The former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) James Molyneaux died today aged 94. Mr Molyneaux, who in 1997 took on the title of Lord Molyneaux of his native Killead in Co Antrim, was leader of the UUP during quite tempestuous political times from 1979 to 1995.
He joined the Ulster Unionists in 1946 after serving with the RAF during World War II. He was in one of the first British troops to enter the liberated German concentration camp of Belsen.
It was an experience that never left him. Aged 81 he returned to Belfast with a BBC documentary team. “The sense of shock hit you like a tidal wave,” he recalled. “Every step brought further horror. It was the work of the devil.”
As a politician he had a single-minded goal to preserve Northern Ireland within the British union. His style was in direct contrast to that of the other main unionist leader of his time, the Rev Ian Paisley. Where Paisley was loud and bombastic Mr Molyneaux played the part of the "dull old dog of Ulster politics".
But equally he was viewed as canny and clever. He steadily rose through the ranks of the Ulster Unionists, availing of his Orange Order and Royal Black Institution connections to advance his ambitions.
He served as MP for South Antrim form 1970 to 1983 and for Lagan Valley from 1983 to 1997, a seat now held by one of his protégés Jeffrey Donaldson. He took over as leader from Harry West in 1979. Where other unionists pushed for devolution for Northern Ireland, Mr Molyneaux leaned more towards an integrationist line, seeing dangers in local autonomy.
His position here was also influenced by Enoch Powell, whom he admired, and who he brought into the UUP to serve as MP for South Down before he was ousted by the SDLP’s Eddie McGrady.
Mr Molyneaux and Dr Paisley worked together from time to time including in their “Ulster Says No” opposition to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. He was an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, particularly in 1984 when she rejected the New Ireland Forum proposals with her “out out out” remarks. But he was shaken when the following year she signed up to the Anglo-Irish accord.
Opponents within his party were angered that he was not prepared for the signing of the agreement, accusing him of being too deferential to Thatcher and the Conservative Party whom, they believed, led him “up the garden path”.
Unlike Dr Paisley he initially saw potential in the 1993 Downing Street Declaration agreed between British prime minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, and which helped prepare the ground leading to the IRA and loyalist ceasefires and the 1998 Belfast Agreement. This infuriated the DUP leader who dubbed him a “Judas Iscariot”, a taunt that hurt him.
He tried to be magnanimous, saying as a Christian he “would not be unforgiving”. But, he wondered, after the “blow” of such an insult, how could he and Dr Paisley ever work together again. He said, “the problem is, how do we convince the general public ever again when the two of us worked together through all of those dark days, talked together and prayed together and then this happens?”
Mr Molyneaux was also responsible for one of the oddest statements after the first 1994 IRA ceasefire, describing it as one of the most “destabilising” events since “partition”. He later justified that view fearing that the cessation was a republican ruse to expedite attempted moves towards a united Ireland.
In the face of developing heaves inside the Ulster Unionist Party he stood down as leader in 1995 when the UUP was still the dominant unionist party. He was succeeded by David Trimble. In later years, while he would endorse Ulster Unionists such as David Burnside in South Antrim, his sympathy appeared more in line with the DUP’s opposition to the 1998 Belfast Agreement. In retirement he was frequently critical of Mr Trimble.
A bachelor he was knighted in 1996 and made a life peer in 1997 in Queen Elizabeth’s birthday honours list.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt paid tribute. "He brought a stability to the unionist party at a time when it was much needed," he said.
Mr Nesbitt said the UUP had lost “one of its greatest”.
“Lord Molyneaux led the party during some of Northern Ireland’s most bloody and turbulent years, providing leadership not only to the Ulster Unionist Party during that time, but also to the country,” he said.
“He led for 16 years, a remarkable feat given the party had no fewer than four different leaders in the 16 years prior to him taking over. The stability he offered was critical, as was his unbending passion for securing Northern Ireland’s place within the Union. This was particularly key during the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a challenge of seismic proportions within Unionism.”
Mr Nesbitt said Mr Molyneaux's experience in Bergen Belsen stayed with him for the rest of his life. "I believe that experience crystallised the values that guided his political life," he said.
“He was no showman, but a man of immense guile, playing the game of political chess, ignoring the cheap headlines to focus on strategic outcomes.
“The sight of Lord Molyneaux as Ulster Unionist Party leader wearing his medals as he laid the wreath on behalf of the party at the Cenotaph in London every Remembrance Sunday was a powerful image which epitomised the ideals of dignity and service which he embodied.
“On behalf of the party, I give thanks for a long life, well-lived, in dedicated service to the people.”
Additional reporting from Agencies