Molyneaux's cheeky challenger faces return to obscurity

Unionism/ end of an era?
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The Independent Online
LAST week Lee Reynolds contemplated his prospects and glumly concluded: "My political future is over." Given that it is generally the fate of stalking horses to be booted out of the stable, he is probably correct.

Mr Reynolds was the darkest of dark horses: scarcely a political observer had heard of him before he declared, out of the blue, that he was prepared to take on James Molyneaux.

It was an audacious move but, despite its relative success, it probably means his career is over before it could begin. Many in the Ulster Unionist Party believe that the long Molyneaux era is also over, but will shy away from the hand that wields the dagger.

For both contestants in yesterday's election, 1974 was an eventful year. For Mr Molyneaux, it was when he began his sojourn as leader of the Unionist parliamentary party, the MPs at Westminster; for Mr Reynolds, it was the year of its birth.

Mr Molyneaux is 53 years older than his challenger, has led his party as a whole since 1979, and had never before faced a contest for the leadership. He is a courtly politician and his is a sedate, slow-moving party: were it otherwise, his leadership would have been called into question long before now.

He will know that many of those who voted for him yesterday did so largely to give him the chance of staging a more dignified exit in the autumn. In other words, the widespread assumption is that the Molyneaux era effectively came to an end with the publication of the framework document.

Lee Reynolds's challenge yesterday was a sign that many of the party's younger elements regard that era as one of stagnation, complacency and ultimate failure. In his indictment of Mr Molyneaux, he declared: "The leadership record is one of successive defeats and an ongoing weakening of the union.

"I have no personal animosity towards the present leader, but he has totally miscalculated the Government's intentions and misled the pro-union majority as to the security of the union.

"The party leadership has regularly precipitated crises by its incompetence. It has then used each crisis as an excuse for stifling criticism and debate in the interests of party unity. Every time, Northern Ireland is pushed further to the edge of the union."

Before the vote Mr Reynolds was well aware that his support would rest on such arguments rather than on his record since, in essence, he has no record. He is 21, and about to graduate from Queen's University, Belfast, in economic and social history. Beyond that, he had only ever turned up in the past as an associate of Ray Smallwoods, a one-time gunman with the Ulster Defence Association who in the early Eighties shot and nearly killed the former MP Bernadette McAliskey.

Mr Smallwoods, who subsequently went political and headed the Ulster Democratic Party, was shot dead by the IRA last July. Asked last week about his relationship with the UDP, Mr Reynolds said he had been friendly with Mr Smallwoods but had never been a UDP member.

Unionist MP Ken Maginnis attacked Mr Reynolds as having "half a brain", but when the latter met the media last week he was noticeably more articulate than many of the Unionist MPs. He responded to such attacks: "I know I am stepping on people's toes by doing this. I expected vilification when I started."

He also insisted that he was not acting on behalf of any of the half- dozen or so potential successors to Mr Molyneaux. He went into yesterday's contest nervous and suffering from stress headaches. He said: "I certainly intend to remain a party member, but my activism will probably drop off because I'm hoping to find employment and settle down and have a few kids."

Selling the Ulster Unionists, Inside Story, page19