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Sunday 15 March 2015


Obituary: Politician James Molyneaux

Terrible wartime experiences helped make this brave man a slave to the status quo, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Lord Molyneaux
Lord Molyneaux

TWO people bore the main responsibility for why James Molyneaux, an accidental politician, would drive both the British and Irish governments wild with his caution, his soft-spoken obstinacy, his elliptical language and his political inertia: Adolf Hitler and Ian Paisley.

The young Molyneaux was rather different. Born in Killead, County Antrim in 1920, he was obsessed with the RAF Aldergrove base just down the road. As a teenager, he said, "I had an obsession with the RAF and flying. After school I would perch on the boundary of the camp and watch the trainee pilots at work."

But his environment was conservative and traditional, so at 15 he left school and worked on the family poultry farm. The war gave him his chance: in 1941 he joined the RAF and, as one of a nine-man group of commandos, landed in France before D-Day to find landing sites for Spitfires. In May 1945, he arrived in Belsen three days after its liberation to see skeletal bodies hanging from the electric fences where desperate people had hurled themselves. He would have nightmares for years afterwards, and admitted to being rough with captured SS guards he found still grabbing every chance to torment their victims.

Watching a Polish priest celebrating Mass for survivors who crawled forward to receive the hosts and crawled back to give them to those who couldn't move, he saw it "as truly remarkable proof of the ultimate triumph of good over evil".

Back home, he went into his uncle's small printing and photography business, resumed singing in choir at St Catherine's parish church, and - a convinced Protestant but no bigot - joined the Orange Order and was persuaded to join the Ulster Unionists. Molyneaux was unambitious, but being single, he had time on his hands, so as well as being a Justice of the Peace, he became a local councillor and an election agent.

When the South Antrim MP Sir Samuel Knox Cunningham unexpectedly stood down before the 1970 general election, Molyneaux was drafted in, won a majority of just under 40,000, and as was normal, took the Conservative whip.

In 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday and the worst loyalist and republican violence of the Troubles, Prime Minister Edward Heath imposed direct rule on Northern Ireland, Molyneaux accused him of "doing a Munich", withdrew his support and fell out with his party leader, Brian Faulkner, a risk-taker, when he went into a power-sharing executive with the SDLP.

At Westminster, Molyneaux became close to Enoch Powell, who turned his back on the Conservative Party and became Ulster Unionist Party MP for South Down in 1974, the year Molyneaux ascended to the leadership of the 10-strong Westminster party. Powell encouraged Molyneaux to aspire to the full integration of Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom and implacably oppose any deals with Irish nationalism.

But now the unionist agenda was being set by the Reverend Ian Paisley, who had become an MP the same year as Molyneaux. This roaring bigot was hell-bent on confrontation. After an uneasy period, they fell out completely in 1977 over Paisley's support for loyalist paramilitaries, whom he had incited to strike in favour of the restoration of majoritarian devolved government. Molyneaux's wartime experiences had copper-fastened his belief in the supremacy of law and order, and his unhappy experiences in France with inefficient members of the Resistance had given him a life-long suspicion of private armies that answered to no one.

He would become overall party leader in 1979, once again because there was no obvious candidate; when in doubt, his party opted for the safe hands of the soft-spoken and courteous "Gentleman Jim".

Molyneaux's political life was now focused on trying to keep Ulster unionism out of Paisley's clutches and block any concessions to the IRA over the hunger strikes. Despite two attempts on his life in 1982, he refused personal security. An inveterate haunter of the Westminster tea-rooms and everywhere else where briefers and gossips met, he yet failed to predict the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, and in anger at what he perceived as Margaret Thatcher's treachery, allied himself with Paisley until the violence of the protest campaign shocked him into ceasing any cooperation. They would maintain an uneasy relationship until Paisley denounced him as Judas Iscariot.

Molyneaux would succeed in keeping his party together and maintaining its dominance in the years ahead, but though he had always been able to secure small concessions from British governments, he could not stop the drive towards further accommodation between the British and Irish governments.

A man who had seen hell in his youth, he had made a religion out of maintaining the status quo. Deeply distrustful of the motives of the IRA, he said of its first ceasefire in 1994, that "it started destabilising the whole population in Northern Ireland." This was widely denounced as a shocking anti-peace sentiment, but it was true, for while unionists had won the war, republicans - being united, ruthless and armed - were in a far better position to extract concessions from the peace.

On shifting ground, a reluctant Molyneaux had to give up the leadership in 1995. David Trimble had the vision that the old man lacked, and would strike a good deal for unionism, but he failed to keep his party with him not least because Molyneaux could not resist plotting against him in the background.

In retirement, Molyneaux, who was unmarried, would contribute massively to the destabilising of his old party. He spent his last years among those with whom he had been brought up, singing on Sundays in the same choir and succumbing gently to Alzheimer's in a care home.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards