LEADING ARTICLE: New broom for Ulster Unionism

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The Independent Online
James Molyneaux's resignation yesterday as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party provides an opportunity. Northern Ireland's Protestants - the majority of whom vote for the UUP - need a fresh start, a leader who will give them new direction. It is time for them to participate in the great changes that are taking place. For the past decade, at least, they have stood on the sidelines as history passed them by - first with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, and more recently with the development of the peace process.

Mr Molyneaux believed he served his people best by working quietly behind the scenes. He was so invisible that even close followers were never quite sure how to pronounce his name. Seeing his role as defending a citadel rather than advancing a cause, he had no grand plan for a political settlement, only a strategy for holding change at bay.

By the time he took over the party leadership in 1979, Unionism had recognised that it would never again enjoy the unchecked power it wielded until 1972, when direct rule from Westminster was imposed. Mr Molyneaux preferred no bread at all to only half a loaf: he showed little real interest in leading his people to the next stage of sharing power with nationalists. Nor did he broaden his party beyond its tribal base: it continues to be almost exclusively Protestant. Rare among politicians, he and his colleagues lost their ambition for power, apparently content to be returned to Parliament without much contest every five years.

That strategy is now discredited. Mr Molyneaux's people no longer believe that they have had a real effect on the progress of events. To a great extent they are right. Britain's chief interest in Northern Ireland is to seek stability. Unionism has in recent years offered little that could help in the pursuit of that aim. It has stayed wedged in the past, championing a fantasy of integration that is draped with imperial nostalgia.

Meanwhile nationalism has begun appealing to a government that would like a political settlement. Dublin has accepted the legitimacy of the Union and even republicans have grown accommodating. These are the people, not the Unionists, with whom London is now doing business. Mr Molyneaux may have had easy access to Downing Street but that has not translated into real influence.

The disappointment is that, after 16 years of Molyneaux, the UUP lacks an inspiring successor. The group of possibles is lacklustre: none of them is distinguished by a pioneering thought. The hope, however, must be that there is a Unionist De Klerk hidden among the rival candidates, a pragmatic politician who is trusted by his people and who can secure a realistic deal for them that accepts the legitimate expectations of Northern Ireland's Catholic minority.

Such a leader would know that his party can never return to its former political dominance in Northern Ireland. Instead, the aim would be to win a real say in the affairs of both Ulster and Ireland - something that Mr Molyneaux, for all his long and committed service, never achieved.