A proconsul with a style all of her own

Moya St Leger reviews Momentum

by Mo Mowlam, Hodder and Stoughton, £20 hbk

MO MOWLAM gave up smoking in 1996. Her account of her life from this point through her time as secretary of state for Northern Ireland to the present day is written in such an unpretentious, chatty way, one could be forgiven for forgetting she was undeniably the most effective Northern Ireland secretary in the history of that troubled statelet.

Mowlam talks openly about her tumour. At no point does she complain or indulge in self-pity, so the person who begins to emerge after a couple of chapters is one hell of a gutsy lady.

The courage and tenacity she displayed during her illness was to stand her in good stead later in Northern Ireland.

Mowlam is not a gifted writer, but writing is not her calling. Even if her prose falls short of sparkling, the Northern Ireland peace process is sufficiently momentous historically to need recording in her authentic voice.

Describing her political frustrations, the delays engineered by civil servants at the Northern Ireland Office, and the intransigence of the usual suspects in the ongoing pantomime that is Northern Ireland politics, she never becomes morose.

Despite all the obstacles Mowlam achieved the impossible -- the setting up of crucial discussions which brought parties into one room who had never before sat together at the same table.

Mowlam’s cheerful anecdotal style tends to sell her achievements short. No other Northern Ireland secretary would have been willing to meet the prisoners in the Kesh, or go in person to sit down with the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition -- taking with her a Chinese takeaway.

Her sympathies become apparent, and her impatience with Ian Paisley is not masked by humour: “helpful as ever, Ian Paisley addressed a rally in Portadown”.

The manner of her demise was disgraceful but she does allow herself a little space to express her dislike of Peter Mandelson: “it was clear that Peter was up to his old tricks”. Replacing the golden Mo with Mandelson was, in the eyes of ordinary members of the Labour party, the biggest single political mistake Tony Blair has made to date. The dismal failure of Mandelson as her successor was predictable.

Mowlam cared about Northern Ireland. She did not need to write this book to earn an honoured place in Anglo-Irish history.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 15:41:47.
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