FAREWELL LORD JIM

UUP leader James Molyneaux being filmed at a rally by RTÉ News cameraman John Coughlan. Looks like mid-1980s. Photo: Press Association/BBC website

UUP leader James Molyneaux being filmed at a rally by my former colleague RTÉ News cameraman John Coughlan. Judging by the camera, it looks like mid-1980s.  Photo: Press Association/BBC website

I was sorry to hear of the passing of the former Ulster Unionist Party leader (1979-85), Lord Molyneaux. He was always a very courteous man, willing to give interviews to RTÉ News to put across his party’s position. He never came across well on television, however, but that did not bother him much, I reckon. A few years before I retired (so that must be at least six years ago) a former reporter passed on a hint that Jim (as he was usually referred to) was on his last legs and that it might be time to prepare an obituary. Thankfully he remained with us for many more years and died at the age of 94.

Among the things that I remember about Lord Molyneaux are that he served during the Second World War in the Royal Air Force and was among a group of Allies that liberated  Belsen concentration camp in 1945. There is a very powerful description of this event in a documentary made by the BBC a few years ago. He was an Orangeman, who served for a time as Sovereign Grand Master of the Royal Black Preceptory (1971-95).   He was from Killead, beside Aldergrove in County Antrim. While his health allowed him, he used to join in the choir on Sundays at the local parish church beside the former RAF base. The BBC’s Mark Devenport has filed a very good obituary on their website.

James Molyneaux, M.P. at an Orange rally  Photo: Press Association/BBC website

James Molyneaux, M.P. at an Orange rally Photo: Press Association/BBC website

His political career spanned more than three decades. He joined the party in 1946 and went on to become one of its longest-serving leaders from 1979 to 1995. At the end of World War Two, he was among the first British troops to enter the newly liberated Belsen concentration camp in Germany. He was knighted in 1996 and was granted a life peerage in the 1997 Birthday Honours list, becoming Lord Molyneaux of Killead.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt said: “He brought a stability to the unionist party at a time when it was much needed. “Times were fraught, not just in terms of the exceptional level of barbaric terrorism that was being imposed upon the people of Northern Ireland, but this very difficult political situation where the then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher was persuaded to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement with the government of the Republic of Ireland, which was incredibly destabilising for Northern Ireland.”

James Molyneaux held his party together in the face of a continued challenge from DUP leader Ian Paisley. He was MP for South Antrim from 1970 to 1983 and for Lagan Valley from 1983 to 1997. In 1979, he succeeded Harry West as UUP leader.

Lord Trimble, who succeeded Lord Molyneaux as Ulster Unionist leader in 1995, said: “He was one who did things quietly and consensually – there was plenty of discussion about the way in which things were evolving – there was a collective leadership and it was effective.”

Current DUP leader Peter Robinson said Lord Molyneaux was “first and foremost a committed unionist”.
“Through his service in the RAF in World War Two and 27 years as a member of parliament, he was marked by a quiet determination and diplomacy,” he said.
“Jim’s leadership encompassed many difficult years for unionism and his skills were key to ensuring that the Ulster Unionist Party held together when there were competing viewpoints about how to move forward.”

Former Prime Minister John Major described Lord Molyneaux as one of the “unsung heroes of the peace process”. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, paid tribute to his “fortitude, courage and unswerving commitment to democracy”. “It is right that we remember his distinguished years of public service, as a parliamentarian and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party,” she added. “In that role he helped to steer Northern Ireland through its darkest days from the 1970s to the 1990s and for that we should all be grateful.”

President Michael D Higgins said Lord Molyneaux became an “icon in the Unionist tradition” and would be missed by many “who were appreciative of a life devoted to public service and the world of politics”.  Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said: “Famously, he described the 1994 IRA cessation as one of the most destabilising events for unionism and the Orange state since partition, and he campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement. “We had obvious and strong political differences, but this is a sad time for Mr Molyneaux’s family and friends and I wish to extend on my own behalf and that of Sinn Féin our condolences and sympathy to them.”

Ulster Unionist assembly member Danny Kennedy said: “He fought for our nation in war, and gave strong and determined leadership in the most difficult period of our country’s history. “He was highly regarded and respected as leader of our party, and his legacy remains in the values he represented and passed on.”
Former Ulster Unionist MP Lord Kilclooney said: “He was a quiet man of politics, but a very genuine gentleman who gave great leadership to the Ulster Unionist Party at a time when it was riven by division.”
Pat Ramsey of the SDLP paid tribute to Lord Molyneaux’s “distinguished career”. “For many years he was a household name and a key player in Northern Irish politics,” he told the Assembly.

Alliance Party leader David Ford said Lord Molyneaux’s experience at the liberation of Belsen “must have touched him enormously and gave him a commitment and drive for public service”. He told the Assembly: “He was the leader of his party for 16 years, something that few of us in this chamber can appreciate exactly how he managed to do this, and he certainly had an impact over some of the most turbulent years in this region as he carried through that role of leadership.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said: “He was a giant in our political scene who moved through it in that quiet, unassuming way that characterised him, and he was above all, a unionist through and through.”
Ulster Unionist Party chairman Lord Empey said: “Affectionately known to his senior colleagues as ‘the wee man’, Jim Molyneaux was never one to be carried away by the high offices he held over the years.
“Whether as a long serving member of parliament, as party leader or as a member of the House of Lords, Jim was always a no-frills politician.”

