Unionist leadership battle puts peace process at risk

NO OTHER party leader is as welcome at 10 Downing Street as James Molyneaux, the veteran Ulster Unionist who served as an RAF pilot when the Prime Minister was still in nappies.

But when Mr Molyneaux arrived at 2pm last Monday suffering from flu, the special relationship so pivotal to the Northern Ireland peace process looked as sickly as he did. Five days earlier, two prominent Unionist MPs, John Taylor and David Trimble, had broken ranks, threatening to end their party's relationship with the Government and failing to support the Tories in a crucial division. Three days later, Mr Molyneaux himself had denounced the joint British and Irish proposals for Northern Ireland, known as the "framework document".

In the event Mr Molyneaux's meeting with Mr Major (his first since before Christmas) passed off amicably enough. The following day he met Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Ken Maginnis, the security spokesman, had also seen Mr Major and the Cabinet Chief Secretary, Jonathan Aitken. By Wednesday, a happier-looking Mr Molyneaux was joking with colleagues in a party meeting.

But many believe that the genie is not quite back in the bottle, and that the tensions shown in the past two weeks could develop into full-blown Unionist split or derail the peace process. The strains reflect two factors: fears that the unionist population will react negatively to the framework document, and the openness of the struggle to succeed 74-year-old Mr Molyneaux as party leader.

The first signs of the difficulties emerged at a meeting of the Ulster Unionist officers on Friday the 13th, when Mr Molyneaux made clear his growing reservations about the framework document's scope. With Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party implacably opposed, it was vital that the Ulster Unionists should not be seen to be the party of the sell-out. Yet, fears were growing that the Unionists were to be presented with a paper in which cross-border bodies, dealing with areas such as tourism and the environment, would be given too much power.

The following day, apparently without Mr Molyneaux's blessing, Mr Taylor went public with a speech in Mr Trimble's constituency which threatened to end the parliamentary support of the nine-strong party for Mr Major - an arrangement in place since July 1993. A Unionist-inspired Sunday newspaper story, claiming that the cross-border bodies would have wide executive powers, allowed Mr Trimble to get in on the act, supporting Mr Taylor when asked for his reaction.

On Wednesday, 18 January, Westminster's most disciplined parliamentary party split. To the fury of some of their colleagues the two MPs defied the party's chief whip and abstained rather than supporting the Government over fisheries. One source describedMr Taylor as inconsistent and unprincipled - "one day he wants to burn Dublin down, the next he's congratulating the Irish premier on his moves to peace". Apparently outflanked, Mr Molyneaux joined the chorus just over a week ago, denouncing the document being drawn up by a "little mafia of civil servants" in a radio interview.

Unionists are, indeed, worried that the document will be unsellable to their supporters. As one source said last week: "There must not be too many specific powers in it because, if there are, we will not be able to negotiate around them."

But the Unionist's position is not as strong as it appears. Could they really cause a general election, knowing that a Labour government would have the parliamentary majority to ignore them? And how would opinion on the mainland and in the US react to the spectacle of Unionist obstructionism while the IRA is refraining from violence?

Mr Molyneaux's age, however, means that some of the candidates to succeed him see an opportunity to be gained from striking a hardline position. Mr Taylor and Mr Trimble may be manoeuvring to enable them to distance themselves from the framework documentif it gets a negative reception from the unionist community. One source said: "He will deny it but Mr Taylor is undoubtedly keen to succeed. That is why he is publicising his whereabouts."

The noises from Mr Taylor must be especially ominous for the party leader. The wily Mr Molyneaux will be aware that when, in 1974, Brian Faulkner was under attack from his Ulster Unionist Party for backing a deal which gave too much to the Irish, the motion that caused him to resign from the leadership was moved by none other than Mr Taylor.

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