Mo's mission impossible?

Sometimes, Mo, surely you must feel like knocking all their heads together? `Of course. It's frustrating, but you also have to realise people want to make it. You just have to keep going.'
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Naturally, I arrive at the supposedly "beleaguered" Secretary of State for Northern Ireland's office in Belfast mightily weighed down by the serious issues of the day. Is the peace accord now "hanging by a thread?" Are the IRA about to return to their grisly old ways? What is actually happening about the decommissioning of arms? Should "Mo go", as the Unionists would dearly like? Why is there only ever a sole diner in the window of any Angus Steak House...?

There is much to discuss, obviously, and I'm terribly up for it. So, in short - and considering how high my IQ is during those odd moments when it isn't shockingly low - I'm not entirely sure how we got on to the subject of toilet paper.

Possibly it was when Dr Mowlam complained about having to be continually accompanied by "plods" and I said yes, it must be awful, because you can't easily go out and spend pounds 367 on a pair of shoes and then, when confronted, cry: "What? These old things?" She agrees, yes, this would be tiresome if she were into baby-pink, sequined Blahnik slingbacks, but she isn't.

Are you ever extravagant?, I ask.

"Yes. I've just spent pounds 235 at the supermarket."

"How... exorbitant?"

"Jon [her husband] does the food shopping, but I do the basics - bleach, Pledge, toilet paper. We're now stocked up until Christmas."

"I don't consider this especially extravagant, actually, Mo. Unless, of course, we are talking Kleenex Double Quilted Gold, which has always struck me as rather too pricey and glamorous for its purpose."

"No, I can assure you the toilet paper I buy is very white and straightforward and ordinary. I just bought a friend a year's supply for his birthday. A roll a week for pounds 17.54."

"How... romantic?"

"It's not a romantic relationship."

"Could I request the cash equivalent, should you ever wish to recognise my birthday?"

"Ha! Yes! Oh, Crispin [the photographer]! Have you started? You are very naughty. I'm not ready. I haven't got my perfume on! Must have perfume for pictures. Squirt, squirt... that's better!"

She is, yes, breathtakingly likeable from the off. OK, Ian Paisley has never been an especially big fan. "He calls me the sinner, because I like a drink. And whenever he meets my husband he says: `Here comes that poor man married to the sinner!'" And her recent decision to declare the IRA ceasefire to be still intact (despite the "exclusion orders" meted out to a number of teenagers in the province) means that the Unionists aren't especially keen on her at present. Her resignation has, yes, been repeatedly called for. Still, she doesn't seem "beleaguered" in the least. Do you feel beleaguered, Mo? "Nope."

The "Mo must go" chants aren't getting you down, then? "I've got hardened to it over the last two years. It hurts, but it doesn't hurt to the point where it stops me thinking, acting, moving. It frustrates my mother more than me. God, she gets angry. At Hillsborough, when the Hillsborough Declaration was being discussed, I helped clear up the glasses afterwards because they were understaffed. Then, someone said that I was no better than a barmaid. My mother said: `Those twisted minds! I want to hit them all on the nose.'

"I never feel beleaguered by the process, in fact. The only time I do feel beleaguered is when I've had a full day with people and I'd just like a bit of time on my own. In fact, tonight I know I've got an hour by myself, and I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to have a good soak in the bath."

And a read? "Yes." What are you reading? "Well, I read Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up! on holiday, and it was fantastic, so Jon is hopefully getting me another one by him..." Jon buys your books? "He recommends things, yes, and gets them for me." Mo, this man is worth his weight in toilet paper! "Yes! Yes, he is! Piece of melon?" (She offers me a chunk.)

"No, thanks."

"Go on..."

"No. Really."

"Been on holiday?"

"We went to Turkey... marvellous."

I do think Mo Mowlam is possibly quite marvellous herself, but one thing niggles me which may or may not be worth getting niggled about. It's just that, in reading up on her, I note that she will always do three things in an interview:

1) She will greet you in stockinged feet;

2) She will, at some point, burp noisily;

3) She will, at some point, swear noisily.

Still, when I meet her:

1) She greets me in stockinged feet. "You're early!" she cries, although I am not;

2) She is just finishing an M&S chocolate mousse when I walk into her office and that, combined with the later melon, results in the most stunning "bleaghhhhhh" followed by an: "Oops! Sorry!";

3) We somehow get on to discussing our favourite words. I say I'm very into "discombobulate" and "quandary" at the moment. She says: "I have rude words I like to say under my breath."

Such as? "I think I'll stay with `shit'," she says. "I just quietly say `shit, shit, shit, shit', and that's how one gets through."

Then, when I've stayed longer than I should: "Look, bugger off now, Deb. Bugger off!"

I suppose the worry here is: are you meeting her? Or are you meeting something of a well-rehearsed performance? Satisfyingly, this may even be something of a discombobulating quandary. Could the burping and swearing and shoelessness and the housewifely chats about toilet paper and him indoors be a neat way of concealing an ambition and steeliness that would otherwise be rather off-putting? Or would this be too much for anyone to manufacture? Perhaps we should just enjoy her for the way she presents whatever she is. I feel nastily cynical for raising the issue. OK, I'll have a piece of melon.

"It's yum," I announce, ingratiatingly.

