Woman Of The Year: Mo Mowlam; 'Nothing I can do about being me'

On the evidence of our poll, Mo Mowlam is in danger of becoming a national treasure, exciting as she does a mixture of admiration, sympathy and straightforward liking.

Our readers like, at a guess, her personality, her unwillingness to give up in the face of terrorism, bigotry or the major health problem she dealt with earlier this year. Perhaps they like her blend of New Labour drive and old-style mateyness. Perhaps they like the sight of a woman who can take in her stride a recent marriage, Northern Ireland, illness and elevation to Cabinet office.

The following words have been used to describe her: clever, earthy, energetic, enthusiastic, extrovert, funny, gabby, indiscreet, jolly, likeable, lively, occasionally disorganised, popular, raucous, unpretentious.

Her postbag apparently includes many letters of thanks from those, especially women, who say she gives them hope - hope of progress in Northern Ireland and of success against illness. Many women also appreciate her lack of self-consciousness about her hair loss and her wig. "Women think I'm ballsy about the wig," she confided to a friend.

The hairpiece is necessary because all her hair fell out during radiotherapy for what she has called "my little tumour". Her dramatic weight gain early this year was a result of additional steroid treatment.

But it worked, she was given the all-clear, and the wig became part of the legendary Mowlam informality. "I don't care about you lot," she told startled American correspondents one day. "I'm in a mood. I've had a bad start to the day. I'm going to take my hair off." And she did.

She does it during the political talks in Belfast, too. "She's a psychologist," said one Belfast politician. "It's very disarming when you're in a strenuous meeting with her and you're about to tackle her hard and she suddenly takes off the wig. It's extremely difficult to be tough on a lady who is bald."

She came to Belfast with a distinct advantage in that the patrician hauteur of her predecessor, Sir Patrick Mayhew, did not go down well with either side. There was therefore a general welcome when, as it were, the Tory was replaced by the wig.

Her style does not go down well with everyone, however. One Unionist politician denounced "the huggy-wuggy lovey-dovey Secretary of State - instead of fighting she's embracing the enemy". She shrugged: "There's nothing I can do about being me. The downside is that my style is difficult for some men to handle."

Unionist criticism was balanced, during her biggest crisis in July, by angry nationalist condemnation. The use of thousands of police to push an Orange march through a Catholic area generated a surge of condemnation. This became a tidal wave following the leaking of a document which, on one reading, seemed to indicate that Dr Mowlam had planned such a push all along, even though she always insisted she had an open mind.

"Dr Mo must go," the nationalist graffiti declared. That leak, and others in the same vein, was troubling for her in that it showed that someone high in the system was bent on sabotaging the Government.

But this low point was quickly followed by the present IRA ceasefire which came later in July, transforming the atmosphere. In one sense the ceasefire may have been almost inevitable in that the republicans were keen to get into talks, but our poll results suggest that Dr Mowlam and Tony Blair are given great credit for helping bring it about.

Although dangers and pitfalls abound in the peace process, the period since July has been studded with momentous occasions. The Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein now sit under the same talks roof, in proximity if not exactly in friendship, and Gerry Adams has been to Downing Street.

While the continuing talks have yet to get down to real negotiation, the outside world seems to sense that progress is possible in a situation that many used to write off as hopeless. Everyone knows there is no guarantee of success, but many now believe there is a chance for peace where once there seemed to be none. Dr Mowlam was among the many individuals who helped contribute to the peace process; our readers have clearly chosen her as a symbol of hope.

Dr Mowlam said yesterday: "I am very pleased and honoured about this. I will share it with the people of Northern Ireland who made 1997 what I hope will be the first of many good years for Northern Ireland."

1. Mo Mowlam

2. Clare Short

3. Cherie Blair

4. The Queen

5. Ann Widdecombe

6. Dolly the Sheep

7. Angela Eagle

8. Mary Robinson

9. Louise Woodward

10. Jody Williams

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