Tory PM Boris Johnson must be privately fuming at the scale of the rebellion against him in last week’s Vote of Confidence in his ailing leadership.
Ironically, it reminded me of a time in the 1980s when I incurred the wrath of another political leader - Jim Molyneaux, the then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Yes, in political notoriety, I must be one of the very few people with whom ‘Gentleman Jim’, as he was affectionally known in the party, lost the rag with!
The first time I met Jim Molyneaux was in 1970 and I was a Primary Six student at Clough Primary School.
Jim had been victorious in the Westminster General Election of that year, comfortably winning the South Antrim seat with a majority of almost 40,000.
That compared to the disastrous campaign we had in neighbouring North Antrim when a certain Rev Ian Paisley had built on his earlier victory in the April Stormont by-election when the Free Presbyterian cleric took the Ulster Unionist seat of Bannside.
In the General Election, Paisley senior - running under the banner of Protestant Unionist - had defeated the sitting Ulster Unionist MP Henry Clark to land a double whammy on our party.
Even as a primary school pupil, I had a role to play in that General Election debacle. The Presbyterian Manse had become an unofficial campaign headquarters for canvassing in that Bannside region.
My job was simple - serving the sandwiches to the election workers and candidate Henry Clark after a day on the canvas.
It had been a bad day on the campaign trail. The Paisley supporters had blocked a road and prevented the Ulster Unionist team, which included my dad, and Clark in particular from continuing with the canvas.
In despair, they had retreated to the safety of the Manse where my dad and another Presbyterian minister, the Rev John Brown, who later became a lecturer at the New University of Ulster in Coleraine, were trying to calm Clark’s nerves.
I could smell smoke, which was unusual in the Manse as no one smoked. But there was Clark at the dinner table, cigarette in his hand, which was visibly shaking.
Then a message came through that graffiti had appeared in Clough village which was a staunchly Protestant and Unionist stronghold. It boldly said in large white letters on the gable of a house - ‘Shoot Clark’. Clark went visibly white with shock on hearing this news.
Jim later visited the Presbyterian Manse after the North Antrim disaster to try and boost morale in the constituency. He already knew dad through their work in the Loyal Orders and I always found him to be the perfect gentleman, hence his moniker in the party Gentleman Jim.
In later years, at Loyal Order functions, there would always be some smart Alec who would try and jibe at Jim for being a bachelor and the need for Jim to get himself ‘hitched’.
Through all this jibing, Jim would sit passively letting it brush over his head. Only on one occasion in the mid 1980s did I see him briefly lose his cool concerning these jokes.
We were attending a Royal Black Preceptory anniversary dinner in North Antrim and I was reporting on the event for the Press, when yet another smart Alec began the jibes.
Normally, Jim sat silent through these jokes, but on this occasion, it was clear he’d had enough. Putting his head in his hands, he loudly sighed: “Oh no, here we go again!” The almost cry for help brought an instantaneous reaction from a senior member of the Black Institution: ‘Lay off the wee man, you!” The smart Alec immediately shut up.
From that first visit to the Manse in 1970, Jim became a regular visitor to our home over the years until he gave up the leadership in 1995. He was a great conversationalist, especially at the dinner table when the main political business had been discussed.
While he had served in the British Army during the Second World War, there was one topic which was off limits - the Nazi death camp at Belsen, which Jim had helped to liberate.
Jim would certainly chat openly about his experience in the Army and even incidents during World War Two, but never Belsen.
Politically, after 1979, he would talk privately about his special relationship with Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But her signing of the November 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement with Dublin hit Jim hard as he clearly had been caught totally unawares of Thatcher’s decision.
Jim regarded my dad as a political confidante. They enjoyed a special camaraderie through the Loyal Orders, the party and the Right-wing UUP pressure group, the Ulster Monday Club.
During the Eighties, dad had served a three-year term as Assistant Sovereign Grand Master of the Royal Black Institution when Jim was Sovereign Grand Master.
During this time, too, myself and others young unionists who were also members of the Ulster Monday Club had staged a coup within the North Antrim Young Unionist Association and swung politically what had previously been in the late 1970s a liberal youth movement into a radical Right-wing movement.
I combined my job as a News Letter reporter with Constituency Press Officer for the North Antrim Young Unionists. Using the local constituency media as an outlet, we began substantially raising the profile of the Young Unionists in the constituency.
We sent a strong delegation of supporters to the inaugural Ulster Says No rally at Belfast City Hall in the aftermath of the signing of the Hillsborough Accord where Paisley senior delivered his famous ‘Never, never, never, never’ speech.
But in spite of the high media profile which the North Antrim Young Unionists enjoyed, the perception of us was that we were merely upper middle class, pin-stripe suited, grammar school educated Tory ‘toffs’. How on earth - given this stereotype - were we meant to make our movement attractive to the loyalist working class in the constituency and beyond?
The impact of the initial Ulster Says No campaign was to mobilise a lot of previously nominal Unionists and loyalists. A series of radical organisations began to appear and recruit; this was certainly a time of intense mobilisation among the pro-Union community as a backlash to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Organisations such as the Ulster Clubs (meant to be a modern day mirror image of the Unionist Clubs which had been formed in the early 1900s to opposed Home Rule in Ireland), the pro-independence Ulster Movement for Self Determination, the Ulster Resistance (with its distinctive red berets) began to emerge.
