Stubborn but shrewd face of Ulster unionism

James Molyneaux: August 27th, 1920 – March 9th, 2015


Lord Molyneaux of Killead, who has died aged 94, led the Ulster Unionist Party from 1979 until 1995, a period when the British-Irish relationship was redefined more fundamentally than at any time since partition in the early 1920s.

Having been betrayed by Britain, as he saw it, he steadfastly refused to participate in building a new North-South relationship and engaged in a stubborn rearguard action to postpone, for as long as possible, the inevitable day when Ulster Unionists would have to face up to the political realities of a Britain and Ireland with utterly different imperatives to those of the early 1900s. Lord Molyneaux described it as dull dog politics.

In practising them, he was aided and abetted by the controversial British Conservative, Enoch Powell, who so mesmerised him that James Prior, one of the secretaries of state, said that Powell worked James Molyneaux with his foot. After the controversial Conservative was rejected by his Wolverhampton constituents in February 1974, Molyneaux was instrumental in prolonging his parliamentary career by finding him a safe unionist berth in South Down.

Although Powell was widely resented as an unhelpful carpetbagger by many unionists, the relationship and Molyneaux’s leadership flourished and spanned some of the worst violence and political turbulence of the Troubles. Convinced that successive governments were progressively weakening the union between Britain and Northern Ireland and setting up the unionists for hand over to the South, Molyneaux adopted a do-nothing political style.

From time to time, he was able to shrewdly exploit the balance of power in the House of Commons when British governments needed unionist votes. There was a consistent theme in his public utterances, condemning what he described as the news industry for whipping up unreal expectations of a political breakthrough and criticising successive governments for engaging in high-wire circus acts.

For this he blamed certain not-so-loyal crown servants and pro-Irish elements in the foreign office in London who were promoting a blueprint to sever the union and force a united Ireland. “I don’t think the people of Northern Ireland should be put to the torch every 18months just to placate a lot of high-flying civil servants whose feet are obviously not on the ground,’’ he once said.

Northern Ireland’s age-old divisions, he explained, could not be ignored by forcing a shotgun marriage between those who are British and those who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, are attracted to the idea of Irishness.

However, Powell and he were badly caught out by the scope of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed in November 1985. Believing that then prime minister Margaret Thatcher was completely sympathetic to them – Ulster is as British as Finchley (her own London constituency), she had said – they therefore treated the London-Dublin negotiations with disdain and refused to participate. Days before the deal was signed Molyneaux was even citing the British Queen Mother as a source that the rumours about it were untrue.

In the end he was horrified that Dublin was allowed to establish a diplomatic outpost in Belfast and given a right of consultation about the way Northern Ireland was governed.

With unionist opinion in unprecedented uproar, Molyneaux and the Rev Ian Paisley combined to lead the Ulster Says No campaign which took the shape of widespread civil disobedience, but while Paisley openly flirted with the violent extremes of unionism, Molyneaux took great care to avoid any contamination.

One night, when masked men appeared at a rally in Lisburn, he quickly slipped off the platform to avoid being photographed in their company. Anyway he believed that quiet background pressure in the corridors of power at Westminster, rather than the sight of masked men marching on the streets of Northern Ireland, would better serve the unionist cause in achieving a more congenial alternative.

The crisis forced Molyneaux into prolonged, close-working contact with his belligerent contemporary who had long sought just such an alliance as a bridge to becoming the undisputed leader of the entire unionist community. Keeping the insatiable Paisley from swallowing the Ulster Unionist Party was undoubtedly among Molyneaux’s most significant achievements. His adroit political skills were never more effectively demonstrated than in the way he conducted the oscillating relationship with Paisley who was, at times, an opportunistic ally but, more often, an outspoken adversary and critic who would consistently resort to cruel public teases about the fact that Molyneaux had never married. Such jibes were never returned in kind, although they must have wounded the shy and diffident Molyneaux deeply.

Molyneaux was at heart a traditional shire conservative. If he had come from any other part of the United Kingdom that would have been his political home. He was at heart an integrationist, who favoured Northern Ireland being ruled as Wales and Scotland, with nothing more than an administrative regional council being in office in Belfast. That way, he felt, the union could best be underpinned and consolidated with real power residing with parliament in London.

