Unionists in peace deal backlash

Vote signals `beginning of end for Molyneaux'
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The Independent Online
THE UNIONIST backlash against the Northern Ireland peace process made itself felt yesterday when a young, almost unknown, "stalking horse" candidate scored unexpectedly highly in a leadership challenge to James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist party leader.

As Anglo-American discord over the Washington visit of Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, continued, and yet another delay in the long-awaited phone call between John Major and Bill Clinton, the position of Mr Molyneaux, formerly Mr Major's staunchest ally in Ulster, was emphatically, and probably fatally, undermined.

Lee Reynolds, 21, won double the number of votes he had been expected to take at the annual general meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in Belfast. The result was 521-88, with 10 spoiled ballot papers.

Mr Molyneaux, who for the past 15 years has been elected unopposed, said yesterday he had no intention of resigning.

The central criticism aimed at him is that he relied on his supposed "special relationship" with John Major, but publication of the recent Northern Ireland Framework Document showed he had failed to influence the Prime Minister.

At a news conference yesterday, Mr Molyneaux, asked whether he intended to lead the party into the next election, replied: "At the moment yes, but things can change." At another point, however, he indicated he had no intention of resigning.

"It was the ceasefire announcement that started de-stabilising the whole population in Northern Ireland. It was not an occasion for celebration, quite the opposite," he told the news conference. He described the vote as "people taking a kick at John Major through me". He said he was confident he would be party leader in a year's time if he wanted to be.

The Reynolds camp was delighted with the result. Mr Reynolds said: "Jim Molyneaux should now seriously consider his position with a view to standing down. A fortnight ago I was a nobody, but I managed to get almost a hundred votes. The vote said Molyneaux should go."

Two principal contenders waiting in the wings are William Ross and John Taylor: Mr Ross is a traditional Unionist, who is regarded as the epitome of the "not an inch" philosophy; and, Mr Taylor, by contrast, is regarded as something of a maverick individualist. Neither Mr Ross nor Mr Taylor, as leader, would be likely to show any more enthusiasm for the peace process than Mr Molyneaux.

President Clinton's recent enthusiasm for it, however, was yesterday still causing stress in transatlantic relations, described in Washington as the worst since Suez. The much-heralded and much delayed phone call to mend fences between him and Mr Major yet again failed to happen. Sources said it had been postponed until this afternoon.

British officials said the most convenient time for the two men to speak was towards the end of the weekend because of their "diaries and movements". One said Mr Major had "got some engagements" in his constituency today. But a spokesman for Conservative Central Office said he had "not been told Mr Major was doing anything in particular today".

However, there are signs that British ministers are likely to be holding face-to-face talks with Sinn Fein, before Mr Major visits Washington at the beginning of April.

Downing Street confirmed that an agenda for face-to-face talks between British ministers and Sinn Fein has been sent to Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness. The Government is holding out for a firm commitment that Sinn Fein is serious about the issue of decommissioning, but no reply has been received yet.

With government sources expecting ministerial talks within the next two weeks, Sinn Fein Northern Ireland chairman Mitchel McLoughlin said prospects of a face-to-face meeting with British ministers had "certainly improved".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I very much look forward to that engagement, which I believe is an essential element in consolidating the gains made already."

Lee Reynolds, page 3

Selling Unionists, page 19

Leading article, page 26