Mo Mowlam

Northern Ireland Secretary whose informal style endeared her to the public

Mo Mowlam sparked off one of the most spectacular and unanticipated moments in any Labour Party conference. One Tuesday afternoon at Bournemouth in October 1999, the Prime Minister was in full flow: "Imagine the pride I felt in this country, when I took a call from no less a person than Nelson Mandela, saying that Northern Ireland cast a beacon of hope across the globe. . . How was it done? It took the British, Irish and Americans standing together as never before. And I thank Bertie Ahern for what he has done, and I thank Bill Clinton too. It took Mo Mowlam. . . "

And then the popularity of Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, caused the delegates and visitors to that Labour Party conference to rise to their feet and give her a standing ovation. It happened not after she had spoken, but plumb in the middle of the keynote speech by the Prime Minister. Never in 46 years of attending party conferences did I see anything like it. Delegates surged up to applaud Mowlam, as Blair went through the names of those who had contributed to achieving the Good Friday Agreement.

I am not one of those who think that she was punished for upstaging her boss: albeit it is dangerous in any walk of life to upstage publicly an immediate superior, let alone one's Prime Minister on the most public of all national political occasions. Journalists have said that it was at this point that Mowlam's undoing began. I disagree. My personal interpretation was that, to his credit, Tony Blair was wryly amused rather than jealous. The reasons for Mowlam's decline have to be sought elsewhere and I fear history may ascribe it to the fact that, ultimately, she became a difficult, self-regarding and petulant colleague.

It cannot be taken away from Mowlam, however, that as a Member who spent only 13 years in the Commons (as MP for Redcar from 1987 until 2001), she achieved a uniquely high profile and was quite simply adored not only by her party but by a large section of the population, Labour and non-Labour voters alike.

She was born Marjorie Mowlam in 1949 in Watford, Hertfordshire, but the family soon moved via Southall to Coventry. Her father, Frank, worked in the Post Office and her mother, Tina, to whom she was close, was a telephonist. Frank Mowlam was an alcoholic who was unemployed for several years before his death in 1981. I mention this because Mo had no qualms about telling all and sundry, and it was a key explanation of much of her subsequent political Weltanschauung. As a girl, Mo was embarrassed by her father, refusing to bring her school chums home in case he slurred his words. She would slip off to her room to read rather than become engaged in conversation with him.

However, the plight of her father inspired in her considerable compassion, which showed itself both in Northern Ireland and in her brief, less than fortunate tenure as Minister in the Cabinet Office, 1999-2001, when she was nominally in charge of the government's policy on drugs.

Endowed with both brains and leadership qualities in her peer group, she became head girl at Counden Comprehensive School in Coventry and won a place at Durham University to study Anthropology. "I had at all costs to get away from home," she said.

Mo Mowlam followed a boyfriend to the University of Iowa to read for a master's degree and a doctorate in political science. After five years in America, which left an indelible, somewhat brass-necked, American attitude to life, she returned to lecture at Newcastle University in 1979. Unable to get a seat in the 1983 election, she moved as an administrator to the Northern College in Barnsley.

Just as it looked as if there was no chance of being involved as a candidate in the 1987 general election, she had a huge, unlooked-for stroke of luck. On the Saturday before the general election, Jim Tinn decided that after 23 years he could not face the election in his safe seat of Redcar. A friend phoned Mowlam, who was one of the few papabile persons available, and at the age of 38, three short days after she began campaigning, to her welcome astonishment she found herself a member of the House of Commons.

Making her maiden speech on 9 July 1987, with an indication of attitudes to come, she paid special tribute less to Tinn than to Ellen Wilkinson, who had made her maiden speech over 60 years earlier, when she was then the only woman on the Labour opposition benches under Ramsay MacDonald. "She spoke powerfully about the problems of women in low-paid jobs, about the inequalities in widows' benefits and about the difficulties of the long-term unemployed," said Mowlam:

We are fortunate now to have 21 Labour women on the opposition benches but, sadly, many of the issues that Ellen fought for are still high on the political agenda today. Above all, she was a practical woman who liked to see things done. She liked to get results and I feel that I will have deserved the votes and support of the people in Redcar if I can work with the same energy and commitment as she did.