It was there, too, that he came to feel most at home, revelling in the pomp and circumstance of Westminster and enjoying the perks of being a party leader which included attending state banquets for overseas visitors and taking part in the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

Although punctilious about his constituency casework at home, his social obligations and the duties of his leading role in the Orange Order and several associated organisations, he spent every available minute in London, even when parliament was not in session.

Tight mouth

He was once characterised as tight mouth, by comparison with Paisley’s big mouth, and many accurately judged him to be a shrewd but dour, unyielding backwoodsman. In private he displayed an impish humour, recounting inside stories from the corridors of power, always with the hint that he knew exactly what was really going on behind the scenes and the implication that he had the ear of the great and the good. This weakness became even more marked after he was appointed a privy counsellor in 1983, probably the distinction he valued most.

“There are things I would like to tell you but I am bound by confidentiality,’’ he would say mysteriously. He was an intensely private and discreet man and although he consulted colleagues, much of his work was indeed conducted out of view, if not in secret.

In the latter stages of his political career, he came to recognise, albeit with great reluctance, that if the union was to be preserved some institutional links with the South were inevitable. Thus, with the minimum of grace, he led a delegation to Dublin during the abortive inter-party talks in 1992 to test the limits of what would have to be conceded. Nevertheless, it was a ground-breaking gesture which, it is now clear, was one of the essential elements in subsequently building the comprehensive peace process in Northern Ireland.

A year later James Molyneaux made another significant move when he endorsed the Downing Street declaration because there is no structure within it which can be used to the disadvantage of the greater number of people in Northern Ireland. His reaction was crucial, for it helped calm deep unionist fears, which were aroused soon afterwards by the revelation that the British government had been in prolonged secret negotiations with the IRA designed to bring about a ceasefire, which eventually was called in 1994.

Molyneaux’s evolving position and inner-track approach brought him once more into public discord with his old rival, Paisley, but, for the first time, caused dissent within the ranks of his own party. This resulted in a bruising challenge to his leadership in 1995, when an unknown student attracted a significant protest vote. Molyneaux’s considerable political instincts told him it was time to go and he voluntarily resigned the leadership a year later, to be replaced by David Trimble.

Elevated soon afterwards to the House of Lords, he continued to take a close interest in Northern Ireland affairs and was a quiet, though ferocious, opponent of the 1998 Belfast Agreement and all that flowed from it.

Farmer’s son

James Henry Molyneaux was born on August 27th, 1920, at Killead, Co Antrim. His father, William, operated a poultry farm and although his son helped him run it his real interests were more heavily influenced by his grandfather, James, who would read from the Times and Daily Telegraph over breakfast and discuss world affairs with him.

After completing his education at the local Aldergrove public elementary school, where, unusually, the classroom was shared with Catholics, he worked on the family farm until 1941 when, aged 20, he enlisted in the RAF. During wartime service as an aircraftman, he took part in the D-Day landings and helped establish airfields in northern France.

Later, he was among the troops who helped liberate Belsen concentration camp. His unit constructed field hospitals for the survivors, an experience which deeply marked him. As he often said later: “You must never show emotion or signs of fear because that will affect others. You need to keep a grip on yourself no matter how deeply hurt you are.’’

He returned to civilian life in 1946, resuming work on the family farm, which had been heavily depleted by the takeover of land to expand RAF Aldergrove. He also set up a partnership with his uncle in a printing business in nearby Crumlin. Over the next few years, having joined the Orange Order, he was also progressively sucked into the political activities of the Unionist Party, then at the height of its power and having complete influence over life in Northern Ireland.

In 1964, he won his first political office as a member of Antrim County Council. At the same time, as the honorary secretary of the South Antrim Unionist Association, he became the presence on the ground for Sir Knox Cunningham, the area’s Westminster MP. When he stood down in 1970 James Molyneaux was pushed into the gap and went to London as an MP with a majority of almost 40,000. In 1974, he became leader of the unionists at Westminster and in 1979 succeeded Harry West as party leader.

In 1983, after constituency re-organisation, he moved to the new Lagan Valley seat, which he represented until he resigned at the 1997 general election. He was knighted in 1996 and given a life peerage a year later.

Molyneaux, who listed his recreations as gardening and music, never married.