Belfast Telegraph

Gentleman Jim Molyneaux and the end of a different way of doing things

By Paul Connolly

Of all the stories about 'Gentleman Jim' Molyneaux, who passed away aged 94 this week, the one I like best isn't really a story.

It's more one man's observation, and heck, it's probably not even true at that.

But it kind of suits the image of Baron Molyneaux of Killead, KBE PC, to give him his full title. And in many respects it suits his era. So here goes.

As a Sunday newspaper cub reporter in the late 1980s I sometimes had occasion to call Mr Molyneaux for a comment on a story. This happened quite a lot on Friday evenings or Saturdays when he would not be at his Westminster or Glengall Street offices, but at home.

This was in the years after the Anglo-Irish Agreement when unionism seethed against Margaret Thatcher's perceived betrayal.

And all the while the intermittent savagery of the Troubles served as a kind of predictable yet strangely compelling backdrop. Molyneaux had been UUP leader since '79 and would continue until '95, when he was replaced by David Trimble.

He was the last of an era, as the story kind of illustrates. I don't know for sure but I suspect he was the last leader of any political party anywhere in the British Isles who had actually seen service in the Second World War where he had served in the RAF and had been present when Belsen concentration camp was liberated from the Nazis.

Anyway, after some successful attempts to raise him, but many more fruitless ones, I expressed frustration to an Ulster Unionist contact about the difficulties of reaching the leader of Britain's then fourth-largest political party, at home.

This was even when party members were telling me they believed he was indeed at his house in south Antrim.

"Aye," said one. "I think the issue is that Jim pretty much answers the phone if he's walking past it. But if he's not actually close to it when it rings, he certainly won't break his neck to get to it from any other part of the house.

"He's like that you know. Not easily fazed. He knows if it's important, there are channels to get information to him."

I also strongly suspected he had a second line for the really, really important callers. But anyway, I liked him better for that story. Even in my early 20s.

I mean, if, like him, you'd experienced the privations of service with the RAF during Second World War, if you'd been exposed as a serviceman to the physical dangers of occupied Nazi Germany, then the demands of modern life, even for the leader of a political party, might seem a little, well, less urgent.

If you'd seen with your own eyes the walking skeletons of Belsen, just liberated ... well, a young reporter telephoning about the latest political twist or title-tattle could wait a while, couldn't he? As could 99% of the other phone calls.

Yes, he was probably starting to get undermined by media-friendly political rivals, both within his own party and at the DUP whose own stock was rising within unionism.

But even then I had a sneaking admiration for a man who took the world at this own pace, even if he knew in his heart the general pace was quickening, and his wasn't.

When I look at the communication lines into my own life - Skype, Twitter, Facebook, texts, a myriad of phone apps and seven - yes, seven, how did that happen - email accounts, I do sometimes think back and wonder if it was true that Gentleman Jim did have the gumption only to answer the phone if it rang as he walked past.

And how tempting - but impossible - it would be to copy that innocent nonchalance today.

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