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.
ten minutes later, realising that he had only just
set the receiver down, she casually asked him who
he had been talking to.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
northerners, often the most cynical of people, took
her to our hearts.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
eventually, put things back on track.
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.
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.
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.
she and I always agree? Of course we didn't. But,
I must admit, I liked her style of disagreeing with
off, Davy", she would say, wig askew and her
eyes dancing with mischievous delight.
at other times, with eyes glazed over, the more
formal, "I hear what you're saying, Davy."
Mowlam towers like a giant above the mostly half-remembered
names and faces of some 14 other secretaries of
state for Northern Ireland.
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.
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