Mowlam did indeed fight effectively for the jobless on Teesside, in particular in the aftermath of the problems surrounding the closure of Smith's Dock and the complexities of British shipbuilders. When she arrived in the Commons, 32,200 jobs had been lost on Teesside in the previous 10 years. With demonic energy and working well in this matter with her parliamentary neighbours, Mowlam galvanised a number of industries to place their investment in and around what she would call, with genuine affection, "my patch". She did have a certain elusive, galvanic quality - both men and, perhaps more surprisingly, other women got on well with her, and would do what they could to please her. She made people feel that they had, however briefly, her complete attention.

The whips did Mowlam a very good turn by putting her within weeks of the election on to the most effective and educative of all Select Committees - the Public Accounts Committee. There is no more rigorous and better education for a young and new Member of Parliament. Mowlam was extremely tactful in her relations with Neil Kinnock and subsequently John Smith and, indeed, with Tony Blair until 1998.

They made her a Trade and Industry opposition spokeswoman specialising in affairs of the City of London from 1989 until 1992 and then, she became John Smith's principal opposition spokesperson on the Citizen's Charter and women's affairs, 1992-93, then on national heritage, 1993-94.

In 1994, Tony Blair appointed her to the shadow Northern Ireland job, to her initial dismay. I would see her from time to time at airports, haversack slung across her back, on her way to and from Belfast. As the months went by, I could see how initial reluctance turned into fascination and huge enthusiasm to do something in the north of Ireland.

When she became Northern Ireland Secretary in 1997, Mowlam's warmth was an enormous plus, as far as relations with the republican side were concerned. But there was another side of the coin and her increasingly cryogenic relations with the Unionists were a minus. Unionists suspected she was an Irish nationalist at heart.

In the wake of the Omagh bomb in 1998, Mowlam unwisely poured praise on Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, for his condemnation of the republican group that planted the bomb - even though the extent of IRA involvement was far from clear. She insisted that the peace process must continue, despite the IRA's refusal to decommission. This raised Unionist suspicions and infuriated their leader, David Trimble, not least because it involved him in huge problems with his own party members.

What Mowlam did not fully appreciate was that glad-handing, let alone planting a kiss on astonished Unionist politicians, who would usually only be kissed by their wives and not even that in public, was insufficient in Northern Ireland and aroused disdain in the Protestant community. Nor were her relations with the republicans all that wonderful. She promised republicans in the Garvaghy Road, Portadown, that she would personally inform them of the Government's decision on permitting the annual Orange march to strut past their estate. When it was decided to let the march go ahead, she failed to tell them.

Again, in January 1998, when she went into the cells of the Maze prison near Belfast, to plead with loyalist terrorists to keep the ceasefire going after the murder of Billy Wright, she received worldwide publicity for her gutsiness. Gutsy she undoubtedly was. Being endowed with long-term wisdom was a rather different matter. The beatings by loyalist terrorists continued at no less a level than they had before she entered the Maze. The less flamboyant Northern Ireland secretaries - in their much-derided suits - might, it was felt, have achieved more.

I made an appointment to see Mowlam alone about the enormously delicate question of guardsmen James Fisher and Mark Wright of the Scots Guards and their involvement in the shooting of Peter McBride. She opened with the justified statement that she was seeing me only as a favour to me as a long-term parliamentary colleague she judged had a serious interest in Northern Ireland and service matters. As often with Mowlam, so far so good. But then, as she threw off her wig, as she did frequently, it came home to me that this very unusual lady, with what she openly described as her untidy "personal life" over many years, had not the slightest notion of how the Brigade of Guards might see matters.

OK if you are a member of the public or even a backbench MP. Not at all OK, in my view, having worn the Queen's uniform for two years as a national serviceman, if you are the one asking the Army to carry out necessary tasks. I cannot conceal a distaste for the way in which Mowlam frivolously dismissed the concerns of the former Northern Ireland secretaries Merlyn Rees and Roy Mason, and indeed Francis Pym, Tom King and Peter Brooke, all of whom knew and cared about what they were asking servicemen to do.

