Ms Mowlam isn't perfect, but she's a beacon of hope for Ulster

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The Independent Culture
ON THE face of it, not a good call. David Trimble's choice of Mo Mowlam as a target of public abuse displays an almost heroic disdain for the populism which is supposed to be essential to political discourse in the late- 20th-century. An attack on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has roughly the same mass appeal as a Kitty Kelley expose of the Queen Mother.

To answer the baffling question as to what on earth the leader of the Ulster Unionists was up to on Tuesday when he generated lurid headlines by calling for Dr Mowlam to be removed from office, it is necessary to understand the context. As it happens, Mr Trimble's remarks were not quite as premeditated an outburst as it appeared. He was vigorously urged by reporters to put his views about Dr Mowlam on the record after a fairly low-key briefing at which Unionist sources had outlined in some detail their objections to the 30 June deadline set by the Prime Minister for a fresh political breakthrough in Northern Ireland. Of course, Mr Trimble is a grown-up; he must have known what an impact he was about to make. But it is unlikely that he woke up on Tuesday morning, having arranged a briefing to direct a pointed message at Tony Blair, and then gratuitously decided to obscure it by a denunciation of one of his ministers.

Nor was he actually revealing anything new. After all, it has been common knowledge in Belfast for well over a year that the Trimble-Mowlam relationship is, to put it mildly, a good deal more off than on. It was equally well- known that this was one - though not the the only - reason why so many issues in Northern Ireland appeared to wind up at the door of 10 Downing Street. This is partly a matter of politics, of which more later. But it's also partly socio-cultural. The still startlingly patriarchal world of Northern Ireland politics, and of Unionism in particular, finds it difficult to deal with women in public life. It's also a matter of personality. The tactile Mowlam, with her fruity use of language and her chronic informality, was never going to be a heavenly match with the reserved and spiky Trimble.

What's more, not all of of Mr Trimble's complaints are baseless. There have certainly been times when Dr Mowlam has appeared to be distinctly more at ease with nationalists, including republicans, than Unionists. She was not the primary motor of the Good Friday talks in 1998. From time to time, there was irritation inside Downing Street about her negotiating judgement - for example, when, at the beginning of that momentous week, she and her department gave their assent to an initial document drawn up by Senator George Mitchell whose "greenness" so incensed Mr Trimble that the talks were nearly doomed before they started. The Prime Minister is said to have read the draft in London with mounting dismay, remarking that he could have "told them" it would be a non-starter with the Unionists.

But the real explanation is that the attack on Ms Mowlam is that it was of a piece with the rest of Mr Trimble's tough talking on the eve of next week's crucial talks, talks designed, in the final resolution, to lift Northern Ireland from the no-man's land between peace and war into which it was put at Easter 1998. This does not mean he is blustering. Mr Trimble has grown greatly in stature since that long Good Friday But he is beleaguered by a rebellious, restive party that is watching and waiting to see him make a concession too far; and at the moment, trusting a promise from the republicans that disarmament will begin once a fully devolved government has started operating, is just such a concession.

His distrust, moreover, is justified by recent history. Never mind all the understandings about a decommissioning gesture by the IRA that Senator Mitchell and others thought they had early in the present process. As recently as the Hillsborough talks this Easter, the Government allowed itself to think that Gerry Adams would finally persuade the IRA to make such a gesture. But it didn't happen. At the moment, all the talk in London and Dublin is of "sequencing" - creating a careful timetable and staged process which would allow the Northern Ireland government to be set up on the understanding that some form of decommissioning would follow at a set time. And also with the sanction that the Sinn Fein members of the new executive would be disqualified if they failed to implement it. But there is no sign, as yet, that such a bankable assurance will be forthcoming.

British officials intimately involved in the process insist that the more people talk of forgetting the deadline, the more determined Mr Adams is to stick by it. Without an agreement, he shows no signs of yielding to the Unionists' desire to keep the assembly going in shadow form, dealing with less contentious local issues. Nor, as Mr Trimble purports to fear, and the republicans hope, would he be one -sided in suspending the Good Friday agreement if the talks fail. British officials will not even talk about the consequences of failure; but the assembly would probably be suspended, and with it all the paraphernalia of cross-border bodies. Less palatably for Mr Trimble, he would probably still go ahead, with publication in the autumn, of the Patten report on reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

But these are details. At stake is the extraordinary political progress made on each side in the last 15 months. The big question at present appears to be whether Sinn Fein can be persuaded, despite all the odds, to give a secure commitment to begin disarming - as they are morally obliged to do. The heat would then be on Trimble to compromise to save the achievements already made - republicans accepting the principle of consent to a change in Northern Ireland's status, and to the assembly they were always against, and Unionists agreeing to talk directly with Sinn Fein and accepting all that cross-border co-operation.

Mo Mowlam deserves as much credit as anyone for that progress. But in any case, the anti-Mowlam editorialising which has followed Mr Trimble's attack misunderstands, as well as underestimates, the importance of her iconic role, and in particular her capacity to generate hope among a people who had forgotten what the word meant after 20 years of violence. She isn't perfect, and among fellow politicians, her private reputation is distinctly variable. But her high popularity has been a weapon in its own right. A recent Irish Times poll found that 60 per cent of Unionists thought she was doing a good job. Her breathtaking courage in overcoming serious illness was matched by her courage in the job - for example, when she confronted loyalist prisoners in The Maze.

But it also became, in the popular mind in Northern Ireland, a kind of parable for the peace process which said that hope could, finally, triumph over experience. And that matters. The hope of the people is perhaps the only benevolent force that Mr Blair can pray for to help drive a settlement through the hideously daunting obstacles the talks will face next week.