'I'm a chastened and stronger person'

In his first newspaper interview since his 'resurrection', Peter Mandelson takes stock
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The Independent Online

The new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland settles back into his aeroplane seat, the very model of a modernising minister ­ Armani tie and crisp white shirtsleeves, two battered red despatch boxes slung on the seat behind him ­ and reflects on one of the most remarkable political resurrections in recent times.

The new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland settles back into his aeroplane seat, the very model of a modernising minister ­ Armani tie and crisp white shirtsleeves, two battered red despatch boxes slung on the seat behind him ­ and reflects on one of the most remarkable political resurrections in recent times.

"I feel as if I have been given a second chance ­ not to mess up again," says the politician formerly known as the Prince of Darkness, who, after flying from Heathrow to Derry on Friday morning, was now flying back to Belfast. "I made a mistake, and paid a heavy price. It was right to pay the price. I wouldn't recommend the experience to anybody ­ but I feel that I've come through it a chastened and stronger person."

Peter Mandelson is almost evangelical in his insistence that he has changed during his 10-month exile in the wake of the scandal surrounding That Loan. In his first newspaper interview since his return from the wilderness, he told the Independent on Sunday: "I've had time to reflect in the past few months. The prodigal son has returned home. He's a more grown-up person than he was when he left."

His first week has consisted of an immersion crash-course in the complexities of his new world. He met most of the main players in quick succession, and buried himself in sessions with his aides. He was not exactly starting from scratch: he had visited Northern Ireland several times in 1984 and 1985 as a researcher and producer for Weekend World. Since then, however, he has watched the situation only from afar.

The Unionists hope that Mandelson will be more sympathetic to their cause than his predecessor, Mo Mowlam. He himself obliquely criticises the impasse that has grown up: "They believe that I will take into greater account their fears and sensitivities. With so much change in the air, those who have been identified with the status quo for so long feel that they have most to lose." He believes that his job is to persuade the Protestants that change is in their interest, too. "With new political structures and institutions will come stability ­ and economic change and opportunity which Northern Ireland hasn't seen for generations. None the less, I am sensitive to those who feel threatened by change." Of his current semi-honeymoon with the Unionists, he drily noted: "While it lasts."

He said he is "not looking for a single breakthrough", but hopes to help others to make the change. "The great majority are desperate for the Good Friday Agreement to be implemented. I feel tremendous responsibility to those people. But at the end of the day, I can't make peace, I can only help others make it, promote trust ­ and encourage give and take."

Despite the perceived difference in style, he was gushing in his praise for Mo Mowlam ("a hard act to follow"), who was hauled back to London despite her publicly expressed wish to stay. Mandelson praises her personal style. "You've got to relate to people on all sorts of levels ­ something Mo's very good at. If I can take half a leaf out of her book, I'll be doing OK." At the same time, he emphasises the unusual generosity of his ousted colleague. "She's been very kind to me this week, very supportive. She spent the day with me on Tuesday. I've since spent an evening with her at her home. I've spoken to her on the phone. She's been smashing."

A cynic might argue that heaping praise on his ousted predecessor is mere expedience. Interestingly, however, Mandelson was also eager to pay tribute to John Major's doomed attempts to kick-start the peace process. "It was a very bold and very courageous initiative by him ­ it's just a pity that his party wouldn't allow him to make the progress he wanted." He is hoping to learn from the former prime minister's memoirs. "It's going to be my weekend reading. I'm told there's a very good chapter on Ireland."

Northern Ireland was once perceived as a place of political exile. Now, as Mandelson himself notes, it is "a key post". When discussing the hothouse world of Millbank and Westminster ­ the world that was Mandelson's own until his downfall ­ he sounds like a reformed alcoholic on the evils of drink. He may yet go back on the Westminster bottle. For now, however, he is glad to be out of the backbiting scrum. "I had to go back for Cabinet yesterday. An hour and a half in Downing Street was enough, thank you. Nothing against my old friends, but I've grown wings."

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