When James Molyneaux stepped down as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in 1995 a colleague remarked: “Jim’s greatest asset was that his political opponents very rarely became his personal enemies.”
It was an asset which helped him secure the leadership in September 1979, when the party was looking for a steadying, safe pair of hands, after a decade which had seen it go through four leaders and come under increasing pressure from the Democratic Unionist Party.
And it was that asset which probably helped him to remain leader after the Anglo-Irish Agreement crisis of 1985, when there had been widespread criticism of his (and Ian Paisley’s) failure to either predict or stop “Northern Ireland’s shift from being an integral part of the United Kingdom to being the subject of a joint sovereignty arrangement with the Irish Republic”.
He was, in every sense of the term, a quiet man. So quiet, in fact, that even some of his closest colleagues complained that they were never entirely certain where he stood on a particular issue. During the early years of his leadership, when the party was divided by the integration versus devolution debate, both sides believed that he backed them.
Yet this quiet approach – regarded by some as a deliberate contrast to the louder tactics of Ian Paisley – was, in reality, how he viewed leadership. He recognised that the UUP, always a coalition of interests rather than a party built around a clearly defined socio/economic agenda, needed to be “managed” rather than just led.
His management ensured that the UUP remained reasonably united under his leadership and – apart from the Euro elections and the local government elections of 1981 – it remained comfortably ahead of the DUP.
He was, in every sense of the term, a quiet man. So quiet, in fact, that even some of his closest colleagues complained that they were never entirely certain where he stood on a particular issue
In the end, though, mere management was never going to be enough. The Ulster Unionist Party needed a very clearly defined strategy and agenda to cope with new political realities in Northern Ireland. It needed internal reform and overhaul, new ways of campaigning and communicating and some plan for attracting a new, younger generation into its ranks.
Above and beyond all else it needed ‘new thinking’. Yet from as early as 1981 onwards key members of the party began, albeit quietly, to voice concerns about the ‘sense of drift’ within the party, the sense that it was reacting to events and not setting the agenda.
His downfall was both brutal and, in some ways, humiliating. He was challenged for the leadership in March 1995 by a 21-one year old member of the Young Unionists, who succeeded in taking 15 per cent of the vote. A few months later, on June 15, the UUP candidate, despite very strong on-the-ground support from Molyneaux, lost out to a former UUP member in the North Down Westminster by-election. On August 28, his 75th birthday, he resigned as party leader. He was knighted in 1996 and in 1997, after standing down as MP for Lagan Valley, he was created Baron Molyneaux of Killead.
James Henry Molyneaux was born on August 28, 1920 in Killead, Co Antrim. As a child he briefly attended a local Catholic school, telling an interviewer years later: “You have to understand that there were no buses and trains to get to school where I was so I went to the nearest school. I was allowed to be present at the Mass, sit in on R.E. lessons and even Confirmation classes. I would read a book at the back and the younger catechumens would turn round and say ‘What’s the answer Jim?’.”
Even though he was to attain very senior positions within the Ulster Unionist Party and also the Orange and Royal Black institutions, Molyneaux enjoyed a reputation as someone who didn’t allow his judgments to be clouded by the sort of sectarian mindset often associated with unionist politicians.
One of his earliest influences was his paternal grandfather, for whom he used to collect the Daily Telegraph and Times from the local railway station, returning home to discuss national and international politics.
He left school at 15, though, and helped out on the family farms, before joining the RAF in 1941. In May 1945 he was one of the first people to see the horrors of Belsen: “The British liberators were staggered and shocked by the inhuman behaviour of some of the former guards, who continued to abuse and torment prisoners nearing death when they assumed we were looking the other way. I confess that on such occasions I may have breached the Geneva Convention to prevent further ill treatment of helpless victims. Their behaviour after we had arrived contradicted the excuse that the SS had forced them to carry out orders. Our new orders to them were ‘Stop acting like savages’.”
It was this experience which shaped his view of terrorism. When the IRA declared a ceasefire in 1994, he noted: “Increasingly, the general public weakens in its resolve. Under the label of moderation, it is fashionable to plead for understanding; to do a Chamberlain and settle for a piece of crumpled paper in the mistaken belief that the word of dictators and terrorists can be trusted. Today, we should reflect on our responsibilities, and those of our governments, to stand up to the prejudice and tyranny that can still, today, lead to genocide.”
