Battle begins for leadership of Ulster Unionists

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The Independent Online

Ireland Correspondent

Two of the four main challengers for James Molyneaux's job could be regarded as traditional candidates who basically offer more of the same, while the other two would represent something of a leap in the dark.

The choice of the next leader will therefore depend partly on his personality but also on the direction he is likely to take the party. This makes the outcome difficult to predict, since opinion within the Ulster Unionist Party appears particularly fragmented at the moment.

The party has deliberately sidelined itself in the peace process, which Mr Molyneaux described at the weekend as phoney. Almost all its major figures have been distrustful of it.

The two front-runners are the MPs John Taylor, traditionally regarded as a hardliner, and Ken Maginnis, generally acknowledged as the leader of the party's liberal wing. Both men are 57.

The conventional wisdom has been that Mr Taylor was favourite to take over as leader, but some doubt was cast on this at the weekend by an opinion poll which gave Mr Maginnis 39 per cent, well ahead the Rev Martin Smyth's 14 per cent, Mr Taylor's 13 per cent, and only 3 per cent for William Ross MP. This pattern was said to hold both for the population at large and for UUP supporters.

Mr Taylor is one of Northern Ireland's most experienced politicians, having been a member of the Stormont parliament in Belfast in the Sixties and a former member of the European assembly. The MP for Strangford, Co Down, is regarded as being on the right of the party.

But his reputation as an unpredictable individualist who often goes against the official party line has given rise to a theory that, if elected, he could emerge as a De Klerk figure, and become the first mainstream Unionist to lead his people into a historic new compromise arrangement.

Mr Maginnis, by contrast, has always had a reputation as the most moderate figure in the party hierarchy. In the past decade he has become an unofficial ambassador from the party to the Irish Republic, being prepared to argue his party's case in the south.

Unusually, he attended the inauguration of the Republic's president, Mary Robinson, and was present at the installation of the Catholic primate of All-Ireland, Cardinal Cahal Daly. He is also the party's most effective performer on television, as he demonstrated in the United States in a head-to-head with Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader. His instinct would be to seek a new accommodation with the nationalists.

Mr Smyth, 64, and Mr Ross, 59, are both traditionalists who shun negotiations and accommodation. As well as being MP for Belfast South, Mr Smyth is head of the Orange Order. Mr Ross, who is a farmer and MP for Londonderry East, is said to be preferred by Mr Molyneaux. He is also said to enjoy more support among the activists who will elect the leader. The chances of both men lie in the party concluding that it wants no radical departures in its approach.