Mandelson the great moderniser takes on Ulster history

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PETER MANDELSON will be pitched into the deep end at the Northern Ireland Office, arriving in Belfast just as the Mitchell review of the Good Friday Agreement reaches its critical stages.

PETER MANDELSON will be pitched into the deep end at the Northern Ireland Office, arriving in Belfast just as the Mitchell review of the Good Friday Agreement reaches its critical stages.

The exercise, aimed at rescuing the agreement, is generally expected to reach a conclusion by the end of the month, with former US senator George Mitchell stepping up his programme of meetings with the parties. This timetable will give Mr Mandelson little enough time to familiarise himself with the finer points of both the issues and the personalities he will have to grapple with in his new post.

His arrival may, however, be useful in that a new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can reasonably expect a honeymoon period. This could mean that, even in the event of a failure of the Mitchell review, Mr Mandelson will have the scope for a further initiative to rescue the agreement.

The Unionist welcome for him yesterday seems to have been based mostly on the delight of Unionist politicians at the departure of Mo Mowlam. Although Ms Mowlam enjoyed great popularity with the grass roots, David Trimble and many of his Unionist colleagues never hid their distaste for either her substance or her style.

She was, by contrast, the first secretary of state for Northern Ireland in a generation who nationalists felt they could warm to, and as such yesterday's farewells from that quarter were tinged with genuine regret. She was certainly the first Northern Ireland minister to develop a working relationship with Sinn Fein, an achievement which set her even further back in Unionist eyes.

The difficulties in her relationships with Unionist politicians meant that they always preferred to beat a path to the door of 10 Downing Street, where they found Tony Blair's approach much more agreeable. For more than a year the Ulster Unionists have tried to do as much business as possible with Number 10 rather than the Northern Ireland Office.

Tony Blair went along with this, holding scores of meetings with politicians and those involved in the marching controversies. This, together with the calling in of Mr Mitchell, has meant that Ms Mowlam has of late not been as central to negotiations as ministers generally are.

But, while the Trimble camp was extending a welcome to Mr Mandelson, the more fundamentalist Protestant faction is unlikely to do so. The Rev Ian Paisley, who yesterday gracelessly greeted him as "another political failure", disapproves of his reported sexual orientation. Mr Paisley's Old Testament approach to such matters has, in the past, led the Democratic Unionist leader to stage a major campaign with parades, rallies, and the slogan: "Save Ulster from Sodomy".

Mr Mandelson's appointment will come as a relief to many local figures who feared that Ms Mowlam's departure would mean that Northern Ireland was put on the political backburner. The recent lack of movement in the peace process has resulted in much exasperation overseas, as illustrated by President Bill Clinton's comment that Ulster's politicians are like drunks who can never quite make it out of the bar.

Interest was clearly ebbing away but, given Mr Mandelson's high profile and his close relationship with the Prime Minister, his appointment is seen as a clear signal that the issue will remain high on the Government's agenda.

If the review does not work, Mr Blair will be expecting his friend to produce some long-awaited new thinking. However, it must occur to Mr Mandelson that a breakthrough would result in a diminution of his own role. If an agreed, devolved government comes into being, it will take over much of the work of the Northern Ireland Office. The department would remain in existence and its minister would remain in theCabinet, but it is anticipated that the importance of the job would quickly be reduced.

Another reason for the favourable Unionist welcome for their new minister is the vague recollection, which hasremained lodged in folk-memory for decades, that Mr Mandelson's family is well-disposed towards the Unionist cause.

This belief can be traced back to his grandfather, Herbert Morrison, who was home secretary in Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government. Morrison, who played an important part in the decision to createa statutory guarantee of Northern Ireland's place within the UK, is remembered as a good friend of Unionism.

The veteran Belfast nationalist commentator James Kelly wrote in the most scathing terms of the politician, declaring: "A cocky individual, Morrison was wined and dined by the local Unionists who found his right-wing, ultra-Brit attitude to their liking. He was seen off by his Unionist hosts with a gift of a case of Bushmills whiskey." Kelly reported that the Unionist prime minister of the day told a lunch that "he could imagine Mr Morrison one day heading the Orange procession... Instead of being affronted by such a dubious honour for a socialist, Morrison was delighted."

All that was a full half-century ago. Mr Mandelson has himself no discernible Irish track recordbut Irish memories are long, and he will be closely scrutinised for any signs that shades of his ancestor's approach may reappear in his own policies. Ironically, the great moderniser is going to be judged against the ever-present backdrop of Irish history.