It was no secret that Mo Mowlam was going to be replaced as Northern Ireland secretary of state. Indeed, it was to have happened last summer, but the internal dynamics of the British Cabinet delayed the change until now. Still, that does not blunt the keen edge of disappointment felt by many, mainly ordinary Catholics, in Northern Ireland at her departure.
She rode into the situation on the Labor Party tidal wave that swept away 18 years of Conservative rule in May 1997, bringing with her a new sense of hope and optimism. It was a timely arrival. For almost three years the peace process had been bogged down. The IRA had ended its cease-fire, and the all-party talks — promised by the British government in secret contacts with the republican movement in 1993 — had not taken place. Within weeks of her appointment, those got under way, with Sinn Fein entering the negotiations with the British government and Unionist Party for the first time in many decades. "Mo" soon began to be synonymous with motion.
She delighted many ordinary people with the warmth of her approach. It was hugs and kisses in the high street. She was even trusted enough by Tony Blair for him to dispatch her to the U.S. to meet with Irish-American leaders, something few, if any, of her predecessors would have been able to do comfortably or with any hope of winning fans. But Mo did both.
Of course, given her position, and the nature of the Northern Ireland problem, it was inevitable that people would be upset over something. Nationalists were angry when she allowed the Orange marchers down the Garvaghy Road in the summer of 1997 and "Mo Surrender" slogans went up on the walls of Catholic areas. But most of the time, Catholics, whether they were republicans or SDLP supporters or just plain apolitical folk, were comfortable with her and her style — as were many working-class Protestants.
However, Ulster Unionists were not. Partly it was a matter of class — she was not middle class enough for some of the stuffed shirts that dominate the UUP. The Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP, with its petty shopkeeper mentality and fundamentalist Protestant theology, was even more uncomfortable, given the fact that she was a woman — a product in her own way of the new Britain that they cannot comprehend.
Her legacy was about more than just having brought a new style to Northern Ireland’s political bearpit. She left behind a work of substance — the Good Friday agreement. She made difficult and contentious judgments with some flair and courage. Such was her decision to go into the Maze in 1998 and speak directly with Protestant paramilitary prisoners in an effort to convince them not to abandon the cease-fire. She succeeded. Likewise, her ruling last September that the IRA cease-fire was still in place, despite gun-running accusations and allegations that the IRA was linked to the murder of an informer in Belfast, was a brave one, politically speaking, coming as it did in the face of fierce opposition from within the Unionist Party and their Conservatives allies. It probably saved the peace process.
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Helping to keep that afloat has been her greatest achievement and one for which all the people of Northern Ireland should be grateful.
In the meantime, Blair’s appointment of his confidant and long-time backer Peter Mandelson to replace her must be welcomed. It means that there is someone going into the job who is sufficiently close to the prime minister to ensure coherency of policy, and who also possesses the clout to see to it that it is enacted.