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Tuesday, March 16, 1999 Published at 15:10 GMT

Mo Mowlam: London's eternal optimist

Mo Mowlam: Polls suggest she is more popular than the prime minister

By BBC News Online's Gary Duffy.

If there is a consensus of opinion about Mo Mowlam, it is that she is totally unlike any of her predecessors as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The comparison with the Conservative minister who did the job before her is perhaps the most striking.

While Sir Patrick Mayhew was considered aloof and patrician, Dr Mowlam prides herself on her ability to move easily among groups of politicians or members of the public, aided by an easy-going manner.

[ image: Drumcree: The dispute over the Orange Order march was one of Mo Mowlam's lowest points]
Drumcree: The dispute over the Orange Order march was one of Mo Mowlam's lowest points
At least one opinion poll has suggested the occasionally indiscreet secretary of state is more popular than Prime Minister Tony Blair.

She gained considerable public sympathy when it emerged she was receiving treatment for a brain tumour, which turned out to be benign.

Few secretaries of state come to Northern Ireland with such extensive experience of the brief and the problems faced by the community.

Dr Mowlam had been a shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland issues on and off for many years. She had extensive contacts across the political divide when she took on the post of secretary of state, one of the least sought after jobs in the Cabinet.

Mr Blair appointed her to the post when the Labour Party came to power with its large majority in May 1997.

Inclusive talks a priority

The Search for Peace
One of her immediate priorities was to work towards the restoration of the IRA ceasefire, and to make the multi-party talks as inclusive as possible by bringing Sinn Fein to the conference table.

Both were to happen with months.

Despite her friendly manner and often popular appeal no-one can hold the top job in Northern Ireland without attracting criticism or making enemies.

Mo Mowlam's handling of the controversial Orange Order parade through a mainly Catholic area at Drumcree in County Armagh was one of her lowest moments.

The residents said she had promised to let them know in advance what her decision would be, but in the end the police and army moved in early in the morning and sealed off the area, allowing the parade to go ahead.

[ image: Maze Prison: Talks with prisoners was a high-risk venture for Mo Mowlam that worked]
Maze Prison: Talks with prisoners was a high-risk venture for Mo Mowlam that worked
Dr Mowlam was left to face a wave of nationalist fury and claims of duplicity. When a year later the parade was prevented from going through the contentious area, unionists were equally furious.

Relations elsewhere had their problems - in the multi-party talks she had some bitter exchanges with unionists, and the Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis in particular.

At one low point for the peace process she paid an extraordinary visit to the Maze prison to talk to loyalist and republican prisoners.

The high-risk initiative paid off, persuading loyalist inmates in particular to give the talks process another chance.

When the eight parties and two governments reached agreement on Good Friday in 1998, it was seen as a particular achievement for the secretary of state.

With the peace process stalled over the delicate issue of getting rid of paramilitary weapons, Dr Mowlam has remained both resolute and optimistic.

There seems little doubt that after Northern Ireland another senior post in the government is just around the corner.

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In this section

David Trimble: More enemies than friends

John Hume: Midwife to the peace process

Mo Mowlam: London's eternal optimist

Gerry Adams: Between war and peace

Ian Paisley: Ulster's No man

John de Chastelain: Arms and the man

Mallon: Calling a spade a spade

David Ervine: Leaving the past behind