Belfast Telegraph

James Molyneaux: A King Canute who unified his party but couldn't hold back tide of change

By Liam Clarke

You could draw up a list of characteristics about Jim Molyneaux which would not sound impressive, but he was an impressive man.

People respected his sincerity and two political achievements stand out. He was courteous and kind, Gentleman Jim they called him, and he held his party together, the last of its leaders who generally managed to avoid splits and defections.

There were other pluses. He got the number of MPs increased, a permanent gain that we didn't really deserve; he got a pledge that the principle of consent would be upheld by the British government, and he succeeded in having the Northern Ireland Grand Committee introduced at Westminster.

On the negative side, his political judgment was often wrong. He believed Margaret Thatcher would never sign the Anglo Irish Agreement. Initially, both he and Ian Paisley seemed ready to accept it, but, after meeting with their parties, they got involved in a long and fruitless campaign against it. Ian Paisley ended up calling him 'Judas Iscariot' for his pains.

Paisley later apologised, privately, and Mr Molyneaux excused him with characteristic grace.

The other side of holding his party together is that he didn't ask too much of it. He conciliated and accommodated factions rather than taking them on.

This kept most people on board. In his time, Vanguard and the UPNI, two smaller parties who had broken away, returned to the fold.

The price was that there were only minor policy innovations in his time.

He warned constantly against "political high-wire acts" and was a people person, at home on the rubber chicken circuit of Orange and unionist meetings.

He once turned down a Sunday interview with David Frost. "But nobody turns down Mr Frost," the researcher replied, Lord Molyneaux told me, explaining, "I have an appointment with the Orange widows and that takes precedence".

There was a characteristic twinkle in his eye, a curmudgeonly smile that barely puckered his stiff upper lip. He enjoyed his own reputation, and he could be a conspiracy theorist. In 1982, he angered James Prior, the Secretary of State, by suggesting that Rev Robert Bradford, another unionist MP, has been murdered by the IRA with the prior knowledge of "certain not so loyal Crown servants".

A confirmed bachelor, he devoted himself full time to politics and was a senior figure in both the Orange Order and the Royal Black Preceptory.

Lord Molyneaux took over the UUP leadership from Harry West in 1979 and tried to push it towards closer integration with the UK, something which ran against the tide of events.

He also described the 1994 IRA ceasefire as "destabilising", fearing that it could open the door to closer links with the Republic, perhaps even Irish unity.

He was a member of the Monday Club, a right wing conservative group and, through it, had increased contact with like-minded Tories. He often talked of his friends in high places but overestimated the influence they had on government policy. He was taken unawares by many key events, but was always unflappable.

The party started to fall apart under his successor David, now Lord Trimble, as he pushed for change. Mr Trimble won the Nobel Peace Prize and pushed the Good Friday Agreement deal through, but it was at the expense of his party being eclipsed by the DUP and, to some extent, Lord Molyneaux was supportive of that process.

I once called him to tell him that Jeffrey Donaldson, his protégé, who started off as his assistant but succeeded him as MP for Lagan Valley, had told me he was joining the DUP. Mr Molyneaux didn't believe it but it turned out to be true. He later endorsed Mr Donaldson as a DUP candidate.

Looking back on his career, Lord Molyneaux of Killead can appear a bit of a King Canute figure. He held back change for as long as he could and overplayed his hand in doing so, losing friends and influence at Westminster in the process. His achievement of keeping his party in one piece now seems little more than delaying a decline which came anyway, rather than take chances.

It was no easy job though, leading a political party through the violent years from 1979 to 1995 and keeping it intact. He managed it with some style.

A King Canute who united his party, but

Belfast Telegraph


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