Belfast Telegraph

James Molyneaux: His steadfast refusal to cede ground was his greatest strength, and his biggest failing

By Ed Curran

James Molyneaux's other-worldly manner concealed an acute political brain and an ability to network in the corridors of power. But his devotion to Margaret Thatcher, and his failure to secure an end to the Troubles, casts a shadow over his career.

James Molyneaux was the ultimate United Kingdomite. Any idea that Northern Ireland should be a separate entity, even to the extent that it is now under the Stormont Executive, he could barely countenance in his 16 years as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

The Molyneaux I knew in the 1980s during his leadership years was an insignificant-looking figure, whose manner and appearance belied a cunning, manipulative political brain.

On the surface, he was reserved, soft-spoken, even colourless. With his head buried in his briefcase documents on board countless weekly flights to and from London, he could cast himself in anonymity.

In reality, James Molyneaux worked the corridors of power with a quiet guile built on a lifetime of service to Queen and country, founded in the Orange halls of south Antrim and honed in the tea-rooms of Westminster, where he seemed to conduct his best and most persuasive political duties.

I used to meet him regularly in the 1980s on Friday afternoons, when he returned from his weekly duties in London. He was steeped in the behind-the-scenes machinations of Westminster, full of political gossip, which he picked up in the long hours he spent briefing and being briefed by other MPs and ministers.

Much of this seemed inconsequential to the ongoing horror of violence in Northern Ireland and to the failure of any politician, not least Molyneaux, to find a formula for a more peaceful future.

I doubt if James Molyneaux could ever have achieved what his successor, David Trimble, did in reaching an accommodation with republicans and nationalists on Good Friday 1998. Indeed, arriving at any such arrangement did not appear to be in Molyneaux's psyche.

His undiluted unionism was such that his main pre-occupation during his leadership was to hold together what he termed the "unionist family" and, by so doing, continue to face down the threat of the IRA and its political supporters in Sinn Fein.

Unlike the unionist leaders who came before him, most notably Terence O'Neill and Brian Faulkner, or those who came after, like Trimble, Molyneaux's prime political purpose was not to rock any boats.

I was never convinced in my meetings with him that he had any interest in restoring powers to Stormont. After witnessing so many failed attempts at devolution, he looked more and more to Westminster, following in the footsteps of his friend and mentor Enoch Powell, whose message of integration of Northern Ireland into the UK was music to Molyneaux's ears.

James Molyneaux enjoyed name-dropping. Over tea in the old Unionist headquarters in Glengall Street, he would regale me with his weekly encounters with ministers and MPs, with all of whom he appeared to be on first-name terms.

The Prime Minister was "Margaret" and he was "Jim" to her. His admiration for Mrs Thatcher (below) knew no bounds, but laced into all his trust and support for her were deep and abiding suspicions of what he saw as the faceless figures in the Foreign Office. He seemed almost paranoid about what he interpreted as their twisted influence on Northern Ireland policy.

While Margaret Thatcher stood firm in his eyes in protection of the Union and of Northern Ireland's place in it, he believed her Foreign Office officials and ministers were briefing the outside world at embassy and other diplomatic functions with a nefarious anti-unionist agenda which was at odds with the message from the Prime Minister.

Molyneaux was absorbed in this intrigue. Rarely would a briefing in Glengall Street pass without a side-swipe at the Foreign Office and a warning from him that dark forces were at work, beyond the IRA, undermining the unionist cause.

In spite of his misgivings, in the weeks leading up to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985, Molyneaux showed no inkling of how far his friend Margaret was prepared to go to ignore him.

In Thatcher's talks with the Irish leader Garret FitzGerald, Molyneaux could only see that she would stand by the unionists.

Yes, he worried about the Foreign Office mandarins, but, no, he could not see a lady who was not for turning doing the kind of deal with Dublin which the Anglo-Irish Agreement proved to be.

Had any other unionist leader been faced with such an embarrassing failure, he would have been forced to resign, as so many were, but not James Molyneaux.

Instead, in his worst hour, he displayed his greatest strength. Even Ian Paisley did not savage his leadership, but joined him side-by-side to oppose the Anglo-Irish Agreement outside Belfast City Hall, at the largest unionist gathering since the signing of the Ulster Covenant.

I asked Molyneaux if he could explain how he had managed to avoid Paisley's wrath and the same fate of fallen predecessors. His tight lips parted in a mischievous smile. "I think I can handle Paisley because I out-right him," he replied. "Out-right Paisley?" I asked. What did he mean?

He replied that every other unionist leader who succumbed to Paisley's pressure had been portrayed as a traitor, a compromiser, or too liberal. In contrast, he was seen as traditionalist.

He had not given Paisley an excuse to attack him. In fact, if anything he was perceived as more Right-wing and conservative than Paisley. So long as he remained in that position, it would be difficult for his credentials to be challenged.

For even Ian Paisley, used to dethroning previous unionist leaders, it must have been hard indeed to argue otherwise. James Molyneaux maintained the image of unwavering unionism.

Within the Orange tradition, he held total respect and much influence. He was upright and church-going, exuding trust at a time when unionists were losing faith in all directions.

He may not have raised his head above too many political parapets, but he was seen as a solid, honest Protestant Ulsterman.

James Molyneaux may be remembered for holding unionism together and for keeping Ian Paisley at bay. However, the Anglo-Irish Agreement casts a dark shadow over his judgment.

For all his wily Westminster back-room politics, Molyneaux took Margaret Thatcher on trust and, though he continued as leader for another decade, the political records will record that he made a huge misjudgment at a crucial hour in Northern Ireland's history.

True, in respect of his leadership of Ulster Unionism, James Molyneaux proved to be the great survivor. However, the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement against his will, his knowledge and without his agreement, means some may see him as one of unionism's greatest losers.

  • Ed Curran was Editor of the Belfast Telegraph from 1993 to 2005

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