She is, absolutely, a substantial person in many, many ways. She was, yes, magnificently brave during that brain tumour business 18 months ago. She didn't even wobble during the four days she had to wait to find out whether the tumour was benign or malignant. "I just said to myself there was no point worrying until I had the full facts. I lived a completely normal week. I remember going to the pictures and seeing Evita. Then, when I knew it was benign, it was just a matter of getting through it."

But you could have been dying? "I've never been afraid of death. I've always said life is for living, and you can be taken out at any time. I don't have any great philosophical rationale for life. It's just about doing what you believe in, and enjoying yourself."

She assuredly does that. Indeed, among the Unionists the current complaint is that she does far too much gadding about - dancing with Chris Evans at the Labour Party Conference ("we dance very well together"), bringing Elton John to Stormont for a peace concert ("Sodomites at Stormont!" gasped Paisley) and, during the recent hoo-ha, attending a Robbie Williams concert. She, however, dismisses this all as absolute nonsense. "I also went to the Ulster rugby finals. And I shall go to the hurling finals. And last Friday I went to the Ulster Junior Choir evening. The Ulster Junior Choir evening! No one reports on that!"

Plus, of course, you have to be a very substantial person to do the job she does, and daily deal with the Trimbles and the Adamses and the UDPs and UUPs and PUPs and all their entrenched fears and prejudices. Sometimes, I say, you must feel like knocking all their heads together.

"Of course. It's frustrating, but you also have to realise people want to make it, and knocking heads together would do absolutely nothing. You just have to keep going."

I don't doubt that Tony Blair has full confidence in her. Indeed, recent suggestions that Downing Street had left her to "twist in the wind" with regard to deciding whether the IRA ceasefire was still intact are absurd. She could not have made this decision without consulting Blair, to whom, yes, she spoke while he was in Tuscany.

Did he say: "Hang on a mo, Mo! Cherie's just showing me her white bits."

No, she replies, it doesn't work like that. You phone No 10 to ask when the PM is taking calls, "so you don't disturb him unnecessarily. Everyone deserves a holiday."

Did you make the decision you did in order to keep things going? "It is important to keep the momentum going, yes. And it's a difficult balance between that and not pushing people into change they can't cope with."

What would have been the consequences of making the other decision, of declaring the ceasefire over, and suspending the release of IRA prisoners? "It was a tough decision to make either way..."

Still, as it now stands, both the Unionists and Sinn Fein will be participating in the George Mitchell review of the implementation of the Good Friday agreement this week. That is something of an achievement in itself. Inevitably, things are going to get sticky at times. As she rightly says: "You can't switch on peace like a light."

Do you ever fear the whole thing collapsing? "We could lose it, but I don't think it's likely."

Neither do I, in fact. Her determination does seem absolute. "Even as a child, I was determined, a doer. I was a Girl Guide, did camping, loved sport, loved hockey, netball..."

I do wonder where this determination comes from. Her mother was a telephonist while her father (who died in 1981) was a postman and, as is now widely known, an alcoholic. She once said: "There was always tension... when you went home you weren't sure if he'd be drunk or sober... I used to go up to my bedroom and do my homework. It got me out of having to deal with the problem."

Perhaps "doing things" became her method of coping? Possibly, she accepts.

How do you remember your father? I ask. "Sitting in the back room. Watching television. Face like this." And she scrunches her own face up into a hard mask.

Did you ever have a proper conversation? "No." Do you know why he drank? "Because he was unhappy, although I have never got the bottom of why he was unhappy."

Had she ever worried about becoming an alcoholic herself? There's meant to be a genetic predisposition, isn't there?

"I did worry about it as a teenager, yes. I remember in my late teens, while I was at college, all of us piling into a mini-van and going to Cornwall for the weekend, and drinking scrumpy, and staggering about. And I remember this posh Cornish voice at the bar saying: `I'd never let my daughter get like that.' And that is imprinted on my mind. I think you are always cautious, but I know I'm not dependent, and enjoy a drink. When I get home, and I've had the most awful day, one of the things Jon is so good at is asking: `Ice in your whiskey?' And then he'll say, `Not much on the telly, so I've got another Ab Fab video for you to watch...'"

This man is even worth his weight in Kleenex Double Quilted Gold, I cry. "Yes. He is!" she agrees happily. She married Jon, a banker who has two children from a previous marriage, in 1995. I wonder if she ever thinks what her own children would have been like, if she'd had any.

"I don't actually. I've got the stepchildren, so I have the best of both worlds. I didn't go through the pain, but get great pleasure from them. You know, some of the questions you've been asking are trying to look into a part of me I don't have. I'm a simple creature, really. If I'm fed, watered and slept, I'm a happy being. Now, bugger off! I've got three more meetings."


"Bugger off!"

"One last question. Do you ever yearn for an easier brief? Say, Minister for Slopping Around in Old Slippers while Watching Richard and Judy?

"Of course. But, sadly, there isn't such a ministerial job."

"If there was," it suddenly occurs to me, "I'd want it."

"We'd have to compete."

"As long as it didn't depend on who was most stocked up on toilet paper. That would put you at an unfair advantage."

"Basics are my only real contribution to the household... Now, bugger off!"

We should just respectfully enjoy her, I think.