ROBBIE LOW: The Interview

James Molyneaux MP

A late January morning and a mist engulfed most of London and thickened by the banks of the Thames; not enough to merit the title “fog” but more than adequate for the discomfort of the growing legion of asthmatics.

The long walk down Whitehall culminates in vast subterranean villages of workmen and equipment that make up the Jubilee Line extension and seem to ring the Houses of Parliament like some mighty siegework. Churchill glowers over the jib of a sunken crane while Canning affects a patrician disdain for artisan debris that rubs shoulders with his plinth. And Downing Street, the while, languishes behind the great portcullis that is her inheritance from “the Troubles”.

The delay at Commons security is occasioned by an American visitor who sets off so many alarm bells that he either has a head full of gold teeth or an Uzi concealed in his mackintosh. My pyx, stock, keys and rosary pass through without comment and, on the nail, I stumble to the statue of Gladstone and wait.

I should say, at this point, that I have tried to confirm the appointment and been told, very politely, by his secretary that “Mr Molyneaux keeps his own diary.” The significance of this would become clear later. I need not have worried. There across the great hall seated quietly like a humble constituent was the familiar figure of James Molyneaux - the quietly spoken and gracious leader of Ulster for so many of her most difficult years.

The first five minutes of our time together was taken in the labyrinthine journey through the corridors of newly refurbished M.P.’s rooms which now have all the historical ambience of a Little Chef. The, already loose, brass door handles were straight from the B & Q nouveau riche, turn left at the gold taps, department. En route to his room “YS” and known as “the Yellow Submarine”, the public face of the cautious and deliberate statesman was relaxed and humorous. We paused at the office of his unexpected successor, David Trimble, upon whom the mantle and burden had fallen and then on to the business in hand.

Jim Molyneaux lives on the same farm where he was born in 1920. At the end of his father's field, four hundred yards from the house, was the Roman Catholic church and school. The early 18th century parish church of St Catherine, Killead was a mile and a half away. In the middle of the sprawling rural parish had grown the R.A.F. base of Aldergrove. Successive rectors were honorary chaplains and the Army Air Corps had come to regard St Catherine's as their garrison church. Jim had always been involved.

With the Roman Catholic church and school at the end of your land you must have had some early contact with the other community?

“You have to understand that there were no buses and trains to get to school where I was so I went to the nearest school”

You were educated at a Roman Catholic school?

“Oh yes. All my early education was there. I was allowed to be present at the Mass, sit in on R.E. lessons and even Confirmation classes. I would read a book at the back and the younger catechumens would turn round and say 'What’s the answer Jim?'

Just recently a very senior member of Parliament and catholic convert introduced me to a meeting as 'a typical Ulsterman'. I had to explain that I was not and that even if he was content with the modern liturgy I for one deeply regretted the passing of the Latin Mass!”

(Molyneaux clearly enjoys this story, partly because it wrongfoots everyone, but also because it reveals at a stroke that the English simplification of Ulster’s problems into simple tribalism and ignorance is a profound misreading of history.)

Who was your greatest influence as a youngster?

“My paternal grandfather. A farm accident had left him with a clawed hand of very little use but he was a great one for world affairs. Most people. if they read, took the Belfast Telegraph. I used to be sent down to the station to collect the Daily Telegraph and Times from Mr Henry the Station master. Grandad would go through all the news with me. I can remember discussions about Snowden and the consequences of going off the Gold Standard.”

What about the Faith?

“The Revd. Lloyd Dodd was Rector for most of my early years. A very practical man, but also a scholar, his brother was a professor at Queen's. He had a way of getting the message across. I remember my confirmation clearly. We combined with the neighbouring parish of Glenavy and the Bishop was Macneice, father of the poet.

“Defend O Lord Thy servant with Thy heavenly grace.” I was very struck by the laying on of hands and those words have carried me through war and troubles ever since.”

