James Molyneaux (1920-2015)

James Molyneaux James Molyneaux (Baron Molyneaux of Killead) died this morning, aged 94. He led the Ulster Unionist Party from 1979 to 1995 and was a prominent member of the loyal orders.

Opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and critical of David Trimble who succeeded him as leader of the UUP, he later endorsed DUP candidates (including Jeffrey Donaldson who inherited his safe Lagan Valley Westminster seat for the UUP before defecting to the DUP).

Born in Killead, the village closest to Aldergrove airport, he even had his own seat with the choir in the local St Catherine’s parish church. During the Second World War he served in the RAF and witnessed the liberation of the concentration camp at Belsen.

About ten years ago, I sat beside him on a flight to Heathrow. He was heading over to the Lords. Before the plane’s door had closed he had already started a conversation, discovered that I had been a constituent, and as we munched our way through the bmi croissants and luke-warm tea, he fired questions at me and – unexpectedly – scribbled answers in a notebook he carried in his jacket pocket. My memory of that flight was of meeting a gentleman rather than a politician: engaging, polite, with an inquiring and curious mind.

News Letter tributes


Photo by Burns Library

  • Mirrorballman

    A Gentleman and a war hero, however he was another politician who failed us all terribly. May he RIP.

  • SDLP supporter

    May he Rest in Peace. Anyone who fought for what he believed in as a WW2 squaddie deserves respect and his account of being among the first convoy to liberate Belsen and his description of the three skeletal people (Catholic priests) celebrating Mass, and one of them actually dropping dead at the point of consecrating the Host, is deeply moving. An experience like Belsen must shape the rest of your life most profoundly.

    In my limited dealings with him I found him to be polite but also somewhat inert. He was, of course fully entitled to fight for his unionist beliefs, but he was not prepared to deal with people who did not share his beliefs on a basis of equality.

    Overall, a far more decent person than Paisley, who had the cheek to refer to Molyneaux as a Judas. At least Molyneaux had the courage to put his life on the line in WW2.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Can you expand? In what way did he fail us?

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Although a person in leadership long before my time, looking back he epitomises much of what a Unionist should be in my view. Strong military credentials, love of country, Loyal Order membership, decency and respect for those of different religious affiliations are traits that all Unionists aspire to.

    Although not a natural leader and very much overshadowed by Paisley, I felt Molyneaux to be a better and more honest person, he did lack vision and energy but NI is definitely a better place as a result of his presence here..

  • Joe_Hoggs

    I wouldn’t agree that we were failed terribly, it was a different time back then.

  • Alan N/Ards

    I remember Ian Paisley calling him a traitor for some reason or another. When Molyneaux stood at the Cenotaph in London wearing a chest full of medals, I’m sure paisley must have been embarrassed by his silly comments.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I remember him showing my school class around Westminster when we went on a school trip. He was UUP leader at the time and the hunger strikes were ramping up the tensions but he still found time to take a good couple of hours with us explaining the history of the place.
    He was also a man of peace and a man of principle. Let it not be forgotten, Molyneaux led unionism during a period of intense and highly provocative assault from the IRA – but he stuck throughout to the path of peaceful resistance and always spoke out against retaliation against the wrong-doers. Best wishes to his family.

  • SDLP supporter

    Alan, Paisley was unembarrassable. A completely malevolent influence.

  • SDLP supporter

    I wouldn’t over-idealise JM too much. I remember the Ulster Star (Lisburn) paper in the early seventies publishing a picture of him inspecting a ‘guard of honour’ of UDA thugs. I do, and did not, not deny his right to stand with his community against IRA savagery.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    bear in mind the UDA right at the start wasn’t what it became later. But yes, I wouldn’t idealise him. But he was fundamentally a good man with decent values who led unionism responsibly in a time of hiatus, if rather too quietly at times. His take on the AIA was spot on; but he did get the GFA wrong and I think that showed some of his limitations as a leader. Trimble was the thinker and strategist and we should all be glad he was in place at the critical time. Molyneaux is criticised for a lack of imagination but he was engaged and was trying initiatives too, just in an earlier, less promising period, when the IRA still hadn’t realised they couldn’t win.

    And after 1985, politics was destroyed for 6-7 years while we all waited for the government to realise what a mistake the AIA was. He was unfortunate to be there in that period. But he was part of the UUP’s imaginative engagement with the SDLP in the early 90s which would have brought a deal then, had Hume not stepped in over his negotiators’ heads to pull the plug (because he was secretly wooing Adams at the time). One of the big strategic errors or a master stroke by Hume? Who knows. But it can’t be said Molyneaux wasn’t trying to do a cross-community deal.

  • submariner

    MU Molyneaux was standing shoulder to shoulder with Loyalist terrorists during the protests against the AIA and also attending the funerals of dead loyalist terrorists a moderate he was not.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Did Jim have other half? I know he never married but was he ever in a relationship with anyone?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    problem around the AIA protests was, there was such a groundswell of opposition from all strands of the unionist community, I don’t think Molyneaux could be expected to be in complete control of everyone who wanted to take part. I saw the UDA people at the City Hall demo too. Bear in mind there were around 200,000 people there, something like one in three of the adult unionist population – it was the most incredible event I’ve ever intended, absolutely extraordinary and one of the biggest political rallies ever seen in the UK, let alone Northern Ireland. However, I’m not sure it’s fair to say Molyneaux was “shoulder to shoulder” with the UDA, any more than say someone in the SDLP might have been “shoulder to shoulder” with the PIRA because they were both marching against Internment. There were times when unionist politicians found themselves campaigning on the same side as the terrorists but save the condemnation, please, for those who actually supported them. If Molyneaux did, I stand corrected, but my understanding was always he was very, very clearly opposed to Loyalist terror.

