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Mo surrender!

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader and Patrick Markey

BELFAST — The appointment of Peter Mandelson, one of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s top tacticians, as the new Northern Ireland secretary of state has met with mixed reviews while provoking concern over the timing of the shift.

The Ulster Unionist Party has warmly welcomed Mandelson, a close confidante of the British prime minister, and while nationalists have been publicly positive, in private they harbor deep concerns about Mandelson’s arrival, knowing the UUP had lobbied hard for his appointment.

Mandelson replaced Mo Mowlam in a cabinet shuffle over the weekend. Mowlam was Northern secretary for 2 1/2 years, a time that saw political negotiations that have been both productive and frustrating.

Mandelson’s appointment led to questions as why the change had come at such a sensitive time in the attempts to salvage the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. As he is a close associate of Blair, Mandelson’s posting to Northern Ireland could show that the British prime minister wants to signal his continued deep interest in the negotiations, one informed source said.

During a press briefing at Stormont’s Castle Buildings, Mowlam made no secret of her regret at leaving the post.

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"After 2 1/2 years in opposition 2 1/2 years in government, there is never any easy time to leave Northern Ireland," she said. "I suppose the ultimate consolation is that Peter is taking over who, I think, has the ability and the skills and sensitivity to a job, which isn’t easy."

Mandelson said his immediate priority was to focus minds on the vital work being done by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell in his review of the implementation of the Good Friday agreement.

"I know that in the next period we have got to be focused on one thing above all, and that is Mitchell and that leg of the process," Mandelson said. "I want everyone to focus very, very hard on what he is doing and what we hope we will be the outcome.

"I only hope that my appointment by the government today will demonstrate the absolute and unwavering commitment it has to finding peace and reaching a deal. There is nothing more important."

Mandelson resigned last year from his position as trade secretary after a scandal broke over his home in Notting Hill, west London. He had borrowed £335,000 from a millionaire Cabinet colleague, whose business dealings Mandelson’s department was investigating.

‘Prince of Darkness’

Nicknamed the "Prince of Darkness" for his spin-doctoring skills, Mandelson is a Blair loyalist and is credited with turning the British Labor Party’s image around, allowing it to win a landslide victory at the 1997 general election.

He has spent only 10 months outside the British Cabinet, however, and some observers believe Blair made a risky move in promoting him to such a senior and tricky position, at a time of crisis in the peace process.

Westminster insiders say Mandelson wanted the Northern Ireland job in order to get back into the cabinet and prove his loyalty to Blair. He will have to make a success of his term in Belfast if he is to be promoted to a more senior position in the British Cabinet.

He is said by Westminster insiders who know him well to be instinctively orthodox, and thought to be temperamentally and politically more unionist than nationalist.

His knowledge and experience of the North is restricted to a few visits during his time as a junior producer with the London Weekend Television current affairs show, "Weekend World," in the early 1980s.

The move had been predicted in July after unionist demands for Mowlam’s resignation, but she issued a public appeal to be allowed stay on "to do everything I can to make the process work." That appeal succeeded, and Blair’s reshuffle plans were put on hold.

Some are speculating her very public preemptive move then resulted in her being denied the job she really wanted this week. Instead of being made health secretary, she got the job of Cabinet enforcer.

While unionists rejoiced in Mowlam’s departure, there was some dismay among nationalists that the change should take place at such a crucial time for peace efforts, although publicly they welcomed Mandelson to Northern Ireland and called for immediate meetings.

Ulster Unionist security spokesman Ken Maginnis, who is known to have slammed the door on Mowlam in anger on more than one occasion, welcomed the move and called for British policy "corrections."

There would, he said, "be huge relief, particularly among unionists, that there is a change at this stage. Mowlam, he said, while kind and courageous, was not the person to run the Northern Ireland Office at this time. She had been too influenced by personal feelings and had lost the battle for public confidence, while Mandelson was not susceptible to a "sob story," he said.

Mandelson was more hard-nosed and would deal more strictly according to the facts, which is something Ulster Unionists would appreciate, Maginnis said.

"If he sticks to democratic principles and adheres to those issues of genuine public interest, he’ll certainly have the cooperation of Ulster Unionist Party."

Taoiseach tribute

The nationalist parties praised Mowlam, while Taoiseach Bertie Ahern paid tribute to Mowlam’s "courage and understanding."

"It has been an historic period that saw the second IRA cease-fire and the Good Friday agreement negotiated and ratified," Ahern said. "Throughout the period, she has shown great courage and understanding, taking responsibility for very difficult decisions."

John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, said Mowlam had been outstanding: "The people of Northern Ireland owe her a deep debt of gratitude for the superb work that she has done, particularly in such difficult times," he said. "She has made an enormous contribution toward creating peace on our streets."

Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, said he wished Mowlam well in her new job. She had played a central role in the peace process, he said, adding that personalities do affect any situation, but what’s critical is the politics, and in particular in this instance the politics of the British government.

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