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Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Jim Molyneaux dies at 94

March 9, 2015

DUBLIN (AP) — Jim Molyneaux, a soft-spoken, cautious politician who led the Ulster Unionist Party through some of Northern Ireland’s bloodiest years and early efforts at peacemaking, died Monday at age 94.

Party colleagues and the Northern Ireland government confirmed his death but didn’t specify a cause.

Catholic and Protestant politicians alike paid tribute to a man who, though deeply skeptical of a peace process that eventually ended his political career, kept his party open to compromise and kept the harder-line policies of Democratic Unionist rival Ian Paisley at bay.

Throughout his 1979-1995 leadership, Molyneaux’s Ulster Unionists remained Northern Ireland’s largest party and the main representative of its British Protestant majority — no small feat given Paisley’s power to rally Protestant opinion.

While the bombastic Paisley hogged the limelight, Molyneaux focused on backroom negotiations with the British government in London. He rarely raised his voice, preferring a face-to-face chat over tea. His face seemed perpetually frozen in a frown, although his eyes would light up as he delivered a quip.

Nonetheless, he agreed with those who found him a charisma-free figure, once describing himself as “the dull old dog of Ulster politics.”

Molyneaux, who represented South Antrim in the British House of Commons from 1970 to 1997, favored fully integrating Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom. He wanted the country governed from London, not Belfast, as the best way to thwart Irish nationalist hopes of coaxing the north into the Republic of Ireland.

As a consequence, he opposed the key goals of 1990s peacemaking, particularly the creation of a local Northern Ireland government and the central role given to Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party linked to the outlawed Irish Republican Army.

Sinn Fein was politically isolated throughout decades of IRA violence that claimed nearly 1,800 lives, but the IRA’s 1994 cease-fire sparked a diplomatic thaw. Molyneaux, sensing danger for Northern Ireland’s union with Britain, called the IRA truce the most politically destabilizing event in Northern Ireland’s history.

He refused to join Britain in face-to-face talks with Sinn Fein, arguing that the IRA must disarm and renounce violence first — a goal finally achieved a decade later. He resigned as party leader in 1995 as Protestant opposition to compromise swelled. Britain appointed him to the upper House of Lords.

Funeral arrangements were not announced.

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