(There is the briefest of pauses, almost unnoticeable, as Molyneaux traverses just what those words have carried him through. Twenty years of parish ministry teaches the dullest priest that, at the bedside of the dying, it is the ancient liturgies that are recalled and form the prayer holds into the greater life. It is difficult to imagine the “committee speak” of the ASB or the ghastly banalities of the modern Roman rite speaking similarly, deep unto deep, in the hour of adversity.)

And after school?

“There was the option of further education but help was needed on both farms. My grandmother was a good country woman and kept the poultry. Then, with the coming of the war there was a need for emergency transport to build the runways, so I had extra work organising horses and carts.”

And the War?

“My family wanted me to stay on the land but I wanted to volunteer. The bombing of Belfast finally persuaded them I should go.”

(Stand on Cavehill and gaze across the vast expanse of Belfast and the Lough and you can begin to imagine the havoc the Nazi bombers wrought. It is etched on the memory of every Ulsterman old enough to remember. Out of curiosity I looked it up in seven different volumes of World War II history in my shelves, and Belfast does not rate a mention. It is an indication of the English myopia towards the Province.)

Where did you serve?

“Always non-commissioned, I started in 1941 in Aberdeen, then to Grantham and finally the newly formed R.A.F. regiment.”

(The regiment was formed to do jobs for the R.A.F. that the Army couldn’t or wouldn’t do. They are the equivalent of the Marines or the S.A.S. Molyneaux doesn’t say this, but I have some of them in my Parish and they are tough cookies.)

“I was taken off and trained with a small squad for Normandy but then, as usual, everything in my life seemed to happen by accident or perhaps divine providence. An armored car driver got appendicitis and suddenly I was transferred from working for a nitpicker to being under a senior officer who had little regard for higher authority. If he thought it would be more fun or produce better results he would do it another way. The world changed!”

(Molyneaux, like most of his generation, is reticent with war memories, the excitements and the sadness pass in a discreet phrase or momentary distraction of the eye.)

How did you get into politics?

“Another accident really. Three months after demob I was giving a friend a hand mending the heating of the local hall. The Women’s branch of the local Unionist Party were meeting in the ante room and offered us a cup of tea. They decided to make it a mixed branch and the lady Chairman became President and I was elected Chairman. All a bit of a shock as I wasn’t even a member. From then on I was rapidly into constituency business, policy matters, the executive committee and onto the speakers list.”

How did you take to public speaking?

“I was sent to speak in South Tyrone and thought a great deal about what I would say. Then I was told that 'we will decide what you say and type it out. You will simply read it.' It was a dreadful half hour. At the end of the meeting I was asked to go and speak to a lady in a wheelchair at the front. 'I hope you get better soon', I blurted out. 'And I hope you get better soon' she replied!”

You never married?

“No. By the time I came home many of my contemporaries were spoken for. Perhaps its been a mistake to be so involved but I don’t think any marriage would have survived my single minded commitment to political life. My diary governs my life, I don’t think a wife would have tolerated that.”

(There is a telling story about Molyneaux’s diary. During one of the Ulster crises he was rung by the T.V. (on Saturday) to be told that he would be flown into London on Sunday to appear on the show of one of the most self important commentators on national life. He explained he already had a full diary that day. 'You don’t understand' said the researcher, 'this is much more important and Mr ...... never fails to get the person he wants.'

'“Well, my dear' Molyneaux replied 'there is always a first time' and replaced the receiver. On Sunday he attended two church services as planned and made a promised visit to a youth club.)

When did you first realise the Troubles had returned?

“There were various spurts in the 50s and 60s, the shooting up of the frontier police stations etc. One of my friends was told by an IRA leader, 'we must get a major campaign going before our people are demoralised by the welfare state.' When the Civil Rights campaign got going many people were slow to see the gunmen was in the shadows.”

How have you lived with the extreme security needed?

“I didn’t until 1982. Then there was a bomb on the office windowsill and we moved to the back room until it was defused. On the way out I drove round the police cordon and scraped a concrete rubbish bin. This later turned out to contain a second bomb. When I returned from speaking in Lisburn they had found a bomb at my sister-in-law's house. At that point I accepted their kind offer of security.”

