were understood by the outside world. These are a generally law- abiding, hard-working and thoroughly decent people - a people who often live the 'community' that metropolitans merely babble about. But the Ulster Protestants have thrown up, sustained and supported a political leadership that has come close to destroying their case in the eyes of the world. Terrible men like Ian Paisley, with his bloody mouthings and his closed mind, have ensured that the Unionist cause has become a historical curiosity. In Europe, all he signifies is bellowed heckles about the Pope. In America, the Unionists are invisible. Here, they have alienated the vast majority of voters - so much so that, while Unionists insist on their Britishness, and talk of a referendum, they know that an all-Britain referendum would scupper them.
This adds up to quite a record of political failure. These people, these British people, are regarded as less enlightened than the South African Boers, less transigent than the Israelis, and about as rational as the Bosnian Serbs.
So long as the Unionists were confronted by a rival community represented by hooded murderers and rambling Marxists, it did not matter. Well, it matters now. The Unionists are in danger of cutting themselves off from any tolerable future, of being pushed into history by old enemies who are learning that the rhetoric of peace and democracy buys more than a suitcase of Semtex ever could. And the louder their 17th-century leaders shout, the less the modern world can hear them.
No wonder there is an air of panic in Belfast. The 'loyalists' have always been a courageous people. But they have shown the wrong sort of courage. The courage to change is greater and more useful than the courage to stay just the same. If they cannot, even now, learn that, then God help them.