Mowlam, Marjorie ('Mo') (1949–2005), secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was born in Watford, Hertfordshire, England on 18 September 1949, second of three children (two daughters and a son) of Frank William Mowlam, postal official, and his wife Bettina (Tina) Mary (née Rogers), telephonist.
Although Frank Mowlam possessed considerable ability (starting as a telegraph boy, he became assistant postmaster in Southall (1955) and Coventry (1962)), he was also an alcoholic. As his condition worsened, Marjorie's teens were overshadowed by the financial and emotional problems inflicted on his family; she found escape through schoolwork and socialising in and out of school. In later life Mowlam was a patron of the National Association for the Children of Alcoholics.
Education and early career Mowlam's primary education was at Cassiobury School, Watford, and George Tomlinson primary school, Southall. After passing the eleven-plus examination, she briefly attended Chiswick girls' grammar school in west London before transferring to Coundon Court comprehensive school in Coventry. Although not outstandingly brilliant, she was hardworking and participated in a wide range of school activities (including Girl Guides, drama, debating, hockey and netball) – she became the school's first elected head girl. It was at this time that she acquired the nickname 'Mo' (though family and some close friends continued to call her Marjorie).
Mowlam became a Labour party supporter while at school, and participated in Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) demonstrations and protests against South African apartheid; she formally joined the party in her first year at university. She studied anthropology and sociology at Durham University, where she was widely regarded by her contemporaries as a potential prime minister and revelled in the relaxation of restrictions on university students in the late 1960s (amongst other things, she was the first female vice-president of the Durham student union). She graduated BA in social anthropology in 1971. At this time and well into her thirties, Mowlam was known for her blonde good looks. She entered into a relationship with Martin Pumphrey, a fellow-student who later pursued an academic career; they remained together for seven years and studied together in America.
In 1972 Mowlam briefly did secretarial work for the Labour politician Tony Benn (b. 1925). She studied political science at the University of Iowa (1973–6), graduating MA in 1974 and Ph.D. in 1978. Her dissertation was on the working of direct democracy in Switzerland, and it has been suggested that this may have informed some of her tactics in the Northern Ireland peace process. Mowlam taught briefly at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, then taught political science at Florida State University in Tallahassee (1977–8). In Florida she had a relationship with Dan Sammons, a teacher, whose accidental drowning in 1978 had considerable emotional impact on her.
Labour politics Mowlam returned to Britain in 1979 to take up a lecturership in politics at the University of Newcastle-on-Tyne. By this time she had already decided to pursue a career in politics rather than academia, and she promptly became active in the Labour party in the Newcastle Central constituency. She built up a network of friends in community groups but attracted hostility both from traditionalist members with male chauvinist views and from the 'hard left', some of whom spread rumours that she was working for the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1984–7 she held an administrative post at Northern College, Barnsley, Yorkshire. She was active in support of the 1984–5 coalminers' strike.
Mowlam was generally associated with the 'soft left' supporters of Neil Kinnock (Labour party leader 1983–92) who became her personal friend and patron; however, her strong commitment to CND gave some acquaintances the impression that she was further to the left than was actually the case. In fact, her US experiences had given her an admiration for the American can-do mentality with its relative social mobility, and as a member of what she privately described as the rootless lower middle classes she did not care for the view that Labour should see itself primarily as a tribal working-class party suspicious of those from other social backgrounds. In a 1993 Fabian Review article she wrote: 'Until the Labour Party can mentally make the leap that says aspiring to be middle class is positive, the people will always have trouble believing we want to help anyone less fortunate.'
Member of parliament At the 1987 general election Mowlam was elected MP for Redcar in North Yorkshire. Over the next fourteen years she was an active constituency MP, residing locally and lobbying strongly on behalf of the area – not least the giant steelworks, which was the principal local employer. She was immediately nominated to the influential public accounts committee of the house of commons. Ten months after her election she became an opposition spokesperson on Northern Ireland; this was at the request of Kevin McNamara, shadow Northern Ireland secretary, who wished to appoint the first woman to a major party's Northern Ireland team and who was influenced by the fact that despite her support for abortion Mowlam did not (as with other prominent Labour women MPs) oppose granting a free vote on the subject to Labour MPs. (As secretary of state for Northern Ireland Mowlam was criticised by some feminists for not extending the 1967 abortion act to Northern Ireland – which would have been opposed by most of the province's political representatives.) Mowlam thus began her acquaintance with Northern Ireland and started to build up the contacts among politicians and community groups which she would deploy as secretary of state.
At Westminster, Mowlam feared exclusive identification with women's issues and adopted what was seen as a 'laddish' persona. This was resented by some female MPs who noted that she benefited from the recently imposed requirement to elect a certain number of women to the shadow cabinet. A number of affairs (including one with a married journalist leading to his divorce) also attracted adverse comment. Although she developed a network of friends in the parliamentary Labour party, she was not seen to possess a defined regional or factional power base, and this had damaging effects on her career.
From 1989–92 she served as spokesperson on city and corporate affairs in the shadow trade and industry team, participating in the 'prawn cocktail offensive' aimed at persuading business opinion that the British economy would be safe under a Labour government. Mowlam was generally seen to have performed well in this role; unfortunately for her, she fell out with the shadow trade and industry secretary, Gordon Brown (later shadow chancellor of the exchequer 1992–7, chancellor of the exchequer 1997–2007, and prime minister 2007–10), whose hostility guaranteed that Mowlam would never receive a significant economic portfolio. Her city activities had significant implications for her personal life, since they brought her into contact with Jonathan ('Jon') Norton (d. 2009), a Labour-supporting merchant banker whose first marriage was breaking down. They subsequently lived together, eventually marrying on 24 June 1995. Their relationship was very close and affectionate. Mowlam treated her two stepchildren as her own; she states in her memoirs that she had never made a conscious decision not to have children and felt she had attained 'the best of both worlds'.
