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Monday, October 11, 1999 Published at 22:56 GMT 23:56 UK

UK: Northern Ireland

The substance stays the same

Post-shuffle: The new and former Northern Ireland secretaries in Downing Street

By BBC Northern Ireland Political Correspondent Martina Purdy

Former Secretary of State Mo Mowlam said there is no easy time to leave Northern Ireland. As her successor, Peter Mandelson, prepares to fly to Belfast early on Tuesday, he is no doubt conscious that neither there is any easy time to arrive.

Cabinet reshuffle
Mr Mandelson, in a speech on the economy at the Savoy on Monday evening, demonstrated that while the personality might be changing, the message remained the same.

He said if there was going to be a deal, unionists and nationalists and republicans had to recognise that they needed each other. The change, therefore, is not likely to be one of substance but of style.

Dr Mowlam was famous for her warm, down-to-earth approach. Mr Mandelson is described by some of his critics as a rather prickly character.

[ image: Tony Blair trusts his close confidant Peter Mandelson more than he did Mo Mowlam]
Tony Blair trusts his close confidant Peter Mandelson more than he did Mo Mowlam
He is likely to be rather more formal than Dr Mowlam, who was known to go barefoot in Downing Street. Her shoot-from-the-hip style is also in marked contrast to his careful, more subtle approach.

Mr Mandelson is seen as a manipulative character by his detractors; Dr Mowlam, in contrast, is reputedly a straightforward personality.

Unionist approval could ease tension

The Ulster Unionist approval for the new Northern Ireland secretary should take some of the tension out of the process. And it will make it difficult for the party to complain about Mr Mandelson in the future should he fail to meet their expectations.

Dr Mowlam's style alone irked unionists. And many saw her as too pro-nationalist.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's desire to please unionists who refused to deal with Dr Mowlam meant he was forced to deal with problems himself. He therefore often bypassed his Northern Ireland secretary - a situation which sometimes offended and undermined her.

Mr Blair is unlikely to repeat the pattern. Mr Mandelson is a close personal friend and confidant, one whom he is loath to offend. That makes him a more powerful figure for the parties to deal with.

Mr Mandelson also has the advantage that he brings light baggage to Northern Ireland. He's hardly commented on the situation. Notably, his grandfather was in the cabinet when the Republic of Ireland was declared in 1948.

[ image: The new Northern Ireland secretary will no doubt have done his homework for the job]
The new Northern Ireland secretary will no doubt have done his homework for the job
Ultimately, the problems in Northern Ireland are not about personality, but process. As SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon noted, 12 secretaries of state so far have proved that: "No secretary of state can produce a miracle."

It is also clear that the truly important decisions - ruling, for example, whether a ceasefire is intact or not - are taken at Downing Street level.

Eyes and ears

It should not be forgotten, however, that a secretary of state is the eyes and ears of the government in Northern Ireland. His or her suspicions, prejudices and concerns are directly reported to the prime minister.

Mr Blair, given his close relationship with Mr Mandelson, is likely to trust that judgement far more than he did Dr Mowlam's.

That could leave one side or the other vulnerable. Sinn Fein will no doubt be concerned that Mr Mandelson should continue the inclusive style which set Dr Mowlam apart from any of her predecessors.

While former Northern Ireland secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew never got over his mistrust of Sinn Fein, Dr Mowlam seemed to accept their bona fides in wishing to make peace.

Mandelson's first test

[ image: Tory former Northern Ireland secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew never got over his mistrust of Sinn Fein]
Tory former Northern Ireland secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew never got over his mistrust of Sinn Fein
Mr Mandelson's first test comes when he meets the parties on Tuesday at Castle Buildings - at what he himself called a delicate stage in the Mitchell review of the Good Friday Agreement's progress.

Many politicians new to Northern Ireland make one gaffe or another. Given the state of the process, a word out of place could be more serious than at any other time.

But Mr Mandelson was no doubt was aware he was in line for this job some months ago, and will have done his homework.

In turn, the parties will be anxious to please Mr Mandelson, recognising his pivotal role. And no doubt Dublin and Washington will also take care to forge a close relationship.

Having tarnished his reputation over the revelations of a secret loan from his onetime cabinet colleague Geoffrey Robinson, Mr Mandelson has little to lose in coming to Northern Ireland.

And a glittering prize to win if he succeeds in achieving inclusive, stable government.

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