After the war he became a partner in his uncle’s printing business, joining his local Unionist branch and taking an increasing interest in politics. He served on Antrim County Council in the 1950s and 60s, becoming MP for South Antrim in 1970.
Part of his later success can be attributed to this victory, because when the United Ulster Unionist Coalition was created in 1974 (in reaction to the Sunningdale Agreement) he became its leader in the House of Commons because so many of the February 1974 intake were new to Westminster.
This high-profile role and experience of top-table politics gave him the edge over Robert Bradford and Austin Ardill in the September 1979 leadership contest to replace Harry West.
Before he became leader, Molyneaux had developed very good relationships with Margaret Thatcher (while she was still leader of the Opposition) and Enoch Powell, who had defected from the Conservatives and become an Ulster Unionist MP in October 1974. He believed Mrs Thatcher shared his integrationist viewpoint and he was deeply disappointed when she opted for devolution-focused inter-party talks in 1980: so disappointed, in fact, that he vetoed UUP participation.
This decision created problems for his party, with many key figures believing that he was too influenced by Powell and, consequently, watering down the UUP’s traditional support for devolution. His preference for integration may have been influenced by the fact that he never sat in the Stormont Parliament and, by his own admission, found the 1982-86 Assembly to be “tremendously dull stuff”.
There were also concerns expressed when the DUP (having topped the Euro poll in 1979) polled marginally more than the UUP in the 1981 local government elections. But Molyneaux refused to get involved in what he used to describe as the ‘high wire politics’ of the DUP; and as the UUP rebuilt its lead over them any serious challenge to his leadership evaporated.
That’s not to say that there weren’t continuing concerns within the UUP, particularly when it became clear that, along with the DUP, it had been kept out of the loop on the negotiations leading up to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Indeed, on a number of occasions in 1985 Molyneaux insisted that ‘no such Agreement’ was being discussed.
What saved his leadership on that occasion was that no other figure of substance within the party had sounded any warnings, either. But having to enter another coalition with the DUP represented a personal setback for him.
It’s probably fair to say that Molyneaux never fully recovered from the damage done to unionism by the 1985 Agreement. His claims to have had a “special relationship” with Mrs Thatcher and key elements of the Conservative Party (he was a senior member of the Monday Club at the time) seemed pretty hollow. Having done very little in terms of policy options and strategy between 1979 and 1985 there was a sense that the UUP had been stranded by events.
Even in the run-up to the Brooke-Mayhew Talks in 1991/2 Molyneaux remained lukewarm on devolution. And when Mrs Thatcher had been replaced by John Major and Major required UUP support to counter the anti-European wing of his party in 1993, the general view was that Molyneaux failed to secure a strong enough deal in return for the UUP’s votes.
When he was succeeded by David Trimble in September he made it clear that he wasn’t happy with the decision to stay in talks with Sinn Fein in the autumn of 1997 and he was similarly unhappy with the Good Friday Agreement: so much so that he endorsed anti-Agreement Ulster Unionist candidates and also a number of DUP candidates between 1998 and 2005. He was to claim that his legacy was a “UUP which was strong, united and clearly ahead of the DUP. Under my watch it remained the largest party in Northern Ireland”.
Yet many within the party would argue that his leadership represented a ‘long period of drift,’ during which key decisions weren’t made, the party wasn’t modernised and too many factions were allowed to organise their own agendas in the background. Much of that criticism may be valid, but when he left office the UUP had nine MPs, over 200 councillors and 30 per cent of the vote.
Had it not been for the Troubles it is unlikely that James Molyneaux would ever have been leader of the UUP. He was not an instinctive politician, lacking oratorical and debating skill and rarely made much of an impact in media interviews. He was a naturally reticent and modest person and for many people he seemed to be too ‘laid back’ in his approach to politics generally and the UUP in particular. Yet that’s probably what the party needed in 1979 and why they chose him.
That he stayed too long in the job is undeniably true, but it is also true that the sheer charm, understatement and unflappability of the man may often have prevented bad situations from becoming very much worse.