THE former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, has died. I doubt the she will ever be forgotten, for different reasons, and her unique style was something NI had never experienced before from someone in such a position – remember Mayhew? She was much beloved of many here, although unionists had many problems with her irreverence and perceived sympathy for Irish nationalism. Few will forget her; she got a standing ovation longer than the Prime Minister‘s at a Labour Party conference; she visited loyalist terrorists in the Maze prison, as she believed it help secure the Agreement; opposed the war in Iraq; called Martin McGuinness “babe” while bugging his car (McGuinness kindly blames NIO securocrats in his tribute); called for the legalisation of all drugs; and (depending on which source you believe) she once asked a police officer, senior civil servant or Peter Mandelson to pop out and buy her some tampons.
On a more personal level, Mo was very likeable. On the few occasions I met her, she took the time to talk, and was chatty, personable and down to earth. She could be blunt too. Her first official visit as SoS was to Ballymena, and she was very well received. I have little doubt about what she would say if she were able to go back there today.
She was very human, but that means she made mistakes, just like the rest of us. After the murder of Charles Bennett by the IRA, she defined it as ‘internal housekeeping’, rather than the breach of a ceasefire. The legacy of that throwaway comment is still with us today, as loyalists slaughter each other, while the Government stands idly by and watches.
Talking to Mo wasn’t like talking to a politician. Some people who had meetings with her thought it was more like talking to a rather vulgar child, and I recall being told by one politician how she used to take off her wig and twirl it round her fingers when she had heard enough. Appalled by her brazenness and scared of her popularity, she was heavily briefed against when she fell out of favour.
Mo had little time for airs and graces, and she was widely regarded by the public as ‘one of us’, a regular person (though maybe a wee bit too rude and touchy-feely for a rather conservative place like NI), the child of an alcoholic father who battled bravely against illness, and brought a more human face to politics here.
In her own words, “a tough old boot”.
ADDS: There’s a good backgrounder on her illness and wig here.