I left, however, thinking that Mowlam would pursue the subject of Fisher and Wright. She did precisely nothing. And I'm afraid this is what happened in various forms with many other colleagues from both sides of the water. Effusive warmth and instant cuddly actions were alas no substitute for dealing with the thorny problems of the north of Ireland. Her faithful friend and PPS Helen Jackson and others have praised Mowlam for " cutting through political crap". But the "crap" was often very real objections in the latter days from the Unionists.

In October 1999, she was furious at being reshuffled out of the Northern Ireland Office. Trimble had become exasperated. But someone else had become exasperated. Tony Blair. It said much about Mowlam that she cocked a snook at the Prime Minister by storming off on holiday before a much-heralded reshuffle. Even her closest friends and supporters thought that she had taken leave of her senses to do this. The hard fact was that the Prime Minister judged rightly that without Trimble's support there would be no Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mowlam's time in the Cabinet Office was "unhappy". She had reached a state of mind where she thought that she deserved the Foreign Office. She suffered a persecution complex, thinking that Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, who had taken an increasingly central role in the peace negotiations, had undermined her. What she did not realise was that serious senior ministers with a job to do sighed that they could work with her no longer.

In her last couple of years, Mo Mowlam was a thorn in the flesh of the Labour front bench. This was not primarily as a result of anger at the way in which she had been dropped, to the extent that she almost had pariah status among some former colleagues. It was sheer revulsion that a Labour government could perpetrate violence in Iraq, where she saw the British presence as increasingly part of the problem. Her last words to me were that she was ashamed of the Government.

Dying young, she will become a legend and the legend will be of a superb public persona of enormous humanity, who gave a warmth to other people with messy lives. For those (of whom I am not one) who had to work with her at close quarters day in and day out facing difficult decisions, she was a different kettle of fish. But she will, for all that, enter the pantheon of heroes of the Labour movement.

Tam Dalyell

Mo Mowlam was the angel of the Irish peace process, keeping spirits up and hope alive at numerous times when the drive for peace seemed irretrievably bogged down and doomed to failure, writes David McKittrick.

Her spell as Northern Ireland Secretary was marked by outbreaks of lethal violence and political negotiations which were at once tough and glacial, with many important participants deeply sceptical that the process could ever work. She may not have been the most orderly or disciplined of ministers, but she cajoled, persuaded, bullied and embarrassed many into moving against their instincts. She was, someone quipped, the woman who put the Mo in momentum.

Although she played a major part in the exhausting negotiations preceding the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the incident which was both most striking and most typical of her time in Belfast centred on the Maze prison. The process was endangered by restless loyalist inmates, who threatened to destabilise it by withdrawing their support. Mo Mowlam took the unprecedented step of going into the Maze H-blocks and meeting loyalist prisoners, some of whom were serving sentences for multiple murders. The move was risky but it worked: within hours of her visit they agreed to stick with the process, and the talks went on.

A spokesman for the prisoners said: "They were impressed. It wasn't what she said, it was the fact that she was there, that's really what it came down to. They thought that she commanded respect in return for having taken that risk."

On that occasion her highly unconventional style was ideally suited to this unconventional process. The crucial negotiations in Belfast were largely the personal work of Tony Blair, but Mowlam was unflagging in her work. She herself outlined her behaviour during long hours of negotiation:

I can remember going back and forth, and the way I kept sane was to punch the security guards at one of the doors in their stomachs. The first time it got them, but the next time they had hardened their muscles and were used to it and were ready for it. That's how I dealt with a lot of the frustration.

The US Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the talks, described her thus:

She is blunt and outspoken and she swears a lot. She is also intelligent, decisive, daring and unpretentious. The combination is irresistible. The people love her, though many politicians in Northern Ireland do not.

She had problems with many Unionist politicians who did not care for her informality and bad language: the Ulster Unionist leader cannot have welcomed being referred to as "Trimble-Wimble". She once said it was her mission to "civilise the Ulster male".

One Unionist politician publicly 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, but in the end I am what I am. It's me.

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