It is as if the penny has finally dropped.

For 30-plus years the ethnic drift of thousands of Protestants away from the west bank of the River Foyle has been lamented. They have left in their droves, not a trickle. It, indeed, has been one of the greatest 20th century drifts of human population anywhere in Europe.

Yet, only now, as the nationalist attempts to change the city's name intensifies, is the overall debilitating effect on a whole way of life for its Protestant inhabitants being fully realised by many beyond the banks of the Foyle.

Symbol after symbol of the unionist ethos has been vanishing from the heart of Londonderry. West bank Protestant churches have been closed in recent decades and only St Columb's Church of Ireland Cathedral, First Derry Presbyterian Church and Carlisle Road Methodist Church remain at the centre of ecclesiastical life on the west bank of the Foyle.

Derry's Walls, that symbol of Protestant courage and proud history, remain, of course, but Protestants, already wounded by suggestions that the name Londonderry be dropped, were disgusted when former Sinn Fein Deputy Mayor Peter Anderson recently suggested that parts of the battlements be painted over to cover graffiti.

One Protestant man said: "His remarks showed just how much of a joke the unionist community is to Sinn Fein and to republicans in general. If he had one ounce of sensitivity, he wouldn't even have made these remarks. The truth is they just don't care about us."

The closure of Templemore School, because of falling pupil numbers, was yet another example of the repercussions of the population drift that has almost ended an entire way of life.

Also, in the next couple of years, Foyle and Londonderry College will move from the city side to a new site on the Waterside outskirts.

Then, the familiar crimson uniforms of the Foyle students will no longer be an everyday sight on the city side of the river.

Varied traditions and religions are today represented at Foyle - indeed they have been for well over a century, and 12 former students have become priests.

But the symbolism of Foyle's move, plus the closure of Templemore, the last secondary level state school on the west bank, and the more recent announcement that it is to be used as a site for an extension of a Creggan Catholic school - heralds what now seems to be the rapidly approaching end of an era.

Only several hundred Protestant families remain living on the city side and they chiefly stay within their own circles, in the Fountain, behind a towering peace fence.

Despite excellent cross-community work, the residents of this loyalist enclave find their homes are still regularly attacked with petrol and paint bombs. Just recently, republicans used paint bombs to injure 14-year-old schoolgirls Natasha Jackson and Jade Marsden, 12-year-old Alexis Curry and their four-year-old friend Ryan O'Neill.

This is a much beleaguered community that remains under persistent and often unreported assault. The residents are especially pleased that the Republic of Ireland football team didn't qualify for the 2004 European Championships in Portugal.

After the Republic's 2002 World Cup matches were televised from the Far East, nationalist crowds, who had sat for hours drinking in nearby pubs featuring the matches, proceeded to try to invade the Fountain. "One day, as a mob tried to get into the Fountain, they started shouting 'Burn the Prods out'," said one Fountain resident.

"Thank goodness they didn't qualify for Portugal, or we would have had a series of attacks after the televised matches. When Glasgow Celtic won the Scottish Cup this year they celebrated by hurling beer glasses and bottles over the security fence."

And when Henry McDonald, Irish Editor of the Observer, visited the enclave recently he noted that the residents live beside the old walled city which Protestants had defended in 1688-89 against besieging Jacobite forces. "For the loyalists of the Fountain, surrounded on three sides by 30ft wire fences, nothing much has changed in 315 years," said Mr McDonald.

Fountain residents too will tell you about individuals, including children, being attacked in the commercial heart when they are recognised as being Protestant and of how nationalist passers-by refuse to come to their aid when they are physically and verbally assaulted.

What Fountain residents certainly don't do is drink and eat in downtown bars and restaurants once darkness falls. It's back instead to the comparative safety of life behind the wire. In the Waterside, Irish Street loyalists have had their families, homes and cars targeted by missile-throwing republicans.

Teenagers attending the final classes at closing down Clondermott High School have been among those targeted. The Protestant community still, in 2004, feels under siege.

The Apprentice Boys of Derry, it must be said, have made impressive progress in preserving and teaching others about the Ulster-Scots culture and their Maiden City Festival every August has become a great success. But financial support has not been as forthcoming as it might be from bodies that have supported Irish traditional events.

Frank Curran, retired, long-serving Derry Journal Editor, underlined the significance of what's happening when he said: "The steady decline in the Protestant-unionist population in the west bank has been one of the saddest outcomes of Northern Ireland's Troubles. Piece by piece, manifestations of the unionist ethos have disappeared.

"It is surely a historic tragedy that the west bank of the Foyle, which was such an important symbol of unionism, should become practically devoid of any unionist presence. Is the unionist ethos to virtually disappear from the place which was the epitome of the Protestant and unionist presence in Ireland?"

Leslie Mitchell, of the PUP's Londonderry Branch, feels the unionist community in Londonderry are increasingly being cold shouldered.

