The Anglo-Irish Agreement and a serious dearth of talent within the UUP helped to keep Jim Molyneaux in post as Ulster Unionist leader despite internal unhappiness at his leadership, according to a confidential NIO report.
The 10-page assessment of the UUP, which was drawn up in 1988 and has been declassified at the Public Records Office in Belfast, was withering about Mr Molyneaux’s leadership, yet surmised that he faced little likelihood of a serious challenge.
The UUP leader was to remain in post for another seven years until mounting internal dissatisfaction at his leadership led the then 21-year-old Lee Reynolds – now a DUP strategist – to challenge him for the leadership and critically destabilise his position.
The 1988 briefing paper described Mr Molyneaux, who died last year, as “a prime manipulator of his party” who “knows how (by a wink and a nod) to express his views and opinions and convey the impression clearly and equally to all that he will accommodate each of their points of view”.
It added: “Also, by recognising the weakness of any of the other potential leaders, both in terms of charisma and real political ability, he has managed to convince most of those of influence within the Executive Committee and his Parliament colleagues that any other candidate would be a disaster so that he has effectively placed himself beyond challenge.
“This however shows that his purpose in staying in leadership is solely to retain leadership but not to lead.
“He clearly lacks the courage or indeed the conviction to do anything which might be readily construed as constructive or forward looking or in any way likely to break the political deadlock.”
It also described Mr Molyneaux as possessing “a rather small petty mind”.
Discussing potential rivals, the paper said that John Taylor’s “association with a right-wing group in Europe has ensured that he will never be the leader”, while Robert McCartney was no longer a member of the party and Frank Millar had recently quit politics.
It said that Harold McCusker’s prominent role in the Task Force Report (alongside Peter Robinson) had “tainted” him within the UUP and said that “many of the rest of the MPs are nonentities”.
The report went on: “It is more or less by a process of elimination therefore rather than by a process of selection (plus the probable backing of the Orange Order) that Martin Smyth is recognised as the heir-apparent should Molyneaux fall under the proverbial bus.
“The very lack of talent among the party is of course one of the strong cards that has kept Molyneaux leader for so long.”
Yet the author said that an unintended consequence of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement had been to strengthen Mr Molyneaux’s position because those “who might have reservations about the leader have remained faithful on the basis that now is not the time for change”.
The assessment of the UUP’s policies said that on security the party wanted more draconian legislation and action such as selective internment and relaxation of the Army’s yellow card rules of engagement, but that “their ideas are unstructured and often reflect the general frustration that often follows a particular terrorist outrage”.
Unionism ‘less a philosophy than a tradition’
Unionism was more of a tradition than a political philosophy, the NIO assessment suggested.
It said: “Because the Unionist Party was [born out of] opposition to Home Rule, and post-partition opposition to unification, much of unionist thinking stems from a negative, not-an-inch, perception rather than any forward-looking plan for progress or policies formed around a central core of political thinking.
“Thus it has been said that unionist is not a political philosophy but a tradition.
“Therefore, there has never been a cohesive political philosophy which united them in the way that conventional political parties are bound together.”
Questioning the quality of governance provided by the Unionist Party in the decades after partition, the author, whose identity is unclear, said that the Unionist Party had “expected, as of right, to be the Party of Government but not necessarily the party who governed”.
He went on: “However, insofar as they had a philosophy, broadly speaking the party line would have been fairly far right of centre, allied with an inflexibility and reaction against change of any sort – all of this based on the principle that any change might rock the applecart.”