Since Ulster Unionism lost its political monopoly - a process given legislative and constitutional form in the Belfast ("Good Friday") Agreement of 1998 - it has been in the throes of a long agony. Caricatured as composed of flint-like men of unyielding bigotry, it was in fact the more malleable and fissile of the two politico-religious traditions in Northern Ireland. Nationalism was the more adamantine: more sure of its faith, more certain of its national destiny, more unwavering and ruthless in its goal of securing it.
Unionism saw the Union preserved by British governments that had no enthusiasm for it. Labour had many in its ranks who thought that Northern Ireland should become part of the Republic as soon as possible. The Conservatives ceased to see it as central to their concept of the nation. Britishness, of the Ulster kind, was all about the Crown: the Crown as the symbol and guardian of the Union, the Crown as the protector of the Protestant faith.
Irishness, by contrast, was all around, militantly championed from within the growing Catholic community - and from without, in Dublin and Washington. But where was Britishness? Who was speaking for it? As the Eighties wore on, successive - Conservative - secretaries of state took the rostrum to say, in plummy voices: You know, we have no strategic reasons to be here. None at all. We're only here because more people than not want us to run the show. (Sotto voce: as soon as otherwise, we're off.)
The Belfast Agreement is among the most extraordinary documents produced by any state for its citizens. It says that the people of Northern Ireland are in a state of permanent national doubt. They are British now, but might become Irish at any time, if a majority wished it. Meanwhile, Britishness should be played down: its symbols and flags had become a piece of sectarian aggression (or defensiveness), rather than of state inclusiveness. Irishness, if that is what a large minority wanted, should be allowed to breathe freely. If Northern Ireland could not be taken out of Britain, then Britishness could, as far as possible, be taken out of Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland has now got a Secretary of State who has thought a good deal about Britishness, being himself a member of two minorities that had a contested position within the state. John Reid, who has held the Northern Ireland job for the past year, is a Scot and a Catholic; and in his previous tenure of the post of Scottish Secretary, and in speeches made about Scotland before he took the job, he did more than any other senior politician to insist on the Britishness of Labour's devolutionary endeavour.
He was of that wing of the Scottish Labour Party that had been least convinced about devolution; and when he became a convert, was most concerned that it strengthen the Union, rather than be seen as an interim step to the creation of a Scots republic. This unionism saw the preservation of the Union as an antidote to a nationalism that would, in old Labour speak, divide the working class. Reid had been a Marxist, and retains something of the thirst for ideological dispute.
Reid is now thinking of Britishness once more. Of a new sort of Britishness. He is concerned by the alienation of the working-class loyalists - those who provide the foot-soldiers for the loyalist paramilitaries whose sectarian violence, on their own communities and on Catholics, has been one of the more hideous passages since the Belfast Agreement. "We have seen enormous progress in bringing the province up to modern British standards - of tolerance, equality, a high level of human rights and parity of esteem, inclusiveness, the creation of a multicultural society. We have given substance to this, which is after all a fundamental aspect of Britishness.
"But the perception of a lot of loyalists is that progress on these issues, seen as central and desirable anywhere else in Britain, is simply a series of concessions to republicanism. Loyalists see this: yet they have not been able to develop their own spokesmen to engage with the process. I have to think now about how to engage with loyalism. Their communities are far more fractured and disparate and involved in internecine strife than the republican communities. There are those with whom we talk, like David Ervine [leader of the Popular Unionist Party, which is the political wing of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force]. There are those with whom we do not speak, who are involved in criminal activity. But there is a wide section with whom negotiation is possible, but who need support to articulate their views. They see themselves as at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the republicans, whose spokespeople are more fluent and higher profile. We want to see how we can encourage the development of their communities in a political sense.
"The example of Scotland counts here. Devolution gave people the best of both worlds. It gave them a sense of their own identity, which was not at odds with a British identity. But it's not seen that way here, very often. There's a feeling in many of the working-class areas of Northern Ireland that they have been losing their identity. Especially where you feel you have been neglected or rejected by your country."
