Profile: The blocking game: James Molyneaux - David McKittrick on the low-decibel, dogged persistence of the Ulster Unionists' leader

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IT IS a measure of James Molyneaux's low public profile that, even among his own Ulster Unionist supporters, nobody is quite certain how to pronounce his name. Some sound the final syllable as an 'O' and some as a 'U', while some mealy-mouthed compromisers attempt a muffled half-way house.

The man's reticence and modesty is such that he never bothers to correct anyone's pronunciation. An MP for 23 years, Ulster Unionist leader for 14 years, his style is one of quietly industrious effort. Even his closest supporters admit that he rarely shines in public. He is not a telling debater, not a fiery orator, not a persuasive advocate for Unionism, not an inspiring ambassador for his cause.

The contrast with his rival for the Unionist vote, the Rev Ian Paisley, could not be greater. It is one that Downing Street is trying to exploit. All this week the Government has been making it known how impossible it has proved to do business with Mr Paisley. Part of the purpose of this is to suggest that Mr Molyneaux is much more flexible and reasonable.

John Major has every reason to flatter and court Mr Molyneaux. It is not just that the Ulster Unionist leader may hold the key to the ultimate prize, for a British Prime Minister, of bringing peace at last to Northern Ireland. It is also that he is leader of a nine-strong group of MPs (Mr Paisley has three) whose lobby support is desperately needed by a Prime Minister with a small majority and restless backbenchers.

But if he is pinning his hopes on Mr Molyneaux, Mr Major should not be misled by appearances. True, Mr Molyneaux cannot compete with Mr Paisley in decibels. He is unfailingly courteous rather than boorish, business- like rather than blustering, not given to temper tantrums. But if the Government thinks he is likely to approve of pacific gestures towards nationalists or republicans, a glance at his background should dispel any such illusions.

There are many Unionist politicians more extreme than James Molyneaux, who is not noted for rabid anti-Catholic statements. But he is one of the leaders of the Orange Order and Sovereign Grand Master of its Royal Black Preceptory. His party is a strictly tribal one: it has no known Catholic members.

He has been a member of Ballynadrenta Loyal Orange Lodge for more than 40 years. His father and grandfather were Orangemen before him. His entry into politics came by accident when, one night not long after the war, he was round at the Orange hall helping to fix the heating. Some Unionist ladies gave him a cup of tea and prevailed on him to join the party, a membership that has lasted almost half a century.

JAMES Henry Molyneaux was born in 1920, the son of poultry farmers who lived at Crumlin, Co Antrim, not far from Belfast. He left school at 15, helping with the hens and turkeys before joining the RAF in 1941. He landed in France on D-day. He suffered from nightmares for years after arriving at a concentration camp three days after its liberation.

After the war he became a partner in his uncle's printing business while working his way through the Unionist grass roots. His progress was not meteoric: politics moved at a glacial pace before the Troubles, and it was 24 years before he reached the Commons.

Since 1970 Westminster has been Mr Molyneaux's life. A bachelor with few interests outside politics, he spends most of the week there. He was never a member of the Stormont parliament in Belfast, and has no interest in reestablishing such a body. The party and Unionism in general had suffered serious setbacks during the 1970s, and was in bad shape when the party leadership fell to Mr Molyneaux in 1979. It was and still is a party with various disparate factions and personalities, and Mr Molyneaux's first priority was to provide a sense of unity. He went about this task in what seemed at the time an almost leisurely way, but results became apparent within a few years.

In particular he had considerable success in fending off the attacks of Mr Paisley and his Democratic Unionist party, which for more than a decade had been eating into Ulster Unionist support with its more strident Unionism. The 1981 election was a photo- finish between the two parties, but the story ever since has been one of gradual DUP decline and steady UUP consolidation.

Mr Molyneaux and Mr Paisley, who have been unkindly described as the Laurel and Hardy of Unionism, are deadly rivals. Yet at times they have formed tactical alliances and during one period in the mid- Eighties they stood back to back to help each other ward off assaults from young Turks in their parties.

Mr Paisley appears to be the dominant partner in the relationship, always first to the microphone. Mr Molyneaux's detractors complain that he is colourless and uninspiring, yet he is the undisputed winner of the perpetual power struggle between the two parties.

This is all the more intriguing because no one is quite sure how he does it. He has never mastered the art of the soundbite, and his speeches are often puzzling rather than inspiring. Some of his judgements seem so eccentric that he seems capable of a high degree of self-delusion: in 1985, for example, he convinced himself that the Anglo-Irish agreement would not happen, and was personally shattered when it did. A veteran political correspondent said: 'Covering Molyneaux is about as exciting as watching grass grow. Half the time he's not entirely coherent, difficult to pin down, he talks in riddles . . . but then he has this hidden tenacity, this ability to survive and to do down Paisley.'

Few close observers of Northern Ireland politics believe Mr Molyneaux is more accommodating than his larger and louder rival.

As a convinced integrationist, his basic position is that political activity should as much as possible be confined to Westminster, and that if this were done with sufficient determination nationalists and republicans would eventually settle down in a British context.

He believes that devolution to some new Belfast institution would be dangerous for the union. He has described the idea of powersharing as unnatural and abnormal. This does not augur well for the Government's hopes of restarting meaningful inter-party talks, for Mr Molyneaux does not want to go down that road. The concessions he hopes to extract from John Major, such as a Commons select committee and legislative changes, are designed to concentrate activity in London.

For tactical reasons, however, he has not joined Mr Paisley in declaring that he will not attend any talks, for this would both offend the devolutionists within his party and embarrass Mr Major. His restraint on this point means the government can continue to claim the inter-party talks avenue has some prospect of success.

Among Irish nationalists Mr Molyneaux does not have the status of a hate figure. But his penchant for doing business via Westminster, preferably with a weak Prime Minister, is seen as a mechanism to avoid having to do serious political business with Catholics and nationalists.

One nationalist politician complained: 'He's so dead. He has elevated inertia to an art form. There's no give there, no jizz - he just won't engage with us.' To Irish nationalists he offers British citizenship and no special recognition for the Irish Republic, characterising the south as a foreign country. It is an essentially defensive position: he once likened his job to that of 'a general with an army that isn't making anything much in terms of territorial gains but has the satisfaction of repulsing all attacks on the citadel.'

His principal political characteristic, in fact, is that of immobility. 'He remains inert,' a British official complained some years ago. This blocking game has clearly served him well within his party and within Unionism, but it has won few new friends for his cause.

One Tory who knows and likes him said: 'Watching him with other Conservatives can be a bit embarrassing. He tends to mutter and to talk very obliquely and circuitously. MPs tend to think he's probably a good egg, but he doesn't connect very well.' A close associate says that he is markedly more cheerful since he reached his understanding with the Tories: 'He's got the smiling face now, he's in very happy form.'

MR MAJOR's mounting enthusiasm for the union arises not from Mr Molyneaux's powers of persuasion but from parliamentary weakness. Mr Molyneaux has been a lifetime opponent of both nationalism and of boldness. His advice to Mr Major on the Irish peace process will undoubtedly be to have nothing to do with it, for he will regard it as a foolhardy and dangerous exercise.

Mr Major may well, empirically, reach a similar conclusion. But if he does turn down the peace process as proffered by the Irish government and the SDLP's John Hume, Irish nationalists will be angry. This will especially be the case if they conclude he has done so not on the merits of the case but because he finds himself obligated to a 73-year-old member of Ballynadrenta Loyal Orange Lodge.

(Photograph omitted)