Mr Mandelson arrives in Ulster to find a land of opportunities

'Many have become dispirited by the recent lack of progress, but there are encouraging signs'
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The Independent Online

PETER MANDELSON will bring two very important things to his new Northern Ireland post, one being a formidable intellect, the other a guarantee of there being a continuing prime ministerial engagement in the peace process.

PETER MANDELSON will bring two very important things to his new Northern Ireland post, one being a formidable intellect, the other a guarantee of there being a continuing prime ministerial engagement in the peace process.

Though to some these may seem fairly obvious points, the fact is that John Major was the first prime minister to take a sustained and detailed interest in Belfast affairs. It is also the case that the calibre of Northern Ireland secretaries has varied widely, the limitations of some having led to a number of missed opportunities.

Mr Mandelson is an ambitious big-hitter who is not only a close friend of Tony Blair but also a figure of fascination for the media. This ensures that Northern Ireland will stay high on the Government's agenda, and will in itself increase pressure on the Belfast politicians to find agreement. The Mandelson course at the Northern Ireland office has already been set for the immediate future, in that George Mitchell is immersed in his review of the Good Friday agreement. If it succeeds, the new minister will have a breakthrough handed to him on a plate; if it fails, he will face the much more challenging task of working out how to pick up the pieces and deciding what to do next.

In either event that will be decided by the new Blair-Mandelson team, though the precise way in which that team will operate represents one of the first major tactical decisions for the new minister.

Unionist politicians bypassed Mo Mowlam at every opportunity, taking maximum advantage of Tony Blair's policy of keeping the door of No 10 open to David Trimble's Ulster Unionists. Since this inevitably undermined Dr Mowlam's political standing, the Government must now consider whether it should continue.

The Unionists beat a path to Tony Blair's door because, they said, Dr Mowlam was too green. Mr Mandelson will find it instructive to ponder on the accuracy of this allegation, for it reveals much about the crucial relationship between Unionism and London.

Dr Mowlam was never "green" in the sense that they meant, which was of leaning towards Irish nationalism. She had two abiding characteristics in Belfast: one was political neutrality; the other was an intense personal commitment.

She stood in a neutral position between Unionism and nationalism; she projected no great pride in abstract Britishness, or sentimental attachment to the Union. Nor did she display nationalist sympathies, either intellectually or in her gut instincts.

Rather, she was a peace process person, enthusiastically espousing its philosophy and believing in its potential for edging Northern Ireland away from armed conflict. Since it is above all an inclusive process, she believed every effort should be made to bring armed prodigals into the political fold.

The most interesting bit of her complex make-up was that she combined political neutrality on the great question of Unionism versus nationalism with a deep personal commitment for the process and for the people of Northern Ireland.

Most Unionist politicians never really got the hang of this, partly because many of them are good old unreconstructed Ulster Protestant males. Many of them wouldn't have a woman about the place, politically at least, a sentiment reinforced by Dr Mowlam's legendary irreverence. It is difficult for great men to keep their dignity when Dr Mowlam is reportedly speaking to journalists of "Trimble-Wimble".

This is not to absolve nationalist politicians of any hint of sexism. They can be just as old-fashioned, but are more tuned in to the requirements of political correctness.

They were, however, much more of a mind with Dr Mowlam in that almost every nationalist now believes in political inclusivity, whereas Unionists have much more difficulty with this concept and took much longer even to acknowledge that the peace process was in itself a good thing.

The Good Friday agreement which that process produced will be viewed as Dr Mowlam's lasting achievement, though in truth she has in the process functioned as part of a team, in which Tony Blair, George Mitchell and, latterly, Chris Patten, with his policing report, have played important roles.

She will be remembered in Belfast much more as a personality, as a woman who opened up the process and brought it down to earth after the patrician hauteur of her predecessor, Sir Patrick Mayhew.

She tackled, and made a fair dent in, the inbuilt Tory and Unionist pessimism that had led so many to conclude that the Troubles were destined to continue for ever at full blast. She imparted a sense that life could get better in the future - as it did during her stay. When she arrived in 1997 there was no IRA ceasefire, no inclusive talks, and no Good Friday agreement. Today all those things exist.

They exist, in part, because of her refusal to give up at the many dark moments, and on account of her willingness to take risks - such as her visit to the Maze prison to talk to jailed Loyalist terrorists.

But although her arrival in Belfast was seen as a breath of fresh air, the passage of time and the continuing stalemate meant that she had probably given as much she had to give to the process.

There is little sense that her departure will inflict any blow to the process; rather, the general sense is that her time was up and that a fresh face and new thinking could deliver dividends. Mr Mandelson's challenge will now be to pick the peace process up by the scruff of the neck, shake it from its torpor and get it over the last few hurdles.

Many have become dispirited by the recent lack of progress, but there are encouraging signs. While the decommissioning-devolution conundrum remains stubbornly unresolved, the rest of the Good Friday agreement has so far shown no real sign of unravelling while the paramilitary ceasefires, though not fully intact, show no sign of breaking down and causing new waves of violence.

Mr Mandelson comes to Belfast, in other words, to confront a situation that is fraught with difficulties but also alive with opportunities.