Lord Molyneaux of Killead obituary


James Molyneaux, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, who has died aged 94, would have made a good Jesuit if he had been a Roman Catholic, according to . It was a back-handed compliment from a noisy contemporary reflecting resentment that, for all his flamboyant demagoguery, Paisley was never able to outwit or eclipse his great rival to become the undisputed leader of the entire unionist community.

Keeping the Paisley from swallowing up the Ulster Unionist party was undoubtedly among Molyneaux’s most significant achievements and his adroit political skills were never more effectively demonstrated than in the way he conducted the oscillating relationship with Paisley who was, at times, an opportunistic ally but, more often, an outspoken adversary and critic who would consistently resort to cruel public teases about the fact that Molyneaux had never married. Such jibes were never returned, although they must have wounded.

But, in turn, Molyneaux was for many years completely hypnotised by . After the controversial Conservative stood down from his Wolverhampton constituency before the February 1974 election, Molyneaux was instrumental in prolonging Powell’s parliamentary career by finding him a safe Unionist berth in South Down. His subsequent influence was so strong that James Prior, the secretary of state of the day, said Powell worked Molyneaux with his foot.

Molyneaux’s leadership of the Ulster Unionist party, from 1979 until 1995, spanned some of the worst violence and political turbulence of the Troubles. Convinced that successive governments were progressively weakening the union between Britain and and setting up the unionists for handover to the Irish Republic, he adopted a political style which he called “dull-dog”. It amounted to a do-nothing strategy in the hope of postponing the evil day.

However, Powell and he were badly caught out by the scope of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed in November 1985. Believing that the then prime minister, , was completely sympathetic to them – Ulster is as British as Finchley, she had said – they therefore treated the London-Dublin negotiations with disdain. In the end they were horrified that Dublin was allowed to establish a diplomatic outpost in Belfast and given a right of consultation about the way Northern Ireland was governed.

With unionist opinion in unprecedented uproar, Molyneaux and Paisley combined to lead the Ulster Says No campaign which took the shape of widespread civil disobedience, but while Paisley openly flirted with the violent extremes of unionism, Molyneaux took great care to avoid any contamination. He anyway believed that quiet background pressure, rather than the sight of masked men marching on the streets, would better serve the unionist cause in achieving a more congenial alternative.

So he resorted to a consistent theme, condemning what he described as “the news industry” for whipping up unreal expectations of a political breakthrough and criticising successive governments for engaging in “high-wire circus acts”. For this he accused “certain not-so-loyal Crown servants” and pro-Irish elements in the Foreign Office of promoting a blueprint to sever the union and force a united Ireland. “I don’t think the people of Northern should be put to the torch every 18 months just to placate a lot of high-flying civil servants whose feet are obviously not on the ground.”

Northern Ireland’s age-old divisions, he explained, could not be ignored by forcing a shotgun marriage between those who are British and those who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, are attracted to the idea of Irishness.

Molyneaux was at heart a shire Conservative. If he had come from any other part of the UK that would have been his political home. He was also an integrationist, who favoured Northern Ireland being ruled in the same way as Wales and Scotland, with nothing more than an administrative regional council being in office in Belfast. He felt the union could best be underpinned and strengthened by real power residing with parliament in London.

In fact he revelled in the atmosphere and pomp of Westminster and enjoyed the perks of being party leader, which included attending state banquets for overseas visitors and taking part in the Remembrance service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Although punctilious about his constituency casework, social obligations and the duties of his leading role in the Orange Order and several associated organisations, he spent every available minute in London, even when parliament was not in session.

He was once characterised as “tight mouth”, by comparison with Paisley’s “big mouth”, and many saw him as a shrewd but dour, unyielding backwoodsman. In private he displayed an impish humour, recounting inside stories from the corridors of power, always with the hint that he knew exactly what was really going on behind the scenes and the implication that he had the ear of the great and the good. This habit became even more marked after he was appointed a Privy Counsellor in 1983, probably the distinction he valued most. “There are things I would like to tell you, but I am bound by confidentiality,” he would say mysteriously. He was an intensely private and discreet man and, although he consulted colleagues, much of his work was indeed conducted in private, if not in secret.