Even the UDA was erecting recruitment posters. On the political front, the DUP had launched its own youth wing, the Young Democrats, and specifically in North Antrim, the Progressive Unionist Party (the party closet to the thinking of the UVF and Red Hand Commando) was recruiting young people. Even the Far Right National Front was recruiting young loyalists at that time.
There was the real danger that with all these organisations targeting the loyalist working class, we ‘toffs’ in the Young Unionists would fall behind in terms of influence.
While many people can recall the ‘never’ chant from Paisley senior’s Belfast City Hall speech, no one could seriously remember a key quote from Jim’s speech that day.
And so he called at my parents’ home to discuss Ulster Unionist tactics. As Young Unionists, we had decided to take the initiative when it came to recruiting among the loyalist working class and had launched via the media our ‘Loyalist Youth Unite and Fight’ campaign.
Over a meal, I had the chance to unveil to Jim what our strategy would be to attract more working class loyalists into the Young Unionists, especially from the large marching band fraternity in the constituency.
When I recall what was to follow, it can only be described as the height of political stupidity and naivety. If ever there was a time when the phrase ‘put your brain in gear before you open your mouth’, it applied to what followed that day over a meal in my late parents’ home.
It was then that I made my first mistake. I used the derogatory term ‘limp-wristed’ to refer to Jim’s speeches at both the City Hall and in the Ulster Says No rally in my home town of Ballymena.
In later years, given the debate about Jim’s sexual orientation because he was a committed bachelor, I realised my remark could have been misinterpreted by Jim about me making a jibe about rumours he was a closet homosexual.
Emphasising that I wanted to build a street movement made up of young loyalists who could then be indoctrinated into the Young Unionists, I dropped the bombshell which blew up in my face.
In line with the Ulster Says No parades, this would be the marching face of the Young Unionists in loyalist areas. Drawing on my days in the Boys’ Brigade when we wore white shirts as part of dress code on parade, and in the Presbyterian children’s choir when the boys wore white shirts and the girls white dresses, all our Young Unionists on parades would be ‘The White Shirts’.
Jim blew a fuse when I used the term ‘White Shirts’ and it was only then that I truly understood the horrors of what he had witnessed in Belsen. To say that Jim was furious with my idea is an understatement.
He loudly informed me that under no circumstances was I to launch any such movement known as the ‘White Shirts’; we would recruit young loyalists into the Young Unionists in the usual manner.
There was an awkward silence at the dinner table in my parents’ home. Myself, dad and our close friend, the late Joe Gaston - a former Mayor of Ballymoney and UUP Member of the Northern Ireland Forum - sat in total silence with the only sound being the clinking of cutlery!
I had now earned the distinction of being one of the few people in Unionism with whom Jim had ditched his ‘Gentleman Jim’ persona and had actually lost his temper.
Eventually, turning to dad, he said he wanted a word with him to ensure that I did not pursue this ridiculous notion of recruiting from the loyalist working class under the banner of ‘White Shirts’.
It was only after Jim left for home in Crumlin that dad explained what a disastrous notion I had unveiled to the party leader. For Jim, talk of a ‘White Shirt’ movement conjured up images of Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirt movement (The British Union of Fascists), Ernst Rohm’s Nazi Brown Shirt movement (the SA), and General Eoin O’Duffy’s Blue Shirt movement in Southern Ireland (the forerunners of the modern day Fine Gael party).
For Jim, it was not about giving the White Shirt movement a unique Young Unionist working class identity, but in copying the image of ‘shirted’ movements which had in their own ways contributed to the Holocaust which cost six million people their lives in the most horrific manners.
The notion of ‘Coulter’s White Shirts’ was never mentioned again. While he personally never discussed what he had witnessed at Belsen with me, I knew by his furious anger at my proposal that it must have been a truly horrific experience.
While the White Shirts recruitment proposal was binned, we did lose ground to other organisations in County Antrim and by the late 1980s the North Antrim Young Unionists was a movement without any real influence.
Then again, if we had stuck to our guns, defied ‘Gentleman Jim’ and launched the White Shirts as a marching movement among the loyalist working class, could we have prevented young Protestants from getting caught up in paramilitary or criminal activity? God will be my judge on that one.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.
Given the history of Loyalist paramilitaries infiltrating ( or being openly invited to,join?) the alphabet spaghetti of Unionist 'street groups' it would be a safe bet to say your White Shirts group would have suffered the same fate. Ian Paisley's never ending list of groups/committees/forces all had overlapping membership with both the UDA and UVF. In fact on such group was instrumental in the formation of the modern UVF.ReplyDelete
Molyneaux did talk about Belsen once. He mentioned how he and his senior officer were the first to go in. They found two Nazi's laughing over the condition the inmates were in. His senior officer upon observing the absolute devastation wrought on fellow humans by these two SS promptly pulled out his Webley and shot both of them in the head. Technically a war crime but one very easily understandable. Molyneaux probably did not want to create any issue for this officer and kept quiet about it until he had passed.ReplyDelete
Flexible interpretation Steve.ReplyDelete
"Easily understood, technical war crimes"
I'll be quoting you to Brandon!
I'll take my ball and go home if you do!Delete