Peter Kilfoyle: Her qualities of loyalty and honesty are rare these days

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The Independent Online

When I began working for the Labour Party in Liverpool, I was expecting Mo to be joining me there, but it never happened. Instead, Mo secured the nomination as Labour candidate for Redcar, and won the seat in 1987. She was in the Shadow Cabinet within five years.

It was not an easy role for Mo. She was dealing with a male political mafia and she did not fit their idea of what a woman should be, never mind a woman politician. Being highly intelligent and confident, she was always willing to speak out as she saw fit - on occasion, in rather strong language. This shocked the conservatism of some of her colleagues, who in turn made her life difficult. The seeds were sown for future political conflict.

The turning point came for Mo with the premature death of John Smith. She received a telephone call from an ambitious Tony Blair and subsequently was a key member of his campaign team for the leadership of the Labour Party.

Once established as leader, he bitterly disappointed Mo by giving her the job of Northern Ireland spokeswoman. She wanted to stay at National Heritage (now Culture, Media and Sport). Tony Blair would not agree, and Mo resigned herself to what appeared to be a political cul-de-sac. Yet Mo being Mo, she quickly adapted, subsequently becoming Secretary of State for Northern Ireland after the 1997 election victory.

She truly came into her own in that position. Her empathy with people was apparent to all who met her in Northern Ireland. Her lack of artifice and genuine warmth radiated out, even melting the hearts of the Ulster hard men.

This popularity was not entirely in her political interests. She had already upset some of the mediocre members of the Cabinet with her blunt speaking. When she received a standing ovation during Tony Blair's speech to Labour's 1998 annual conference, her card was marked. She was popular in Ireland, in the United States and in the Labour Party. That did not go down well with the leadership.

Yet Mo was much more than a politician. She was a free spirit. While she took her politics seriously, she was a pragmatist, more inclined to reflect her instinctive principles than to mouth platitudes, which was increasingly the vogue for her colleagues. She could not be stereotyped as "left" or "right". She believed in modernisation of structures and policy, but not of principle. She was fiercely protective of women, yet did not take seriously the role of Women's minister.

Her real interest was people. Mo had a unique way of relating to people, regardless of who they were, as long as they were genuine. She could not stand the timeservers and egoists who bedevil politics. I believe that is why she inclined more and more towards "showbusiness" types. They were more interesting people and more honest in their lust for fame and fortune.

On the night she launched her charity in London, the world of entertainment did her proud in turning out. Just four members of the two Houses of Parliament bothered to turn up, despite more than 50 being invited.

Mo was a friend to my wife, family and me. While Northern Ireland Secretary, she made a special journey to attend my daughter's wedding and ended up pushing my disabled sister around in a wheelchair. She was never too proud to muck in. Nor would she be slow in telling you where to go!

I will miss Mo tremendously. She was loyal, honest and caring - rare qualities in people nowadays, least of all politicians. The sun shines a little less brightly today.

Peter Kilfoyle, MP, is a former defence minister