The inch by inch man: Unionist leader James Molyneaux has the Prime Minister's ear and his own meticulous agenda, says Stephen Castle

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The Independent Online
IN THE dining room of the House of Commons the Ulster Unionists have their own table, positioned between those usually claimed by Conservatives and their Labour colleagues. Among the responsibilities of the Government's Northern Ireland whip is the job of persuading Tory backbenchers to go and make sure the Unionists never eat alone.

A year after reaching their 'understanding' with John Major, the Ulster Unionists are still backing him. Unlike Ian Paisley, James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader, comes in and out of Number 10 with the minimum of fuss. His views are regularly fed into the Downing Street machine via Roderick Lyne, the Prime Minister's adviser on Northern Ireland who, in return, explains the Prime Minister's thinking. The relationship between the two leaders is so good, said one source, that Mr Molyneaux 'can see the Prime Minister more or less when he likes'.

Yet, as the Commons dining arrangements show, the Ulster Unionists are still a party apart. The Tories may still offically call themselves the Conservative and Unionist Party, but the full title is rarely used these days. Likewise, Mr Major may have spent the last general election campaign defending the Union, but what he had in mind was Scotland, not Northern Ireland.

In fact the modern Conservative Party thinks very rarely about the province if it can avoid it. As one ex-minister put it: 'The Conservative backbench Northern Ireland committee on Monday nights used to be a big thing. There were people like John Biffen and Ian Gow who represented a big constitutency - MPs who were seriously interested in Northern Ireland and were thinking about it. Now there are just a handful. The truth is that people do not go to Northern Ireland and that includes politicians. It's like a distant colony, and that has taken its toll.'

Nor are the Unionist MPs on quite the same wavelength as their mainland colleagues. One Conservative deeply committed to the Union conceded: 'A couple of them are teetotal. The fact is that they are from slightly puritanical Protestant stock, and inevitably they don't offer quite such good company as can be found, for example, at the Irish embassy.'

For most of its existence the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was closely integrated into the Tory party. Until the early part of the century MPs representing Irish constituencies who supported the Union sat, as a group, with the Conservative Party. The party was founded out of the Ulster Unionist Council, set up at a meeting in Belfast in 1904.

It was not unusual for Unionist MPs to take positions in Conservative governments, and this extended to a senior level. In the 1950s and early 1960s the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was the Unionist MP for South Antrim, Sir Knox Cunningham. As late as 1972-74 an Ulster Unionist MP, Sir Robert Chichester- Clark, was a minister of state in Edward Heath's government. But the stormy politics of the province between 1972 and 1974 produced huge strains, culminating in the Sunningdale agreement in 1974 and the Unionist rejection of the Tory whip. Despite an improvement in relations after 1979, worse disagreement was to come over Margaret Thatcher's 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. After what the Unionists saw as a betrayal by a Conservative prime minister they trusted, all organisational links were severed.

Since the early 1980s the party has reformed itself into a disciplined political force at Westminster. To the Ulster Unionist MPs the House of Commons is the centre of political life. It is not a party interested in acting as a pressure group to mobilise mainland opinion, nor does it deploy the public relations paraphernalia of modern parties, with their spin doctors and advertising.

Mr Molyneaux, with a wealth of parliamentary experience, attaches a rather touching importance to the legislative process - the minutiae of Orders in Council, the establishment of the Northern Ireland select committee (a symbol that the province is being governed like the rest of the United Kingdom). One MP said: 'Our political creed gives us a commitment to Westminster as our parliament. There is the added incentive that at the moment our votes are rather important.'

By contrast, Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionists (DUP) have always played shamelessly to the gallery of Protestant public opinion in the province, attempting to maximise their vote by being consistently more hardline than the UUP. The DUP, which claims to have greater working class appeal, is dominated by Mr Paisley. Relations between the two parties have deteriorated badly since the Euro-elections, when the DUP leader likened Mr Molyneaux to Judas Iscariot.

The UUP owes its cohesion in part to a common attachment to Westminster, but it also has a large debt to the leadership of 74-year-old Mr Molyneaux, who has been in charge through repeated dramas over the past 15 years. Mr Molyneaux, who is unmarried, served in the RAF in the Second World War and is more energetic than his age would suggest. He is, joked one colleague, 'a wee wiry chap with the advantage of having no wife'.

