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27 June 2003

OPINION: Gentleman Jim and his legacy to Trimble

Jim MolyneauxPEOPLE in power don't want to retire.

We're all familiar with committee chairmen who won't quit until they're dead or businessmen who have to be sacked. 

Politicians fiercely shut their eyes as their sell-by dates pass by: in recent times, in national politics, Edward Heath and Maggie Thatcher had to be overthrown. 

Northern Ireland's political leaders are almost impossible to dislodge. 

Ian Paisley, at 77, clings on grimly to the DUP leadership and double-jobs as MP and MEP. 

After 22 years, under great pressure, John Hume handed over to Mark Durkan, but - though he's an old 66 - he hangs on to his two seats. 

Compared to them, Jim Molyneaux has been as modest as he looks. 

True, he didn't go until, at 75, he realised he wouldn't survive a second leadership challenge but at least he's been content with a Lords' seat in Westminster.

The many people who liked polite, humorous Gentleman Jim were pleased that he could enjoy his old age pottering around Parliament. Others, who knew him better, feared he would busy himself behind the scenes undermining his successor. 

"Jim is sour", they said, "and Jeffrey very impressionable". And this week they were proved right. 

There at the Press conference at which three losers threw half their toys out of their pram, stood the 82-year-old Baron Molyneaux of Killead, looking on contently as his party split over an issue of stunning irrelevance. 

I've always been kind about Molyneaux since I first met him in the early 1990s. Sure, he had been an aimless non-event as UUP leader, but he was a nice old man and I'm soft-hearted. 

But since he's now presenting himself as a defender of a community betrayed by David Trimble, we need to remember his record. 

From 1979, when he became leader, Molyneaux was a blind and deaf caretaker: it was he who let the Anglo-Irish Agreement happen on his watch. 

As Trimble in his column in Fortnight magazine was warning a sell-out was imminent, Molyneaux was certain all was well. 

Back home – as a party member put it - he was telling the grass-roots that "one of the Queen's corgis licked my hand and I think we all know what this means for the future of our country.

In the Commons, on November 7, 1985, he told MPs that it was recognised by all involved in negotiations with the Irish that it was "sheer folly to imagine that any Dublin government could deliver on anti-terrorist promises." 

It was certainly folly, but that folly had not been recognised, which is why, eight days later, Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the belief the IRA would be dealt with and gave the Irish their first chance to meddle in the government of Northern Ireland. 

"Why did you go behind the backs of unionists?" I asked Irish diplomats afterwards.

"They don't negotiate," they said, most of them gleefully. 

The protests got nowhere, Paisley went on shouting, and Molyneaux tucked his head more comfortably into the sand. 

I remember a conference where a sympathetic State Department official begged Trimble, a new MP, to get his leader to go to the US urgently and make the unionist case before it was too late. 

Trimble was forced to explain that Molyneaux's other commitments (which turned out to be Royal Black Preceptory business in the Antipodes) made this impossible for the foreseeable future. 

By the time Molyneaux got round to making a brief visit to Washington, the Clinton administration was in thrall to John Hume. 

Afraid of doing the wrong thing, the quiet man of Ulster politics did nothing except invent a phrase - "the greater number" - which Westminster never understood. 

The political ineptitude of Molyneaux and Paisley let the forces of greenery advance unchecked: denial and bluster let through the Downing Street Declaration and the Framework Document and their boycotting of the Irish Forum for Peace and Reconciliation smoothed the way to the pan-nationalist front. 

Joint authority was within the grasp of the Irish when Trimble arrived and blocked it. Weakened by the refusal of the DUP and Robert McCartney to stay at the negotiation table, he and his colleagues held the line and forced the Irish government and even republicans reluctantly to accept the principle of consent that has copper-fastened the Union. 

Trimble grew in office, faced down Sinn Fein, won respect internationally, made a case for unionism the world could understand and was awarded a Nobel prize. 

The UUP split has made a lot of people happy, most notably Dublin, republicans and the DUP, who don't care what happens to the province as long as they get to be the biggest party. 

Human nature being what it is, it is understandable Molyneaux would resent a successor who didn't do things his way. 

Still, it's a shame, Jim, that to get your revenge, you were prepared to sacrifice the greater number.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards