GERARD HOWLIN: Molyneaux, steadfast in pursuit of a single objective — the union

James Molyneaux: His passing puts into sharp relief the dilemma of unionism on these islands.

James Molyneaux stood out as old school even in the heart of the establishment, writes Gerard Howlin

ON MONDAY the integrationist unionist tradition died with James Molyneaux. A former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and the last representative of the officer class to lead unionism, his passing coincides with a critical juncture for the cohesion of the United Kingdom. His lifetime 1920 – 2015 began in an Ireland constitutionally united, under the British crown and governed from Westminster. He lived to see all-island institutions exercise executive authority and Ian Paisley in government with Sinn Féin.

More presciently the very union of Great Britain itself, is now in question. Molyneaux, an RAF officer, was one of the first liberators to enter the Belsen concentration camp. People of an age remember him standing at the Cenotaph beside the prime ministers his leadership coincided with: James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Bedecked with medals Molyneaux stood out as old school even in the heart of the establishment. In one sense the policy of integration he staked his leadership on failed completely. In the longer run perhaps he was right. Devolution in its many iterations, in Northern Ireland, in Scotland and Wales may be the most insidious threat to the union not nationalism on the Celtic fringes. It has via the West Lothian question, certainly accentuated English nationalism. The ultimate counter point to the Union Jack is not the Irish tricolour, but the St Georges Cross.

Molyneaux was steadfast in pursuit of a single objective; the union. If his focus was narrow, perhaps the more because of it, he had a clear sense of what he wanted, and what the dangers to it were. He wanted the status quo. He understood the danger of change, within the densely interdependent political ecosystem of a united kingdom. He failed strategically because just as Northern unionists at his birth jettisoned their southern counterparts, he lived to see the once Conservative and Unionist Party under Margaret Thatcher deal him a deadly reputational blow and sign the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985.

His influence at Westminster was once substantial. Callaghan as a prime minister who had lost his majority depended on him for a period, and similarly John Major. Molyneaux like Parnell may have held the fate of British government’s momentarily in his hands, but though an expert tactician he never gained the strategic advantage he hoped for.

His passing puts into sharp relief the dilemma of unionism on these islands. He pursued integration for Northern Ireland for largely the same reasons the Act of Union was passed originally. Ultimately only London could guarantee the union. That for him was the lesson of Sunningdale and the Troubles. If theologically pristine, it wasn’t practical politics. British interest in a power-sharing settlement trumped its interest in the union. Unionism was dealt first the blow of the Anglo-Irish agreement and, as Molyneaux saw it, the Good Friday Agreement as well. Others saw the latter and the St Andrews agreement as guarantors of the union; he disagreed.

In parallel, Scottish and Welsh devolution became a reality. Major cultural change unfolded. The centrality of Protestantism to the wider British identity continually diminished. The end of empire removed another common bond of loyalty and pride. Every country has foundational myths, however newly minted. British mythology which excited steadfast adherence, rested on empire, Protestantism and monarchy. The monarch remains but not much else. Instead, the constituent parts of the British identity, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland loom ever larger in public identity. In the 2011 census in Northern Ireland 40% identified themselves as British; 25% as Irish; and 21% said they were Northern Irish. The latter figure indicates a complexity about identity that does not augur well for the survival of nineteenth-century identity politics, in the twentieth-first century. It also makes sense in light of this week’s squabble about spending within the Northern Ireland Executive.

But ultimately the West Lothian question may loom largest. It was raised by Tam Dalyell a unionist and Labour MP for that Scottish constituency. How, after devolution he asked, could he legislate on purely English matters, when English MPs could not legislate similarly for Scotland and Wales. If Dalyell framed the question, it was Molyneaux’s mentor, Ulster unionist MP Enoch Powell who named it. No way out of that dilemma has since been found since for a United Kingdom, where power is devolved to its constituent parts. The conundrum deepens, with additional devolution promised for Scotland, a reckoning for promises made at the last minute to stave off an apparently imminent vote for independence. All the while, English nationalism is rising. The St George’s Cross is increasingly fluttering where the Union Jack once did. It’s less a symbol of pride, than the loss of it.

Some of it has to do with the loss of identity, and the blighting of a once vast industrial infrastructure. As Britain has slowly lost full adherence to its once-great identity, newly shared concerns have been found. Immigrants and the European Union are focal points for an emerging English, as distinct from a British crisis of identity. Both are decades old, and distinct from constitutional issues of devolution, but have ripened together.

Yesterday as James Molyneaux lay dead but not yet buried, Sir Bill Cash MP appeared before the Oirechtas Committee on EU Affairs. Chaired by the Labour TD Dominic Hannigan it has for weeks been holding hearings about a possible British exit from the EU. If David Cameron is re-elected on May 7 a referendum will be held as soon as 2016. Its outcome is uncertain but, if approved, has profound consequences for Ireland.

Cash, a civilised man according to those who know him, is one of the “bastards” who disabled John Major’s premiership by opposition to the Maastricht Treaty. Together with UKIP outside the Conservative Party, and fellow travellers within it, he is part of the political calculation that prompted Cameron to promise a referendum, rather than risk a corrosive internal split which so damaged Major.

It is questionable if Great Britain can remain a united kingdom, after leaving the EU. Middle class Scotland, accustomed to voting SNP, held back from independence. With the UK outside the EU their verdict would be not be so sure.

In any event greater devolution puts ever greater strain on the union. And if the union with Scotland falters, it does not augur well for union with Northern Ireland. Unlike the DUP which was always focused on striding atop the dung heap of local politics, Molyneaux and Powell peered into the abyss over which the union was poised, and tried to pull back. They understood the question, but in the end could offer no answer. Full integration could never pacify Northern Ireland. Great Britain, simultaneously devolving government, and exiting Europe puts back into the melting pot the political unions within its kingdoms that were 500 years in the making.


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