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Wednesday, 24 January, 2001, 17:00 GMT
What next for Northern Ireland?
peter mandelson
The departure is bad news for the peace process
By the BBC's Ireland correspondent Denis Murray

Peter Mandelson was far from an obvious choice for the post of Northern Ireland Secretary, but with no track record of opinions on the subject, he at least brought no political baggage as far as the local parties were concerned.

He took office at a time when there were difficulties in the peace process, difficulties which were much the same then as they remain now - issues like the vexed question of the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

Indeed, he was in Number Ten Downing Street on Tuesday, with the prime minister, meeting the main players in the process to try and resolve the continuing problems.

Paul Murphy: On the move?

One of the main difficulties is that time is running out to get a deal to anchor the process and the workings of the devolved power-sharing government.

In effect, there has to be some agreement by the end of next week, so the loss of a Northern Ireland secretary is clearly bad news for the process.

One effect the resignation has already had is to put the prime minister even more firmly at the centre of the efforts to resolve the differences between the Northern Ireland parties.

One leading Ulster Unionist, Dermot Nesbitt, has said that the process is much bigger than one individual, but it's also clear it's a development the process did not need.

Many enemies

Sinn Fein will shed no tears, as they had effectively lost confidence in Mr Mandelson, rather in the way the Ulster Unionists lost confidence in his predecessor, Mo Mowlam.

All the parties crossed swords with him at one time or another.

He'll be remembered in the process as the secretary of state who was in office when devolution came into place, for his suspension of the devolved power-sharing executive in order to prevent its complete collapse, and for putting it back into place a few months later when a deal was brokered by the British and Irish Prime Ministers, with Mr Mandelson heavily involved.

But it seems inevitable that his place in history will be for his leaving of the office rather than for what he may or may not have achieved in it.

The question for Northern Ireland now is who will replace him.

Former Northern Ireland Minister Paul Murphy is a likely candidate, having the knowledge of the personalities and the problems involved.

Scottish Secretary John Reid is also a name in the frame.

Whoever will replace him needs to be prepared for the task, and in place quickly if the current round of negotiations is to succeed.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Denis Murray
"The Ulster Unionist leader was among the first to pay tribute"
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