The current leadership grew out of right-wing opposition to Brian Faulkner, who split the party to join the short- lived power-sharing executive, toppled by a loyalist strike in 1974. In the years that followed, the Faulkner tendency withered away, but Unionists were still divided between those who backed devolution and the return of Stormont in some form, and those who believed that the government of Northern Ireland should be integrated with the government of the rest of the UK. Pressure from Mr Paisley's DUP, founded in 1971, and the emerging leadership of Mr Molyneaux, helped keep them together.

The exception was the maverick Sir James Kilfedder, who resigned from the party in 1979. A committed devolutionist, and now the chairman of the Northern Ireland select committee, Sir James represents the relatively well-heeled North Down constituency. According to one source, he is 'the only man who can get elected without either a proper party, or evidence of an election campaign, behind him'.

Mr Molyneaux's handling of the Maastricht issue is a good example of his political skill. It was only in the late 1980s that the Ulster Unionists modified their visceral hostility to Europe and in many early Maastricht divisions the Unionists followed their instincts and sided with the Eurosceptics.

Towards the end of the Bill's passage, however, Mr Molyneaux's nine MPs entered into their understanding with Mr Major, which involved saving him from defeat by backing Maastricht. Typically, the decision was made at a meeting in the leader's office at the Commons at which the issues were discussed exhaustively (while anxious Tories sweated) before ending in a unanimous agreement only 10 minutes before a crucial division.

Unity is the more remarkable since the party contains a broad range of views. William Ross, the party's chief whip, for example, is located some way to the right of Ken Maginnis, the centre-left security spokesman. One Unionist MP argues that, philosphically, most of his colleagues are quite close to the Tories before adding, pointedly, that the Conservative Party is 'such a broad church that anyone can find a friend or two there'. Occasionally, however, there is conflict with Tory policy, such as opposition to water privatisation.

These, however, are not the sort of issues which stir the hearts of Unionist politicians, as attendance at any party conference will show. As one observer put it: 'When they're debating social policy things are very slow. Then when it comes to debate on the constitution or security, the hall fills up and suddenly everyone wants to speak.' The glue that holds them together is not shared convictions on social or economic policy but a common determination to preserve the position of Northern Ireland within the UK.

Despite strength in Westminster, a direct line to Number 10 and about 2,000 councillors in local government in the province, the Ulster Unionists still fail to give the impression of a vibrant party. Their leadership is older than those of the other Commons parties - at the Cenotaph each November, Mr Molyneaux is conspicuous as the only party leader laying a wreath who actually fought in the Second World War.

And the Troubles have taken their toll. Northern Ireland politics is bitter and dangerous, and often appears barren, so it is little wonder that few find it an attractive career. One source said: 'Twenty years ago the party hierachy would have included the great and good of the province, Major X or the Earl of Y. That doesn't happen now.'

The powers of local councillors are restricted; the Secretary of State, for example, sets the principal rates (the province was spared the poll and council tax). This means there is little incentive for talented people to enter politics. For those who do become involved, and get all the way to Westminster, there is little turnover of seats. 'If, at the age of 40, I was elected to North Down,' said another source, 'I could look forward to 35 years in Parliament.' That might be a pleasant enough prospect for one individual, but it places a block on the renewal of talent.

The election in 1992 of David Trimble, an articulate lawyer and possible future leader, has given the parliamentary party a much-needed fillip through his frequent media appearances. Neverthless, the succession to Mr Molyneaux is a very open race, with other contenders likely to include Mr Maginnis, John Taylor, Mr Ross and, perhaps, the party chairman, Jim Nicholson, who is an MEP.

In the meantime Mr Molyneaux appears to hold the key to the success or failure of the current process. His nine MPs know what kind of deal could be sold to mainstream Unionists back home, and at the same time their votes and the 'understanding' provide them with influence over Mr Major.

At the moment there appear to be few potential Tory backbench rebels on Ireland - MPs such as Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, Nicholas Budgen and David Wilshire - and they are unlikely to cause trouble while Mr Molyneaux and Mr Major remain on good terms. They will not want to be seen as Tory Paisleyites. But the prospect of an Ulster Unionist Party screaming 'betrayal]' would be a different matter. One UUP MP said: 'If you scratch the Tories they will unite behind the Union. The only problem is that they are slow to show their colours.'