How did you become Leader?

“In 1974, by accident. Harry West had lost his seat and everyone assumed it would be between Powell, Paisley and Craig. I assumed I would remain Chief Whip. Their supporters couldn’t agree and a couple of younger men proposed me and they agreed.”

(The story, at the time, was that, assuming Molyneaux to be a cipher, the “prima donnas” as they were tagged, started to divide up the briefs. Molyneaux told them he would see them each for ten minutes that afternoon and, while he would do his best, the decisions were his. There was a sharp intake of breath throughout, broken by Powell slapping his thigh and saying “Well, that’s what a party leader is for!”)

Why is the religious problem so intractable?

“In England people say 'We’re all Christians'. In Ireland a Protestant understands the differences between Holy Communion and Mass. Besides ecumenism always breakdown on Vatican inflexibility.”

Haven’t they, in fact come an enormous distance?

“I agree. In fact John XX111 worried some Protestants. They thought if he kept going there would be no need for a difference.”

(There is in this remark a neat analysis of the tragedy coupled with a self deprecating humour. There is no doubt that, despite ancient suspicions, the present Pope’s conservative moral teaching would find strong support in Protestant hearts. The Province regards the sickness of liberalism in the Churches of England and Ireland as a dire warning. Molyneaux is known to be greatly disappointed by the monotony with which evangelical bishops succumb to the liberal agenda.)

Many christians would see membership of Masonry as inimical to the Christian Faith?

(Molyneaux is Deputy Grand Master of the Orange Order and Sovereign Grand Master of Commonwealth Royal Black Institution.)

“First of all the Orange Order is not connected to Freemasonry. In Northern Ireland the churches are buttressed by the Order. We have always resisted the temptation to be an alternative, and men are exhorted to go to church. The Order is a Christian institution, we begin and end with worship and there is genuine interaction between our study of scripture and our Sunday worship in church. One of my first acts was to disconnect it from politics.”

(Since the ceasefire over a dozen Orange halls have been burnt down.)

Do you think ceasefire will become peace?

“The Downing Street Declaration has enshrined a little phrase of mine - the greater number. This may seem insignificant to you but it is not. If you use the language of 'majority' and 'minority' you reopen all the old wounds and imply a permanently divided community, almost unnoticeably. The fact is that, regardless of religions or cultural allegiance the greater number want to remain in the U.K. The most recent survey figures showed over 84%. The reason my be anything from loyalty to the Union to simple economics.”

(Molyneaux doesn’t say this, but many Catholics are aware of the huge cost of living in Eire and that without EU subsidy it would be perilously close to the economics of a banana republic.)

“Fr. Denis Faul said recently that catholics can live with the greater number principle. The trouble is successive British governments are obsessed with “round the table talks”. They just encourage people to get back into slit trenches while you ask them which country they would like to belong to and demand that they all make public compromises.”

So what’s the answer?

“Working together. We need more control over our own affairs now. Give us an administrative assembly that has to deliver a service. The joint declaration has given us the fireguard - the principle of consent - now let's get a job done together - it's far more effective than any lecture in abstract political philosophy.”

And the Protestant terrorists and Sinn Fein IRA?

“If you widen the areas of dissent it is more difficult to reach agreement.”

(A story: Molyneaux refused to attend the Atkins round table talks and was duly summoned by Mrs T - the all highest, as she was known. 'Why is it impossible to go to this conference?' she enquired. Molyneaux responded quietly. 'Are you going to proceed with your industrial legislation?' 'Yes, of course, its in the Manifesto and the Queen's speech!' 'Not much time then', Molyneaux is reported as saying. 'Time for what?' 'To invite the other party and union leaders in to discuss it!' 'You must be out of your tiny mind. They would never agree.' 'Exactly.')

“But give us a job together and as we achieve things together you will see that 'quiet calm deliberation disentangles nearly every knot.' ” We can only pray that the hopes of Ulster’s “quiet man” will be fulfilled.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's

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