"For the ever diminishing Protestant unionist population of the city, it is becoming increasingly apparent that our culture, traditions, aspirations and our very way of life are not taken into account by the majority nationalist population, many of whom fail to recognise the Protestant-unionists have a right to live within the city and, more importantly, that they have a vital role to play. There is a widespread perception that unionism and Protestantism have no place within the city. In a city where children are attacked for wearing perceived Protestant school uniforms, where it is believed that any portrayal of our culture or history is a sign of blatant sectarian bigotry and, more importantly, when Protestants are made to feel embarrassed or ashamed of their religion and British nationality and identity, then there are serious, fundamental, unaddressed issues facing unionists in Londonderry," he said.

Many share that viewpoint. Increasingly, in my daily journalistic rounds, I find crushed spirits, an opting out of public and social life by those raised in the Protestant traditions. Many working class Protestants play no part because of intimidation in the past, other members of the unionist community left the place altogether over the years, when the going got really tough, to live in places such as Limavady and Coleraine.

In the past few years, while attending a wide variety of city side events, I've become starkly aware of being one of a small number of Protestants actually present on some occasions. At other times, it is possible to count the number of people from the Protestant community who are present on the fingers of one hand.

When BBC Radio 1 staged free ticket giveaways in Guildhall Square for their star-studded One Big Weekend event in May many hundreds of Protestant young people missed out on seeing pop idols such as Avril Lavigne and Kelis because they were too afraid to queue in Guildhall Square. Ironically, the actual event was held in the Waterside - where they would have felt safe.

That is to Londonderry's shame that the sectarian divide, with its undercurrent of fear, still exists in some sections of the community at a time when borders are coming down all over Europe for the common good of all concerned.

And now, in 2004, Protestants feel that the relentless Sinn Fein-SDLP campaign to finally obliterate the name Londonderry is a final insult to their basic human rights to live there and address the city by the name it has had for centuries.

One Waterside man reminded the controlling nationalist politicians of the words of Mahatma Ghandi. The once great leader of India said: "If you want to evaluate how civilised a society is, then one has to look at how it treats its minorities."

Protestants feel their organisations, particularly those based on the east bank of the River Foyle, are publicly under funded. In a handout of Derry City Council grants the Waterside Area Partnership received a paltry £1,900 while the west bank-based Classical Music Society received £22,000.

The city's Protestant community earnestly believes that Derry City Council is insensitive to their feelings and ignores prominent anniversaries - such as the Queen's Golden Jubilee - which are special to them.

They notice too the council spin-doctored Press releases and public statements which omit reference to Londonderry, reverting to the dumbed down - the city - when they are not using the name Derry.

Organisations and public bodies sidestep the Londonderry name by using expressions like "in the Derry City Council area or "in the Foyle region" and "in the greater North West". Even PSNI Press releases avoid using Londonderry.

Two significant events of recent times further underlined the decline of a unionist way of life in Londonderry's heart. The first was when the Ulster Unionist Party put its headquarters of over half a century in the Fountain up for sale. Once 10 staff had worked there and it was a hive of activity in the 1950's and 60's. In more recent years less people frequented the hall as the Protestant population drifted away in droves.

And when the last rural Presbyterian manse on the city side of the River Foyle was demolished at Ballyarnett, local historian and Channel 9 TV presenter, John Thompson, pointed out that there were now around 97.5 per cent Roman Catholics living on the west bank.

Those stark figures, coupled with the city now having a Sinn Fein Mayor - Gerry O'hEara, a self-confessed leader of the junior IRA in 1972, who suggested that Derry's Walls be returned "to the people of Derry" - has not given any confidence whatsoever to the unionist community that their interests will be anymore looked after than they've been in recent years. This, despite Mr O'hEara's insistence that he will be reaching out the hand of friendship to the unionist community in the city.

His suggestion too that ex-IRA members could stand alongside World War veterans at a joint Remembrance Day ceremony disgusted not only Protestants, but many loved ones of other faiths who had laid down their lives for world freedom and not as one loyalist put it, "those who cowardly shot people in the back or planted bombs under their victims' cars".

The unionist family in Londonderry is also unimpressed, in some cases offended, by the decision of Sinn Fein to select as an MLA double-murderer Raymond McCartney, who was convicted of the killings of DuPont executive Jeffrey Agate and RUC officer Patrick McNulty. Both Mr Agate, who originally came from England, and Mr McNulty, who was a Catholic, had been highly-respected members of the community in 1970's Londonderry - and the pain of their deaths still hurts for many.

I'm regularly regaled by unionist protestations, particularly from the middle aged, about why they neither shop or socialise on the Foyle's city-side any more. To be blunt, they're afraid, or just feel not wanted.

Those who do venture across Craigavon Bridge from the Waterside to the city centre complain, every autumn for example, about having to remove and hide their Earl Haig Remembrance poppies in case it marked them out as coming from the Protestant faith - even though Roman Catholic names are on the Diamond War Memorial as well as those from the city's minority faiths.

In 21st century Londonderry, they can't even wear their poppies with pride. Protestants, in massive numbers, have ended up sitting at home playing only occasionally a significant upfront part in the overall community and social life of Londonderry. Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Methodist, Baptist - their roles, in any significant numbers, in Londonderry's communal mainstream have diminished in recent years.

Now the very real prospect looms that they will be officially told not to call the city by its Royal Charter name of Londonderry.

To many in the city's unionist community, and amongst others beyond, that would be the last straw for a heritage that they have held dear for many generations.