I ask him if allowing the Labour Party to put up candidates for Northern Ireland elections might not answer some of his needs - it would provide a non-sectarian party, British but with a historic sympathy with Irish nationalism, for members of both communities. It is a growing demand from Labour's back benches: Kate Hoey, the former sports minister, called for it in August; even David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader now reinstated as First Minister of the province, endorsed it in a speech he gave to the Conservative Party conference in October. Reid looks disapproving. "I don't think at this stage that would be helpful. That's not a statement of principle. I'm pragmatic on this. I think the place a Labour Party would get votes is from the centre - from the Ulster Unionists and the (mainly Catholic) Social Democratic and Labour Party. And you need a strong centre at the minute."
Bringing the loyalists in from the cold will be a tough trick. The evidence, from the gauntlet loyalists have put up around the Catholic Holy Cross school, is that they see themselves as pariahs and don't care. Loyalists, especially young men, have seen every tenet and institution that their fathers and grandfathers took for granted put in doubt, or even swept away. The paramilitary groups, especially on the loyalist side (which had little of the funding from the American diaspora enjoyed by the IRA) were drawn into the webs of shebeen owners, drug gangs and construction mafias as a way of financing their organisations. Unlike the IRA, no one group dominated: the landscape is shared between the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, the Red Hand Commandos and smaller, local gangs. Often, they beat up or murder each other for control of territory. To draw people from these networks will be to take on a tougher enemy than the Scottish National Party.
But Reid is not only talking about sweet reason. He is considering bringing in new legislation against sectariansim. His officials are in intense discussions with the Home Office on extending to Northern Ireland the proposed measures to outlaw incitement to religious hatred (UK legislation is not automatically extended, and needs a separate decision to be so). Though these discussions are at an early stage and Reid will not be specific, it seems likely that scenes of violence on the streets of Belfast, as loyalists spat at and threatened the Catholic kids going into Holy Cross school, is a law-changing image. Northern Ireland, as much or even more than the tensions between Muslims and other religious faiths, lies behind the religious incitement proposals. "There's no way you can hide from it: it's necessary to legislate on sectarianism," says Reid, but he adds: "You can't decommission mindsets with a law. This will be a long-drawn-out affair, overcoming a process that began - depending on how you see it - 30, or 100, or 1,000 years ago."
He insists on playing it long. He is certain that the Sinn Fein leadership is serious about politics, but points out how hard it is to switch a movement dedicated to killing the British for a century to peaceful ways. I ask him if he thinks the Real IRA is a large threat, and if it has links with the IRA. He says it may have a few local links, especially in South Armagh, but that "there is no doubt that they are in fierce opposition to each other. Some time ago, the police captured a mortar used by the Real IRA: it had 'Fuck You Gerry [Adams]' written on it." He points to arrests of the Real IRA leadership in the Republic, a swathe of arrests in the UK this month, and says some more "developments" will be announced soon.
He feels he has achieved tangible gains: the assembly in being again; a first act of decommissioning by the IRA; a decrease in the British military presence (the army numbers now stand at 13,000, around half of what they were at the height of the troubles); cross-community support for the new Northern Ireland Police Service. In the recent intake of police recruits, Catholic and Protestants applied in equal numbers - and in sufficient numbers to meet the requirements. Yet Sinn Fein still will not approve the new service: "Sinn Fein is trying to get more than the Patten Report [on the future of policing in the province] recommended; fair enough, but Patten has been delivered.
"I think sooner or later they will want police to operate in their communities. The rough justice which is meted out now - in the forms of kneecappings, beatings and even killings - limits their political appeal. It ties them too closely to the paramilitaries."
I checked this out with a former republican activist, who said: "Some of the more intelligent republicans are saying: the position is unsustainable. Sinn Fein has two ministers in the Northern Irish cabinet. How can it say Catholics shouldn't join the police and get a decent job?"
John Reid is the third Labour Northern Ireland Secretary, after Mo Mowlam and Peter Mandelson. Mandelson was disliked by nationalists and admired by David Trimble - the two men still meet regularly.
Where Mowlam was thought to favour the nationalists, Mandelson the unionists, Reid has managed so far to avoid being tagged with a sectarian preference. If he can continue to be so, it may show that his "new Britishness" is a commodious enough shelter for unionists and nationalists, republicans and - one day - loyalists. But he is not there yet: the Union Jacks and red hand of Ulster banners still flap sullenly on the loyalist estates across the land, straining after an old Britishness that will not yield to the new.