James Molyneaux, master of Ulster Unionist immobility remembered

Of the newspaper  obits of Jim Molyneaux so far Chris Ryder’s ( ex Sunday Times) captures him best. He became leader  of the Ulster Unionist party first at Westminster then overall, largely  because  he was the senior man at Westminster and Stormont flickered into half-life for only a few short months during his time. A shy man with impeccable manners, it could be said that his courtesy often concealed  his endless political manoeuvring   to hold the chronically divided Ulster Unionist party  in some sort of unity after  a decade of ruinous fragmentation  His style contrasted favourably with Paisley’s at the time  and marked a not insignificant distinction between the two parties.

Strangers would have been justified in thinking that Jim had had a minor stroke, as much of the time he seemed to be talking out of the side of his mouth. No, he was in robust health, it was just his conspiratorial style and the effort actually took a lot out of him. Integrationist or devolutionist, which way to turn? He was of course an integrationist; and so it was that with  great reluctance  he was obliged to sit on the front bench of alien  Stormont  during the ill -fated Prior Assembly, minus  the SDLP, never mind Sinn Fein  who were intent on reviving their fortunes out of the hunger strike.  Because of the lack of opposition ( apart from the DUP)  that forlorn Assembly only amplified the divisions of unionism because they had nothing else to do. Jim looked as he felt, spoke seldom, couldn’t wait to get away to the flat in London.  Neither integration nor devolution looked  remotely like  winners but at least “Ulster” had more seats at Westminster.

This was a very tense time – before  and after the hunger strike – when  the IRA targeted unionist politicians, murdering  Sir Norman Stronge and his son James,  Rev Robert Bradford MP and 29 year old Edgar Graham, the Assembly member who  was thought of a potential  future  party leader. Jim himself was aware of threats to himself and had access to a gun.

In a curious way, the turmoil all around him barely affected his political calculations. He was a Westminster man through and through .  Constituency party secretary to south Antrim MP  Sir Knox Cunningham  who was in turn parliamentary  private secretary to the prime minister  Harold Macmillan, Jim succeeded to the seat  on Cunningham’s retirement in an was an example of the social shift in party leadership from gentry to clerical or artisan class.

Hardly surprisingly he was indeed overshadowed by the  brilliant and dangerous  Enoch Powell who believed that a revival of  Stormont would weaken the Union because it made  Northern Ireland different from the rest of the UK. Under the circumstances of the time this was not an illogical strategy.  It accorded precisely with Jim’s instincts and contrasted favourably with the DUP’s flirting with paramilitary gestures and general thrashing around.  He had no time for the probing outside the lodge so to speak,  by his gifted party secretary Frank Millar.  As the supposed master of  high level contacts at Westminster, the  Anglo-Irish Agreement  shook him and his reputation to the core. Neither really recovered although being the UUP of those days   it took a long time for them to think about a change of direction and settle  on a leader even more suspicious of change. That turned out to be the UUP’s St Paul on the road to Damascus, David Trimble, instead of the expected successor  that dangerous radical John Taylor.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead  ( next to Aldergrove), who was a kindly  gentleman and a devoted party servant,  was a master of political immobility. That was his achievement and a small part of Northern Ireland’s tragedy.

He had had a good war in the RAF around  D Day and in the liberation of Belsen which he sometimes spoke about with feeling.

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  • Old Mortality

    ‘He had a good war in the RAF..’
    In contrast to Paisley and his two immediate predecessors as UUP leaders, all of whom managed to have no war . Being able to swap war reminiscences probably made him more at ease in Westminster circles and gave him a keener sense of Britishness.

  • Chingford Man

    Unaccountably, Ryder seems to have made the staunchly Church of Ireland Molyneaux into a Presbyterian. Sloppy.

  • eireanne

    love your headline –

  • tmitch57

    Brian,
    He was in power as party leader for so long that he was in danger of becoming another Paisley or Gerry Adams. Like Basil Brooke and Jim Craig his secret was lethargy and preserving the status quo. Northern Ireland was lucky that Trimble came along when he did to replace him. Only those Ulster Unionist leaders willing to take risks like O’Neill, Faulkner and Trimble made any progress.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Nice piece and fair I think.

    On his immobility, “that was his achievement and a small part of Northern Ireland’s tragedy” – well yes and no. His immobility politically vis-a-vis an accommodation with nationalism is only from a nationalist perspective. As you point out he was willing to give the Assembly a go though it wasn’t what he wanted; the SDLP boycotted it. And it was under his leadership in the early 90s that the UUP was widely considered to have shown imagination and flexibility in its talks with the SDLP which came very close to reaching agreement on a cross-community deal. Again, progress was vetoed by Hume who had other things brewing in secret.

    But it is true, unionism needed a more activist leader in Trimble in the run up to the GFA. Trimble put us more on the front foot, though even Trimble didn’t go far enough for me in shaking off the defensiveness and caution that has dogged unionist politics. Molyneaux perhaps exemplified that caution, though perhaps not its defensiveness. He had a plan, it was just a rather uninspiring Westminster insider’s plan. I think he didn’t mind as long as the Union was secured. That it wasn’t, and he was by-passed in 84-85, was in spite of that, not because of it. It was fools advising Thatcher and in the FO who were responsible for the howler that was the AIA and I think Molyneaux has taken unfair flack for being “outsmarted” – he wasn’t, he just didn’t have any power and they abused theirs.

    I do think though at the time, having someone calm, long-suffering, modest and decent, though hardly the stuff of a journalist or novelist’s dreams, may have had a better effect on NI than he’s given credit for. With the IRA going full tilt and a demagogue like Paisley on the loose too, where would we have been without the politicians who acted and spoke calmly and stuck to a message of supporting law and order, not retaliating, going about your everyday business. Ultimately, those are the behaviours that won.

  • Tacapall

    What planet are we on. He had a good war !

  • T.E.Lawrence

    If I am correct the beginning of the end of his political career came from a challenge from Queens University Belfast Unionist Students

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Really? I have no idea, I wasn’t at Queen’s