The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Mo Mowlam

David Adams • Ireland on Sunday, 7 August 2005

My wife, busily preparing a meal one afternoon in late January, 1998, was only too happy when our 13-year old son answered the umpteenth telephone call of the day. "If that's the media, again, tell them your daddy isn't here, that he's on his way to London," she instructed.

About ten minutes later, realising that he had only just set the receiver down, she casually asked him who he had been talking to.

"Mo," was the short and equally casual reply. He spoke as though it was the most natural thing in the world for Mo Mowlam, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to ring and chat with him for ten minutes about how he was doing at school, what music he liked, the football team he supported and the cross-community drama group he attended.

As it later transpired, she had in fact rang to forewarn me that, because of the recent activities of loyalist paramilitaries, in all likelihood the Ulster Democratic Party would be suspended from the multi-party negotiations I was on my way to London to attend.

On learning that I had already left, Mo set aside all thought of the upcoming, critical talks and, instead, took time to chat to a little boy she had never met or
even spoken to before. For Mo, that was the most natural thing in the world to do and, for me, in a small way, it was a measure of the woman.

Mo Mowlam was a people's person, in the very best sense of that term. When she was in Northern Ireland, she grabbed every opportunity she could to talk to ordinary men, women and children about their day-to-day lives, their particular circumstances, and how they and their families were managing to cope with so much political and social upheaval.

Of course, most politicians do a little bit of that: the occasional and highly choreographed walkabout amongst the hoi polloi to press the flesh and listen with glazed-eye and fixed smile as people mumble in response to inane questions. For newly arrived secretaries of state, a stroll down Royal Avenue in Belfast has become almost a rite of passage.

But with Mo, it was entirely different. She did it all the time, whether or not the media was on hand to highlight the fact. More importantly, the people she talked to sensed immediately that she was genuinely interested in them and did actually care about what they had to say - and they loved her for it.

More than any other politician before or since, local or otherwise, Mo Mowlam was genuinely loved by people from every political, social and religious background in Northern Ireland.

We northerners, often the most cynical of people, took her to our hearts.

In particular, Mo had a deep empathy with women and children. And, when one considers her own background and the troubled circumstances in which she was raised, it is easy to see why.

Her father was an alcoholic and, occasionally, on a television chat show or in a similar non-political context, when pressed she would give a small insight into her formative years. She talked of how, as a young girl, she would try to drown out the sound of her parents quarrelling by escaping to her bedroom and burying herself in her studies.

Mo didn't have to elaborate further for people to realise that she knew, only too well, how difficult and traumatic life could be for many mothers and their children.

But there was far more to Mo Mowlam than warmth, empathy and a big personality. Those qualities were more than matched by courage, both political and personal, of the highest order. At anytime, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would be a daunting enough job to take on, but to accept the challenge, as she did in May 1997, with political agreement nowhere in sight and, indeed, the
entire peace process looking as though it might collapse at any minute, took an enormous amount of courage.

That she arrived in Northern Ireland while still recovering from the intensive treatment she had recently undergone for a brain tumour is, on reflection, almost unbelievable.

She was also entering a world that, if not quite misogynous, certainly wasn't noted for its modern attitude to the role of women within society, never
mind politics.

When, in January, 1998, Mo decided to go into the Maze prison to try and convince loyalist paramilitary prisoners not to withdraw their support for the peace
process, she was well aware of the risks she was taking. If she didn't get the right result, her career, at least as Northern Ireland secretary, would be finished.

She went ahead anyway because she felt that it was "the right thing to do". That she did manage to bring the prisoners back onside, shouldn't be allowed to deflect in the slightest from the courage it took for her to accept that formidable challenge in the first instance.

Rather, it bears testament to the strength of her personality and her considerable political acumen. Ultimately, it was through those formidable, too often underrated, skills as a politician that she managed to steer the warring factions in Northern Ireland to the point of the Belfast Agreement.

Of course, Mo didn't manage to do it all on her own.. Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, Senator George Mitchell, Paul Murphy and many, many others played a vital role
as well. But, irrespective of who else was involved, we should not be in any doubt that without Mo Mowlam there would have been no Belfast Agreement.

At times of crisis, and there were many of those, it was always she who was on hand to coax, cajole, charm, smooth ruffled feathers or nurse damaged egos to,
eventually, put things back on track.

There is a widespread and totally erroneous notion that Mo Mowlam wasn't terribly good at detail; that she tended towards a "broad-brush" or "big picture" approach to political problems. Actually, what she didn't do was allow meetings to get bogged down in minutiae if she could possibly help it. Simply because she knew that, given half a chance, politicians in Northern Ireland would readily squabble for days over the tiniest of points. But, when called upon, Mo displayed a command of fine detail to match anyone at the negotiations.

Was Mo Mowlam some kind of saint, then? Certainly not. On occasion, she could be tetchy, abrupt and dismissive. And she could certainly be all of those things if,
even for a moment, she suspected you were lying to her or trying to pull the wool over her eyes. But she didn't hold a grudge, and any bouts of ill-humour were few and far between and never lasted very long.

Did she and I always agree? Of course we didn't. But, I must admit, I liked her style of disagreeing with me.

"F**k off, Davy", she would say, wig askew and her eyes dancing with mischievous delight.

Or at other times, with eyes glazed over, the more formal, "I hear what you're saying, Davy."

Mo Mowlam towers like a giant above the mostly half-remembered names and faces of some 14 other secretaries of state for Northern Ireland.

When she arrived to take up her post, Northern Ireland was at a critical juncture in the peace process. But, as we now know, it was a case of, cometh the
hour, cometh the woman.

Over the space of a couple of years, her achievements were immense. But she is remembered in Northern Ireland above all, for her warmth and humanity and her complete lack of any airs and graces - she was our Mo, the Secretary of
State who cared. Everyone, whether they had ever met her or not, felt they knew her well - and they did.





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29 August 2005

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