UNIONIST DIS-UNITY

Mike Nesbitt

Mike Nesbitt

What happens next is what happens next”   That’s my nomination for quote of the week. You can now see why ex media star Mike Nesbitt is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. His ability to state the obvious with ease and not answer any difficult questions from interviewers, now that he is on the other side of the microphone or the camera. Mike had been asked on BBC’s Good Morning Ulster (1:58:00) about the future direction of the UUP and whether there would be other agreed unionist candidiates in future elections. The question arose following the resignation from the party last night of former deputy leader John McCallister MLA, over the UUP/DUP decision to run an agreed unionist candidate in the Mid-Ulster by-election, which I wrote about yesterday. Mr Nesbitt described the move as a “one-off”, but some wondered if it would just be the start of the end for the UUP and its amalgamation with the larger party led by Peter Robinson.

Then came a second bombshell for the UUP. Lagan Valley Basil McCrea MLA did an interview with the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster in which he announced his resignation. He hinted that plans were underway for the formation of a new “opposition” party along with Mr McCallister and the East Londonderry independent MLA David McClarty (formerly UUP).

Mr McClarty told the same programme on the BBC anybody who was a betting person would have put their money on John and Basil going at some stage. It happened extremely quickly, and it wrong-footed an awful lot of people, he said.  Mr McClarty said the UUP had lost its way. The Ulster Unionist Party is sending out mixed messages; they want to be progressive and pluralist, he said, yet they really have now turned this bye-election into a sectarian head count and we’re back to tribal politics. The three will be keeping in contact over the next few weeks and it remains to be seen what plans they will come up with.

One of the criticisms made by Basil McCrea was that the choice of one candidate on the unionist side (who is unlikely to win the seat anyway, given the current level of support for nationalist parties) would lead to a sectarian dogfight on the campaign trail. DUP leader Peter Robinson rejected this and said unionism was not sectarian.

The agreed unionist representative is Nigel Lutton, an orangeman who has worked with Protestant victims’ groups and whose father was shot dead by the IRA in 1979, shortly after he had left the RUC Reserve. Sinn Féin are putting forward Francie Molloy and the SDLP candidate is deputy party leader Patsy McGlone.

Patsy McGlone

Patsy McGlone

He hit out at the decision by the two unionist party leaders to back Mr Lutton and said it had the potential to reduce the by-election into a bitter sectarian struggle, echoing the views of Basil McCrea. He felt it would only create deeper tribalism. He claimed that Mike Nesbitt was leading the Ulster Unionist Party into electoral oblivion and was denying the electorate a choice. Eric Bullick will run for the Alliance party.

UNIONIST UNITY?

ToryUUPAnyone remember UCUNF? An electoral pact reuniting the Conservative and Ulster Unionist parties in 2009 for the European Parliament election. Jim Nicholson was elected an MEP under this banner of Ulster Conservatives and Unionists — New Force. Although he is a member of the ECR group, his personal website now lists him as a UUP member, following the demise of the arrangement in June 2012.  The UCUNF banner was also used in the Westminster general election in 2010, but the alliance failed to deliver even one MP.

Reg Empey resigned as UUP leader and is now  on the Conservative benches in the House of Lords along with a predecessor, David Trimble. Sir Reg was replaced by Fermanagh/South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott, who stood down in 2012. The UUP elected former UTV presenter Mike Nesbitt as leader. He has had a difficult job to keep the party together. An ongoing row with Basil McCrea that resulted in the Lagan Valley MLA being ticked off after an internal disciplinary hearing.

Basil McCrea MLA

Basil McCrea

Then there was the loss of moderate unionist David McClarty, who was deselected by the party for the Assembly election in May 2011. David McNarry resigned from the party in January 2012 and now sits in the Assembly as a member of UKIP. Tonight comes the news that South Down MLA John McCallister has resigned from the UUP and will sit as an independent unionist. He told the party leader:

“Your determination to act in concert with the DUP – over parades, flags and Forum – has significantly contributed to forcing Northern Ireland politics back into the sectarian trenches”.

Mr McCallister made a very interesting speech last month to a heritage group across the border in Killanny, Co.Louth (near Carrickmacross, Co.Monaghan) in which he hit out at plans for a unionist forum to deal with the flags issue. He described it as a “cul-de-sac” for unionism.

At the same time as this leakage from the Ulster Unionist Assembly mainstream, the UUP leader is talking to the DUP leader Peter Robinson, first of all in the context of the Forum and now in a move towards electoral unity in a constituency west of the Bann. The two leaders announced their selection of a joint unionist candidate for the Mid-Ulster bye-election. This is the Westminster “seat” held, but not taken up by, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister. The man who has the backing of Mr Robinson and Mr Nesbitt is Nigel Lutton, whose father, a 39 year-old RUC Reservist, was shot dead by the IRA in 1979.

Nigel Lutton (centre) -- DUP picture

Nigel Lutton (centre) — DUP picture

Francie Molloy has been chosen by Sinn Féin to contest the election.  I look forward to reading some of the analysis in the morning about the implications of the latest developments within unionist politics.