In the latter stages of his political career, and thanks to the sensitivity of his political antennae, he recognised, albeit with great reluctance, that if the union was to be preserved, some institutional links with the south were inevitable. Thus, with the minimum of grace, he led a delegation to Dublin during the abortive inter-party talks in 1992 to test the limits of what would have to be conceded. Nevertheless it was a groundbreaking gesture that will ultimately be hailed as one of the key elements in building the comprehensive peace process in Northern Ireland.

A year later, Molyneaux made another significant move when he endorsed the because “there is no structure within it which can be used to the disadvantage of the greater number of people in Northern Ireland”. His reaction was crucial, for it helped calm deep unionist fears, which were aroused soon afterwards by the revelation that the British government had been inprolonged secret negotiations with the IRA designed to bring about a ceasefire, which eventually was called in 1994.

Molyneaux’s evolving position and “inner-track” approach brought him once more into public discord with his old rival, Paisley, but, for the first time, caused dissent within the ranks of his own party. This resulted in a bruising challenge to his leadership in 1995, when an unknown student attracted a significant protest vote. Molyneaux’s great political instincts told him it was time to go and he voluntarily resigned the leadership a year later, to be replaced by David Trimble.

Son of Sarah (nee Gilmore) and William, Molyneaux was born at Killead, Co Antrim. His father ran a poultry farm and although his son helped out, his real interests were more heavily influenced by his grandfather, James, who would read from the Times and Daily Telegraph over breakfastand discuss world affairs with him. After completing his education at the local Aldergrove public elementary school, where, unusually, the classroom was shared with Catholics, he worked on the family farm until 1941 when, aged 20, he enlisted in the RAF.

During second world war service as an aircraftman, he took part in the landings and helped establish airfields in northern France. Later, he was among the troops who helped liberate Belsen. His unit put up field hospitals for the survivors, an experience that deeply marked him. As he often said later: “You must never show emotion or signs of fear because that will affect others. You need to keep a grip on yourself no matter how deeply hurt you are.”

He returned to civilian life in 1946, going back to the farm which had been heavily depleted by the takeover of land to expand RAF Aldergrove. He also set up a partnership with his uncle in a printing business in nearby Crumlin. Over the next few years, having joined the Orange Order, he was sucked into the political activities of the Unionist party, then at the height of its power and complete influence over life in Northern Ireland.

In 1964 he was voted on to Antrim county council. At the same time, as the honorary secretary of the South Antrim Unionist Association, he became the presence on the ground for Sir Knox Cunningham, the area’s Westminster MP. When Cunningham stood down in 1970, Molyneaux was pushed into the gap and went to London as an MP, with a majority of almost 40,000. In 1974 he became leader of the unionists at Westminster and in 1979 succeeded as party leader. In 1983, after constituency reorganisation, he moved to the new Lagan Valley seat which he represented until he resigned at the 1997 general election. He was knighted in 1996 and was given a life peerage a year later.

He remained politically active for a time thereafter but his activities lacked any consistency. He criticised Trimble, his successor, for supporting the 1998 Good Friday agreement, and endorsed some of his own former colleagues in electoral contests regardless of the fact that they had since defected to Paisley’s Democratic Unionist party.

As his general mobility decreased, the frequency of his trips to Westminster reduced. He made his last speech from the crossbenches in 2006 and the most recent recorded vote was in 2008, supporting a counter-terrorism bill. He took leave of absence four years later.

He retreated from public view to his Killead home, and remained the sole male member of the choir at St Catherine’s, Aldergrove, where he had been baptised. The Church of Ireland (Anglican) church where he was a long-serving elder marked his 90th birthday in 2010 with a surprise after-service tea party.

James Henry Molyneaux, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, politician, born 29 August 1920; died 9 March 2015

This article was amended on 10 March 2015. Enoch Powell stood down from his Wolverhampton constituency before the February 1974 election rather than being rejected by his constituents. St Catherine’s, Aldergrove, is a Church of Ireland (Anglican) church, and not a Presbyterian one.