  • submariner

    Perhaps you can explain to me that if he was so opposed to Loyalist terrorists he chose to go to the funeral of UFF commander John McMichael

  • tmitch57

    Molyneaux’s career was illustrative of one of the two main types of Ulster Unionists. These politicians including Jim Craig, Basil Brooke, Harry West, and Molyneaux were don’t rock the boat types who didn’t try to improve communal relations in NI or solve the constitutional problem and so were able to rule for long periods. The other type consisted of those who tried to change the political situation and included Terence O’Neil, Brian Faulkner, and David Trimble. This latter type had much stormier terms in office as the UUP tended to break down into smaller parties and the loyal orders wielded a veto over change. Faulkner lasted only a couple of years as UUP leader, Trimble lasted for a decade but was continuously under siege.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    he shouldn’t have done that – a mistake

  • Tacapall

    I’d love a wee jook at his notebook to see if he had anything in there about his suspicions surrounding the murder of Robert Bradford by British agent Freddie Scappatchi, something about “There being something not right in the East” Kincora perhaps.

  • sk

    He held meetings with the UVF and UDA in 1985 to coordinate strikes with them, MU, so it wasn’t merely a case of them all seperately showing up for the same shindig. If you want to castigate Hume for getting too cosy with the bad guys, it’s best to be consistent.

  • Chingford Man

    I knew Molyneaux for the last 25 years of his life and I never heard anything said either publicly or privately that would suggest anti-Catholic hostility. On the contrary, I know of his private generosity and kindness to Cork Catholic friends of my family. He was educated at a Roman Catholic school, and when his local chapel at Aldergrove was firebombed about 15 years ago, Molyneaux publicly donated to the repairs. He had a low-key, engaging courtesy with people whatever their religion, which earned him the epithet “Gentleman Jim”.

    As one of the first Allied airmen into Belsen-Bergen concentration camp, he recorded his experiences for the Daily Telegraph.


    I would describe Molyneaux as a straight-forward patriotic and social conservative, steeped in the Monarchy, the Commonwealth, the Armed Forces and instinctive Christian values. He took seriously the task of conserving the best of present life for future generations: a consolidator not an innovator. Although coming from a humble rural background and not formally educated beyond school, he was evidently well-read.

    When he entered the Commons in 1970, he was a strong opponent of Britain’s entry into the Common Market and remained anti-EU for the rest of his life. If the Unionists had not split with the Tories in the 1970s, he would have been an admirable Chairman of the 1922 Committee and a strong supporter of Mrs Thatcher against the Wets. His great friend Enoch Powell rated Molyneaux above so many of his contemporaries.

    Being an elected politician in Northern Ireland during the Troubles was difficult and dangerous, but Molyneaux performed his duties with dignity and courage. Under his leadership, he stabilised the Ulster Unionist Party’s fortunes and handed over a healthy party to David Trimble.

    For all that, I doubt history will much remember Molyneaux, with many bigger characters jostling around him. But those who knew him will.

  • LordSummerisle

    Was the UDA illegal at the time of his inspection ?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    You misunderstand my point – I wasn’t “castigating Hume for getting too cosy with the bad guys” there, my point was that Hume took part in the same demos as some Republicans *without* my regarding him as somehow exactly the same as them, blood on his hands etc.

    On meetings with the UVF and UDA in 1985 to co-ordinate strikes, I would deplore that if Molyneaux did meet terrorists and/or members of illegal organisations in that way. I’ll have to take your word for it that that happened, I haven’t read before that Molyneaux met the UVF in 1985. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but can you please quote your source for that? Could well be right though, I’d imagine in the context of the democratic and non-violent political leadership of unionism needing to be leading the response to what was an absolute outrage which had lots of us seething with anger and a sense of injustice.

    Loyalism has often looked to democratic political unionism to show leadership of the wider unionist community – no bad thing and preferable to them simply following their own instincts towards violence. They knew they had little political support from unionist voters, so there was a different dynamic there than you see with Republican terrorists and the nationalist community. That mainstream political unionism championed to support for law and order and keeping protests non-violent has been frustrating for Loyalism; and they like to big up how political unionism talked to them at times, they like to think of themselves of doing what other don’t dare to. Except that others didn’t want to and actively opposed it. The idea that Molyneaux was urging the UDA or UVF towards violence seems far-fetched – he wasn’t a violent man and he also knew, from a political POV, loyalist violence damaged the unionist case and his own standing. I’d be interested to hear from some loyalists of the time, on what they heard Molyneaux saying. But I’d be very surprised if, assuming he was talking to them, he wasn’t a rather calming influence.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    That’s my experience too.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    This is something I’d heard second hand, but I’ve been told that Paisley had little respect for anyone who fought in the last world war. Thank you for making that point, Alan it shows up the sillyness of such sour rancour most clearly.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    his ship sailed alone, Joe

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Must have been a lonely existence, especially for a politican.

  • sk
  • sk

    Read the entire extract. It paints a somewhat different picture to the one you’re presenting of the man. James Molyneaux was ready and willing to exploit the threat of Loyalist terrorism with he felt that doing so would be to his advantage:

    “I wish I had a pound for the number of times Ulster Unonists would say ‘Oh, watch for the Prostestant backlash’, ‘Oh I don’t know how we’re going to sell this to the hard men’…I mean it was incredible, it was cynical, mainpulative and dishonest”

    That kind of cynicism would put Hume to shame, would it not?