Today marks the 15th anniversary of the passing of the great Mo Mowlam. A former MP for Redcar and the secretary of state for Northern Ireland who helped broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, she is remembered for her warmth, wit, straight-talking style and her refusal to take no for an answer when it really mattered. Yet her fundamental approach to politics was one of consensus-building and reconciliation.
It’s hard to believe, on visiting Northern Ireland and talking to people who were around at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, that Mo was only secretary of state for two years. She had an incredible impact, not only on the negotiations, but on the practical changes she made to Stormont and Hillsborough Castle, so that the public could truly enjoy them and feel they were truly a part of their political institutions.
What’s more, you will struggle to find someone who doesn’t have a personal story to tell about Mo. She touched people’s lives in a way few politicians can compare. Because Mo genuinely loved people and interacting with the public; a depressingly rare quality in politics and politicians. She believed in the people of Northern Ireland and their ability to triumph and overcome against the odds. She wanted to help bring about a future that was fit for generations to come. That’s why she was so intent on bringing the voices of ordinary people, especially those of women who were and remain so overlooked in Northern Ireland, into the peace process. As she said, “It's the real life of people that needs changing.” She understood that that’s all that mattered in politics.
Loved within the Labour Party, in her old constituency of Redcar, and throughout Northern Ireland, her anniversary allows us to reflect on the enduring impact Mo Mowlam had. As we remember her, we must also look to her vision and ask what remains to be done to fulfill it for Northern Ireland but also for our fractured politics and for the Labour Party.
Last week I met with the founders of the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation, established in the wake of the Warrington bombings and which has since provided support to countless victims of terrorism throughout Britain. As we walked around the centre, we came across a painting of Mo in the lobby, who had been integral to the launch of the centre in 1999. Mo had said: “If people in Warrington can show that they can climb over their grief about what was done to the children of their town, then others can do the same. This centre will be a symbol on the world stage and a testament to what communities can achieve.” It is truly shameful that in spite of the government’s recent election promises they are failing to fund the foundation, leaving it to rely on philanthropy to keep providing their vital service.
During my first official visit to Northern Ireland as shadow secretary last month, I met with women’s groups on the Shankill Road and Falls Road, who recalled Mo’s support also and her work with the Women’s Coalition during the Good Friday Agreement talks. Not always in the foreground, these women’s centres have always played a central role in the peace process, supporting women throughout the community for over 40 years.
They spoke of the current struggles – Covid-19, job losses resulting in loss of livelihoods and what it does to the stability of their communities, the way that legacy, unresolved still, looms ominously. They also spoke of the good work underway – training programmes to promote understanding and plans for a cross community centre to be built at the interface of the Shankill and Falls roads.
While in Belfast, I also met young people from Cooperation Ireland, an organisation that brings together young people from across both communities and listened to their stories and experiences of growing up in Northern Ireland today. They spoke of never knowing the conflict first-hand, but of knowing of its consequences and the fact that more lives had been lost from suicide since 1998 than throughout all the 30 years of the Troubles. They spoke of their frustration that education, housing and even leisure facilities were still so fundamentally segregated and the ways in which society remained polarised. They spoke of their own hope and their determination to build a better future, together.
If Mo were here today in 2020, I wonder what she would say?
She would remind us that the Good Friday Agreement wasn’t the end of the peace process, but the start of it. She would remind us that both islands share the benefit of - and responsibility - for that peace, and would challenge us to protect it at all costs. She would, I imagine, be pretty horrified at the way Northern Ireland has been treated as, at best, an afterthought, at worst a political football for the convenience of Westminster politicians especially through Brexit negotiations.
And she would be horrified at the factionalism and bitterness that has distracted us as a Labour Party and wasted so many years. Firmly committed to New Labour and modernising the party, she nevertheless believed passionately in working consensually across the whole Labour movement and wrote after she stood down that she believed the last Labour government was held back in particular because it didn’t work inclusively with the unions. She would, I imagine, scold us that we should have more faith in and love for the people we seek to represent and not quite so much confidence in our own ability to make decisions about their lives.
Mo knew some change would happen quickly and that some would take years. Like all those at the heart of it, she knew there’d be work for future generations to do to build on those foundations and principles of cooperation and agreement.
Later this year, I’ll be working with Mo's family and friends, the Labour Party Irish Society, and groups across Northern Ireland to build on her legacy both in the party and beyond to help bring back some of Mo’s enduring and essential qualities to our politics. Her legacy in Northern Ireland is still very much felt to this day and it is the Labour Party’s role to help ensure the Good Friday Agreement is finally implemented and to recreate a kinder politics that Mo would be proud of today.
Louise Haigh is shadow secretary for Northern Ireland and the Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley
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