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James Molyneaux: Political fighter and committed churchman who was a stabilising force for the Ulster Unionists

By Alf McCreary

James Molyneaux, the veteran politician who died yesterday aged 94, was leader of the Ulster Unionists during a period of political upheaval and of great difficulty for the party.

He managed to hold the UUP together as long as he could, but, following the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, lost ground to the DUP leader, Ian Paisley, and subsequently deeply opposed the "interference" of Dublin in Ulster politics and what he perceived to be the weakening of the Union.

James Henry Molyneaux was born into a farming family at Killead, Co Antrim and baptised at Killead Parish Church, where he remained a lifelong member and sang in the choir for many years.

He often told friends, with amusement, that he had wailed continually throughout his baptism and it was only afterwards that his family realised that someone had pinned the baptismal gown through the baby's neck.

Molyneaux's early education included a brief period at a local Roman Catholic school and, when a local Catholic church was attacked by loyalist arsonists in 1990, he helped with fundraising to restore the building.

Molyneaux served with the RAF during the Second World War and one of his most formative influences was his harrowing experience of the Belsen concentration camp, which he helped to liberate. He revisited the site some 50 years later and recalled: "The sense of shock hit you like a tidal wave. It was the work of the devil."

Molyneaux became involved in politics as a unionist on Antrim County Council from the 1960s and, in 1970, became Westminster MP for South Antrim.

He quickly made his mark, becoming Unionist leader in the Commons in 1974 and from 1982-86 represented the constituency in the ill-fated Northern Ireland Assembly.

Molyneaux was a lifelong Orangeman and Sovereign Grand Master of the Royal Black Preceptory from 1971 to 1995. His support in the loyal orders allowed him to gauge the opinions of grassroots unionism.

Meanwhile, he made valuable contacts with the Conservatives at Westminster and, at one stage, was vice-president of the Right-wing Conservative Monday Club.

In 1982, he became a member of the Privy Council and, from 1983, he represented the newly-formed Lagan Valley constituency at Westminster.

Molyneaux claimed to have had a close political contact with Margaret Thatcher and it was a considerable personal shock when he discovered she had signed the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement without telling the unionists.

Some observers point out that if she had told them in advance, the unionists would have tried even earlier to scupper the initiative.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement marked the beginning of the end of Molyneaux's influence as Unionist leader and the initiative went to the increasingly vociferous Ian Paisley. He embarked with Paisley on the raucous Ulster Says No campaign, during which Molyneaux looked increasingly uneasy.

He hung on to power until 1995 and was succeeded by David Trimble. Molyneaux was knighted in 1986 and the next year became a life peer, taking the title of Baron Molyneaux of Killead. He was critical of Trimble and, on occasions, lent support to DUP candidates during Westminster elections.

He approved of the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, partly because he had secretly worked with Lord Eames as a conduit of unionist opinion to John Major and Albert Reynolds, the architects of the declaration, which led to the Good Friday Agreement.

This was bitterly opposed by Molyneaux, who felt the link with the Union was being seriously eroded. He once said: "I place the safety of Northern Ireland within the Union as my absolute priority", and retained his lifelong political integrity in opposing anything he felt might endanger that position.

Molyneaux's critics claimed he was a weak leader of unionism, but he had the disadvantage of having to compete with the increasingly buoyant Paisley. However, his supporters point out that Molyneaux did hold the UUP together and that after his departure it virtually distintegrated.

In later years, he was a familiar figure in the House of Lords and retained his many influential contacts. Known to friends as Jim, his private persona was very different to his public image. He was polite, with an old-fashioned charm and an impish sense of humour.

He remained a bachelor and is survived by his wider family.

Belfast Telegraph

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