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Friday, January 9, 1998 Published at 23:11 GMT


Minister with a mission

The BBC's Janet Cohen profiles Mo Mowlam (5'51'')
"I am not desperate. I am not negotiating. I am determined. It takes courage to push things forward. It takes risks."

So said Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary faced with growing criticism at her decision to visit Maze prisoners - people convicted of serious crimes, including murder.

No one can deny Mo Mowlam is courageous. But her initiative reflects how close the peace process is to breaking down.

It also shows her personal - and cynics might say naive - determination to do all she can to prevent another return to the cycle of violence in Ulster.

Majorie Mowlam describes herself as a "tough old boot." She has made great strides in the past eight months in the peace process. Bringing David Trimble and Gerry Adams into the same building let alone the same room was a feat in itself.

[ image:
"I'm a tough old boot"
During heated negotiations with unionists and republicans in the last nine months, she has also had to cope with the side-effects of treatment for a benign brain tumour.

Although she has never sought to make an issue of her health, she was forced to reveal she was receiving chemotherapy, radiotherapy and steroid treatment after several British tabloids made jibes about her increase in weight.

Her hair had fallen out and she has to wear a wig, though her natural blonde locks are gradually growing back.

[ image: Maginnis: Mo's a
Maginnis: Mo's a "good mixer"
The wig has become part of the legendary Mowlam informality, though some suspect she uses it as a political weapon. She whips it off even during talks in Belfast.

"It's very disarming," said one Belfast politician. "When you're in a strenuous meeting with her and you're about to tackle her hard and she suddenly takes off the wig. It's extremely difficult to be tough on a lady who is bald."

Ms Mowlam has a reputation for being direct, unpretentious, cheerful in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems and - most important in a land so full of sectarian hatred - gregarious. Many in Ireland, including Ken Maginnis, deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists, have described her as " a good mixer".

Loyal to her leaders

Majorie Mowlam was born 47 years ago in Watford, north of London. After graduating from Durham University in England and completing a a PhD in political science at Iowa University, she returned to Britain in 1979.

[ image: The many faces of Mo Mowlam: in 1987 soon after winning Redcar...]
The many faces of Mo Mowlam: in 1987 soon after winning Redcar...
She joined the Labour Party as a student but made her mark in 1983 campaigning for Neil Kinnock in his leadership election. Four years later she was selected for the safe seat of Redcar. In 1994 she was became a supporter of Tony Blair in his bid for the party leadership.

[ image: 1990] 1990
New Labour's propaganda chiefs regarded her as a loose cannon. But her widespread popularity was undeniable and she was elected to the shadow cabinet and Labour's national executive committee. She became renowned for her blatant but light-hearted disregard of formality, kicking off her shoes and chewing gum at meetings.

[ image: 1994 she backed Blair in his leadership bid] 1994 she backed Blair in his leadership bid
After Labour won the 1997 General Election, she became Northern Ireland Secretary. With her photographic memory for names, she made many friends among residents and local councillors.

Her willingness to listen to all sides has been offset by her sometimes frosty relations with senior civil servants.

Summer of discontent

She once said residents' groups opposed to Orange parades were "independent" despite evidence that they had been infiltrated by the IRA. She has also had to retract a statement suggesting peace talks could go ahead with unionist participation.

Last year unionist attacks on her meetings with Sinn Fein were balanced with nationalist condemnation of her handling of the Orange marches.

Thousands of police were ordered at one point in the demonstration to push a Protestant march through a Catholic area. A leaked document later seemed to reveal that Ms Mowlam had planned such a push all along, even though she had insisted she had an open mind.

Ms Mowlam recently described herself as pragmatic with a deep-rooted sense of justice. "I like to see things get done," she said. " It's not that I need to be loved, or belong - I just say 'OK, if this is what we want to achieve, this is what we've got to do.'"

By deciding to visit to the Maze prison, she has shown she is ready to take risks to try to preserve the fragile peace process in Northern Ireland.


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