Irish unionism was always a diverse coalition united in their opposition to democracy. At the very top stood the landed aristocracy, essentially a part of the British ruling class. Below was the Anglo Irish; the Church of Ireland, the state bureaucracy, police, military and so on. The whole edifice was held together by the British state forces.
Things were different in Ulster. The Ulster custom of tenant protection gave grounds for support for the state among Protestants. That in turn encouraged rural terror gangs that suppressed Catholics and that morphed into the Orange Order. Democratic revolt by Presbyterians in the United Irishmen was savagely suppressed.
By the middle of the 19th century Ulster had industrialised around linen, engineering and shipbuilding, supplying Britainís imperial market. A new class structure developed. The landowners were joined by a new industrial bourgeoisie and a growing middle class. Protestant workers were employed as skilled workers or as overseers. The enemy of the revolutionary Presbyterian, the former agrarian terrorist organisation, the Orange Order, was baked into the new dispensation. Masses of rural Catholics flooded into Belfast to take up mostly unskilled jobs. The Orange order preserved apartheid in the workplaces, disciplined Protestant workers and inspired frequent pogroms against Catholics.
So, when the Home Rule movement grew an organised counterrevolutionary force was already in place. In many ways it had its counterparts across the empire, elements of the empire linked to local allies whom they had separated from the general population by offering a different status.
At the top was a landlord class, all Ireland in scope and specialising in administration, the military and the established church. This layer was too small in numbers to hold against a nationalist rebellion. It was only in the North that the mass base existed for a successful struggle against Irish independence. The Southern unionists were abandoned without a glance backwards, and those isolated in the Southern state had no difficulty in adapting to the new circumstances when they were left behind in the run up to partition by their northern compatriots.
Below the aristocracy was a class of overseers, found in all the colonies, that had expanded greatly in the North because of industrialisation. Many of these were Presbyterians co-opted to oversee a new working class of Protestant skilled workers and a mixture of Catholic and Protestant unskilled workers. Again, division of the workforce on caste or religion was a standard feature of the empire. In Ireland the industrial caste system was greatly enhanced by the existence of a pro-imperialist terror organisation, the Orange Order. This sort of organisation existed in many colonies, but the order was more entrenched because it had been carried over from previous agrarian struggles.
The all-class Protestant alliance was not built without a struggle. There was friction between establishment Protestants and Presbyterians, seen in sections of the trade union and labour movement and in an independent Orange Order that kept its distance from the mainstream. Even more importantly the support of Protestant workers was not automatic and required terror against "rotten prods" as well as Catholic workers. Where the national struggle in the South was characterised by mass strike, boycott and guerrilla war, the unionist campaign rested on intimidation, state violence and pogrom and was held together by a guarantee of sectarian privilege. Labour, Liberals and democrats held back from the raw sectarian menace of the Orange and hence were unable to mount an effective opposition.
The class alliance of unionism generated a majority in four counties, hardly enough to produce a partitioned state. What guaranteed partition wasn't unionist votes. It was an impunity for counterrevolutionary forces guaranteed by the British and the continued British military and administrative presence.
Partition was to be deployed by the British with different minority groups, usually associated with the colonial administration, across the empire. It succeeded in crippling new nations. It's weakness for its supporters is that the alliance with the imperial power is linked to specific, time-limited interests. Eventually the loyal workers find themselves trapped, joined with their class enemy in an alliance that delivers less and less. However even when the material interest of the link with the empire has decayed the violence and division can continue to block working class mobilisation. In the 60s the decline of the traditional industries and the imperial market were well understood, but because of the static nature of class domination straightforward measures - trade with Dublin, expansion of infrastructure, were not undertaken successfully.
Irish nationalism and republicanism, in the past and today, gave to unionism a power it never had and largely ignored the role of the main actor, Britain. The British role in enabling and constructing the initial division of the country, their role in blocking all examination of the Northern state, their armed suppression of the civil rights mobilisation, the dirty war against republicans and the careful construction of a peace process that retained partition and sectarian division - all these elements are ignored and the defeated republican militants now ascribe to imperialism a progressive role in the future of Ireland. The task forward to achieve Irish unity is defined as conciliation of unionist culture rather than the defeat of an imperialist power.
However, it is in defining the tasks needed to defeat capitalism and imperialism that an alternative role can be offered to working class unionists - part of the Irish working class, acting in solidarity to achieve liberation, not only in Ireland, but in Europe and across the globe.
Brexit has offered a glimpse of this. The Democratic Unionist Party suffered greatly because of its support for a hard Brexit and subsequent betrayal by the British, leading to a Northern Ireland Protocol that left the North with access to the European zone. Attempts by unionism, with the support of paramilitaries, to recover support through the traditional mechanism of unionist unity and sectarian mobilisation with the threat of violence have attracted little interest. Rather there has been bitter criticism of the DUP and a fall in electoral support.
The effect of the unionist crisis is somewhat limited by the decay of the opposition. The small left groups cling desperately to a dogmatic left Brexit and Irexit, Sinn Fein offer full support to the European Union, a body that forced Ireland to pay almost half the European banking debt following the credit crunch of 2008.
The solution to the Irish question today is posed in terms of petitioning the British to hold a border poll and offering concessions to unionism in a shared island. This produces no interest among unionists and apathy on the part of nationalists.