But one thing is clear: those who call for her to quit now are making mere passing fools of themselves. There is no case for her resigning over this Maze killing, or in the immediately foreseeable future. On the contrary: her good humour and willingness to cast a fresh eye over old intractables are more than ever to be valued. One of the more depressing aspects of the last few days has been this ludicrous, high-pitched squeaking of the word "Resign".
Ms Mowlam has embarked on the correct response: to tackle security implications, to examine the administration of the Maze Prison, but above all to keep that round table going. She has recently been attacked for paying too much heed to the voices in Dublin. Well, she has not listened to the bizarre suggestion from Bertie Ahern that the peace talks should be transferred from Stormont to London or Dublin; bizarre, since it takes little wit to work out that any lasting political rapprochement must be made and guaranteed by Belfast's political actors.
Ms Mowlam's direct responsibility for the Maze Prison also needs careful weighing. As our Northern Ireland correspondent argued yesterday, the Maze Prison is no ordinary jail. Its governor needs to make compromises in order to protect prison staff; in order to respect conventions accepted, for better or worse, in the labelling and treatment of prisoners. But murder within a prison's walls is a paradox too far. Ms Mowlam needs quickly to receive and publish a report on the killing of Billy Wright that not only explains how it happened, but also recommends a new approach to running the jail.
Meanwhile it ill becomes Conservatives to let fly at the Secretary of State since, whatever the situation in the Maze, it cannot be much different now from how it was on 1 May; indeed, it is at least arguable that the Tories are wholly responsible for the climate in the Maze; it has evolved almost exclusively under their stewardship. Dr Mowlam's Tory predecessor presided over the same system of visits and concessions for one good, if unpalatable, reason: that is the system that works in the circumstances of Ulster. Labour has a long way to go to get anywhere near the Tory record in presiding over jailbreaks subsequently disowned by Tory ministers.
As for the Inla and the Loyalist terrorists, the Government has few, if any, levers over splintered fractions of movements within movements. At best, it can seek to operate on them through the "mainstream" organisations represented at the Stormont talks; at worst, it has to live with - and prepare public opinion to live with - residual terrorism of the kind seen in Dungannon the other night. If in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, so after 30 years of insurrection, minimised mayhem represents progress of some sort.
Ms Mowlam allowed herself the other day the hope that the peace process could bear issue by late spring. She knows results, real or symbolic, have to be seen to flow relatively quickly or else the critical audiences behind the negotiators' backs will start getting murderously restive. But she also knows that - to paraphrase the quiz-show host, once things have started, perhaps they have to finish. The stake placed by the IRA grows as the peace process proceeds; Unionist politicians, too, are starting to make elaborate calculations based on the longevity of their own participation, factored by the quality and length of Sinn Fein's presence at the table. Taken at its face value - not always a naive thing to do - Martin McGuinness's response to the revenge killings was measured and moderate, though Sinn Fein remains worryingly silent in its conversations with Irish nationalism about conceivable outcomes from the talks.
In the past four weeks, Labour has had good cause to ponder on Harold Macmillan's governing cliche: events, dear boy, events. Things happen, and ministers are forced on to their back feet. Nowhere is this truer than in Northern Ireland, where a handful of gangsters can so easily call the shots. They have no discernible plan; their victims are often randomly chosen. But Ms Mowlam can bring something to bear more powerful by far than the deployment of troops or forceful policing. She faces the New Year with the talks boat rocking, the crew mutinous. She deserves to be defended by both her supporters and her opponents. Indeed, a grown-up Conservative leader would be giving that support to her right now.Reuse content