19 August 2005

Risk-taker Mowlam played formative role in peace process


19/08/2005 - 08:44:29

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam died today in a hospice, a family spokesman said. Ms Mowlam, 55, who previously suffered a brain tumour had difficulties with her balance as a result of radiotherapy treatment. Earlier this month she fell and banged her head and never regained consciousness.

When Mo Mowlam became Northern Ireland Secretary, she may well have had her hero Winston Churchill in mind – and his declaration that history would be kind to him because he intended to write it.

Few would dispute Mo Mowlam made her mark in Northern Ireland.

During her two years in office she helped broker the Good Friday Agreement, and witnessed unionists and nationalists taking tentative steps towards power sharing.

Her reputation was that of a tough talker and a risk taker.

But like all Secretaries of State, her departure from Belfast was marked by criticisms and plaudits.

Before Mo Mowlam, Northern Ireland’s politics was overwhelmingly male.

Many of her admirers welcomed her touchy-feely style as a breath of fresh air in the North, and her ability to call things as she saw them.

But to others, mostly unionists, she was uncouth and ill-suited to the role of Secretary of State. Not that she would have cared.

Mo Mowlam arrived in Belfast in 1997 as Labour basked in its resounding general election victory.

She was familiar to many of the key players, having served as Labour’s spokeswoman on the North since 1994.

She also came to the North recovering from a brain tumour operation and having lost her hair during treatment.

Within days of being elected, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was in Belfast to offer Sinn Féin a place in talks if the IRA restored the ceasefire which collapsed in February 1996.

But if this was a signal Blair would adopt a hands-on approach to the North, it was also clear Ms Mowlam would not be relegated to a mere supporting role.

Within a week of assuming office, she was in Derry insisting her immediate priority was an IRA ceasefire, followed by talks.

It was not long before she felt the sharp end of both unionist and nationalist tongues on the thorny issue of the Protestant marching season.

As the North went to the polls for local government elections, she toured three parade hot spots – Drumcree in Portadown, the lower Ormeau in south Belfast and Dunloy in Co Antrim.

The move was condemned by Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis, who claimed her meeting with nationalist residents’ leader Breandan Mac Cionnaith in Portadown had handed Sinn Féin a propaganda victory.

Within weeks, Mo Mowlam was criticised by Mr Mac Cionnaith, who accused her of “playing funny games” with residents after an Orange Order march was forced through the Garvaghy Road.

As riots broke out in nationalist areas, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams moved quickly, with one eye on the peace process, to calm the situation.

The reason became apparent just days later when republicans announced the restoration of the IRA ceasefire.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble accused the British government of duplicity. But crucially, the UUP and loyalist parties remained at Stormont as Sinn Féin joined them. Only the Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists and the UK Unionists walked out.

There would be many testing moments for Mo Mowlam in the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement – not least when the INLA killed dissident loyalist Billy Wright.

The Loyalist Volunteer Force leader’s shooting in the Maze Prison in Christmas 1997 unleashed a wave of violence, with the Ulster Defence Association killing several Catholics.

UDA prisoners also voted overwhelmingly for their political wing, the Ulster Democratic Party, to pull out of the negotiations.

But in a brave bid to rescue the peace process, Ms Mowlam visited UDA inmates in the Maze Prison.

Faced by some of the North’s most notorious hardmen, such as Michael Stone and Johnny Adair, Ms Mowlam persuaded them to stay on board.

A Churchill quote may have inspired her move: “Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room!”

But to some unionists, another Churchill quote came to mind: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile – hoping it will eat him last.”

During the talks, Ms Mowlam acquired a reputation for being blunt.

She was overheard telling Mr Adams at one meeting: “Bloody well get on and do it, otherwise I’ll head-butt you!”

With no regard to how others might perceive her, she would sometimes take her wig off during talks or even press conferences – not as a sympathy tactic but simply because her head was itchy.

One such episode occurred during a particularly combative meeting with some of loyalism’s most notorious hardmen. Observers said the loyalist delegation was left speechless.

Her lack of airs or graces sometimes threatened to cause a diplomatic incident.

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness recalls how she once walked in to the party’s room and noticed some lilies on the table – a republican symbol for commemorating those killed in the 1916 Easter Rising.

After asking what it was and remarking how nice it was, she left the office with a lily in her lapel.

McGuinness said she was fortunate to run into him as she left the office. “I told her to take it off, because if you are seen by any of the unionists, it’s going to cause a major international incident which could be severely to the detriment of this entire process,” he said.

“She said ‘Oops’ and took it off, wisely.”

Ms Mowlam would often break protocol while in the North, sending her Special Branch bodyguards out to buy her tights and lipstick.

She was also spotted wandering around Belfast city centre on unofficial walkabouts and the Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim.

Her finest hour probably came with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and its endorsement in referenda north and south.

The Real IRA’s Omagh bomb, which killed 29 people just months later, was undoubtedly a low point.

But her increasingly frosty relationship with unionism would ultimately be her undoing.

Her wisecrack that it was her mission to “civilise the Ulster male” did little to endear her to unionists.

In the days following the Good Friday Agreement her relationship with Mr Trimble deteriorated to such a point that senior UUP figures openly lobbied for her removal in a Cabinet reshuffle.

The most dramatic example of the breakdown in the relationship came in the months of political stagnation following the Good Friday Agreement.

In July 1999, following proposals from the Irish and British governments to break the deadlock in the peace process, she triggered a mechanism in the Northern Ireland Assembly aimed at setting up the power-sharing executive.

But Mr Trimble’s Ulster Unionists rejected the plan, and boycotted the nomination session.

Faced by empty Ulster Unionist benches, Sinn Féin and the SDLP went through the bizarre spectacle at Stormont of nominating ministers to an executive which would never come into being.

The standing ovation she received at the Labour conference in 2000, while clearly heartfelt by rank-and-file party activists, was reported to have unnerved Cabinet colleagues.

And when Peter Mandelson replaced her as Northern Ireland Secretary, reaction, as ever, was mixed in the North.

Then SDLP leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume described her contribution to the peace process as “outstanding“, while Ian Paisley said her term in office had been “a failure“.

Ms Mowlam simply shrugged off the praise and criticism.

As she faded from frontline politics, she maintained contact with friends in the North in politics, the civil service and journalism, and continued to visit as a keen advocate of integrated education for Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren.

She received many awards for her work during the formative years of the peace process, and earned the admiration of world leaders such as President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary.

And while she may have failed to win over the hearts of some hardliners in the North, she would have taken comfort from another Churchill quote: “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

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