Molyneaux swept aside by the tide of change

David McKittrick looks at a leader's long life in politics
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The Independent Online
James Molyneaux may today be reflecting on his old friend and mentor Enoch Powell's bleak observation that all political careers end in failure.

Mr Molyneaux will judge his long career on one point above all others: the state of the union between Northern Ireland and Britain. The condition of that union, and its prospects, is unlikely to give him great cheer.

His quarter-century in the Commons was dedicated to strengthening the union, cementing British sovereignty over Northern Ireland and keeping the Irish Republic at bay. Yet the union today has changed dramatically, and not in the way he favours.

When he entered Parliament in 1970 Unionists routinely described Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom. The union is still there, but it has taken on a distinctly green tinge and has been viewed by successive British governments through an Anglo- Irish prism.

Despite being leader of the largest party in Northern Ireland, Mr Molyneaux evaded for a decade and a half not only the limelight but also many forms of political activity. He was generally uninterested in talks and negotiations, regularly decrying summitry and inter-party talks. He believed, with Mr Powell, that the focal point of politics should be at Westminster rather than Belfast.

He believed in the integration of Northern Ireland and Britain, hoping to help bring this about by obscure changes in parliamentary procedure. While other politicians were immersed in momentous developments such as the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement and last year's IRA ceasefire, Mr Molyneaux was concentrating on Orders in Council and select committees.

He failed to convince even a majority of his own party that such arcane matters were the real stuff of politics, but since no one else within Unionism offered a more promising alternative approach, he remained as leader for 16 years. Within his own party his integrationism is now largely regarded as an idea whose time has gone.

A series of errors over the past year made Mr Molyneaux's departure inevitable. He went along with the Downing Street Declaration because he did not believe that the IRA would halt its campaign.

He thought he had a hold on John Major because of the Prime Minister's slender Commons majority, but Mr Major produced a blueprint for the future, the framework document, which proposed ever-closer links with the Republic. Then the party threw away a by-election, in North Down, which it could have won.

To his credit, Mr Molyneaux always opposed the use of violence, a temptation which not all loyalist politicians have resisted. But, in common with other Unionist leaders, he had no "big idea" which could have got Unionism off the defensive and provide it with a new vision.