Advertisement

Mo Mowlam, 55; British Official Who Oversaw Northern Ireland Peace Talks

Special to The Times

Mo Mowlam, the irreverent and beloved former British minister for Northern Ireland, who oversaw negotiations leading to the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998, died Friday in a hospice in Canterbury in southeast England. She was 55.

The cause of death was not given, but Mowlam had previously undergone treatment for a brain tumor, which was diagnosed when Prime Minister Tony Blair took power in 1997 and she was given the Northern Ireland portfolio. Her courage and humor in dealing with cancer helped win her widespread affection.

After she lost her hair to chemotherapy, she wore a blond wig throughout the 22 months of talks to revive the peace process in the troubled British province -- famously taking the hairpiece off to relieve tensions in the negotiating room.

Observers of the peace negotiations said that Mowlam’s approachability helped make the agreement possible. She reportedly called Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness “Babe” in phone conversations.

Advertisement

“Mo was surely one of the most remarkable and colorful personalities ever to come into politics -- great company, utterly irreverent, full of life and fun,” Blair said in tribute. “Yet behind that extraordinary front presented to the world was one of the shrewdest political minds I ever encountered.”

Despite her personal popularity on the left of the Labor Party, Mowlam quit Blair’s government in 2001 after falling out with his centrist advisors.

Some Protestant politicians objected to her informality. Ian Paisley, the veteran Irish Protestant leader, was irked that his threat to quit the latest round of talks was met with a casual obscenity. But Mowlam’s informal touch appeared to encourage Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, to participate in the peace process.

It also encouraged some Protestant loyalists, who sought to remain part of Britain and have long fought the Roman Catholic separatists of the IRA. Mowlam took a political risk in 1998 by entering the Maze Prison near Belfast to speak with convicted loyalist paramilitaries when it became clear that the peace process needed their backing. She spoke to the prisoners for 60 minutes. Two hours later, the paramilitaries’ political representatives announced they were rejoining talks.

Advertisement

“It was personal interventions such as this that made the difference and kept politics moving in what was a very difficult environment,” current Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said. “At her heart was a desire to make a difference to people.”

McGuinness said she had played a “crucial role” in the peace talks, and Neil Kinnock, the former Labor Party leader, described Mowlam as “a hell of a woman. She was feisty, she was intelligent and she was immensely courageous -- not only personally, which she demonstrated in the months up to her death, but also intellectually. She will be greatly missed.”

Her Northern Ireland job was given to Peter Mandelson in 1999, and Mowlam, demoted to the less high-profile role of running the Cabinet office, repeatedly complained that senior colleagues had been badmouthing her.

There were suggestions that Blair was irritated when the Labor Party conference gave her a longer standing ovation than he received. As John Kampfner, editor of the New Statesman, recalled Friday in the London Evening Standard newspaper, Mowlam had suggested to him that Blair “was looking for ways to cut her down to size. He wanted everyone to know it was he who had brought peace to Northern Ireland.”

Advertisement

The prime minister has denied this, but few doubt that her searing honesty on everything from the royal family to her experimentation with cannabis upset party managers.

In her 2002 memoir, “Momentum,” she said that she quit government and politics partly because Downing Street advisors were spreading rumors that her battle with the brain tumor had left her intellectually unfit.

Once the constraints of office were removed, allowing her to express her opinions freely, she said it was “harder and harder to defend what the Labor government is doing. We have a prime minister who has thrown away the British Constitution and seems to see himself as our president,” she said.

Marjorie Mowlam was born in Watford, England, in September 1949 and grew up in Coventry. After studying social anthropology at the University of Durham, she earned a master’s degree and a doctorate from the University of Iowa.

Advertisement

She worked as a research assistant for Tony Benn, a left-wing member of Parliament. Later, she became a lecturer and administrator in adult education at Northern College in Barnsley.

A member of the Labor Party since 1969, she was first elected to Parliament in 1987 and later became a member of the influential House of Commons Public Accounts Committee and the party’s ruling National Executive Committee.

Having been part of Kinnock’s “prawn cocktail offensive” to charm city financiers into supporting the Labor Party, she then became a key part of Blair’s leadership campaign in 1994.

In 1995, she married Labor-supporting merchant banker Jon Norton, a father of two.

Advertisement

A few weeks before the general election of 1997, the British tabloids showed unflattering photos of Mowlam -- she had gained 30 pounds -- and accused her of binging on sweets. She responded that she had been taking steroids for a brain tumor, which she had kept secret from all but a few Labor colleagues. She was quickly hailed as “Brave Mo.”

Indiscretion -- often the other side of the coin of frankness -- was one of her more endearing characteristics. Asked to confirm that she had smoked cannabis, she replied: “Yes, and unlike Bill Clinton I did inhale!”

After leaving politics, she set up a charity, MoMo, to help people in drug rehabilitation and the parents of disabled children.

She was also appointed to write an advice column for the racy men’s magazine, Zoo, and agreed to lead an attempt to set up a heavy metal music station in Belfast, and she worked for the charity Macmillan Cancer Relief.

Advertisement

Trying to explain her own popularity, she said: “I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I can’t spell. But something I can do is get on with people.”


Advertisement
Advertisement