Mowlam was left relatively isolated by Kinnock's resignation as leader in 1992. Although John Smith (Labour leader 1992–4) respected her ability, as a churchgoing Edinburgh presbyterian lawyer he was not impressed by her lifestyle. On her election to the front bench, she was appointed by Smith to what she regarded as non-positions: spokesperson for women's affairs and the citizens' charter (1992–3), and shadow national heritage secretary (1993–4).
Shadow cabinet After Smith's death Mowlam was the first shadow cabinet member to declare publicly her support for the election of Tony Blair as Labour Party leader; however, her offer to head Blair's leadership campaign was turned down because Blair's circle regarded her – then and later – as unpredictable and dangerously disorganised. Blair appointed her shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland. This was seen as a conciliatory gesture towards the unionists, as McNamara was widely seen as very sympathetic towards the nationalist position. In a tightly balanced commons Mowlam sought to influence unionist MPs, whose votes were becoming increasingly influential, towards developing closer relations with Labour. She was also briefed by the Conservative government on developments in the peace process, and tried to maintain a bipartisan approach (a courtesy which she later complained was not reciprocated when the Conservatives were in opposition and she was secretary of state).
In January 1997 Mowlam was diagnosed as having a brain tumour, and underwent surgery, radiotherapy and steroid treatment. This had a damaging effect on her appearance; she gained several stone and lost all her hair (subsequently, during awkward negotiations in Northern Ireland, a favourite tactic was to abruptly take off her wig and scratch her head). After her appearance became the subject of press comment, she revealed her illness, winning widespread sympathy and praise. In January 2010 it was revealed that she had known that her illness was terminal but had kept this secret from all but a few close associates.
Secretary of state After Labour's landslide election victory at the 1 May 1997 general election, Mowlam became secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Although she had hoped for an economic ministry, she threw herself into the job, setting the tone by conducting a walkabout in central Belfast amidst great popular excitement. Thereafter she carried out a large number of high-profile visits to community groups around Northern Ireland. She also embarked on such initiatives as holding rock concerts in the grounds of Stormont.
Part of her appeal was her dissimilarity from Conservative predecessors as Northern Ireland secretary, popularly (and not always fairly) regarded as remote, interchangeable figures repeating official platitudes. This in turn chimed in with the new Labour government's self-presentation as a bright, modern, classless and pragmatic force sweeping away the tired, archaic, corrupt and narrow-minded 'forces of conservatism'. After her death the then Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain described her as 'the people's politician'. It is generally accepted that Mowlam's displays of goodwill and concern, and their impact on public confidence, marked her most important contribution to the peace process.
This should not cause Mowlam's abilities and knowledge of the situation to be underestimated. Her deputy, Paul Murphy (later to be secretary of state for Northern Ireland in 2002–05), to whom much of the detailed work on north-south institutions was delegated in the period leading to the Belfast agreement of April 1998, specifically denies in his ODNB entry for Mowlam that she was marginalised during the final negotiations.
One of Mowlam's first major decisions provoked widespread nationalist hostility in July 1997. At meetings with community groups on both sides in Portadown, Co. Armagh, over the annual dispute involving an Orange parade to Drumcree parish church through the nationalist Garvaghy Road, she told the Garvaghy residents' group that if she let the parade through she would come back and inform them personally. After she decided, on the basis of advice given by the RUC chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan, that prohibiting the parade would produce an unacceptable level of violence, she was advised that security requirements precluded her explaining her decision to the residents. Murals subsequently appeared in nationalist areas depicting Mowlam as Pontius Pilate. She saw herself as having no particular baggage in connection with either side (partly because she was an atheist). In general, however, she was seen as instinctively more sympathetic to nationalist than to unionist concerns, and her efforts to keep republicans on side, which included addressing Martin McGuinness as 'babe', were seen by some as tantamount to appeasement. This should not be exaggerated (she also authorised the bugging of a car used by Sinn Féin leaders during the negotiations, leading McGuinness to comment after her death that though well-meaning she had, like any British minister in Northern Ireland, been constrained by the 'securocrats').
Mowlam's most high-profile intervention in the peace process came in January 1998 when she visited the Maze prison to confer with UDA prisoners, including the notorious killers Michael Stone and Johnny Adair, who had threatened to withdraw their support from negotiations after the murder of Billy Wright (qv). (This would have meant the withdrawal of the UDA-linked Ulster Democratic Party, probably followed by its UVF-linked counterpart, the loss of any possibility of unionist majority support for an agreement, and possibly the resumption of large-scale violence.) No previous secretary of state had visited the Maze in this manner (although Mowlam had done so as opposition spokesperson). Her decision produced shock among negotiators. It involved considerable political risk, and had it failed she would certainly have had to resign. The shock of her willingness to engage with the prisoners (including, according to Stone, slapping Adair's hand when he started to bite his nails), and her making the first definite statement that prisoner release would be part of any settlement, succeeded in getting the prisoners to declare continuing support for the process.
For many the Maze visit was her finest hour, though some (including John Alderdice, leader of the Alliance party) complained that it debased democracy and that it was part of a pattern of residual hippy admiration for outlaws over the staid and law-abiding. (After Mowlam's death the DUP politician Peter Robinson – a political enemy – alleged that for a time after the Maze she described Adair as 'the unsung hero of the peace process' (Belfast Telegraph, 20 August 2005).) Similar criticisms were made over her reluctance to impose severe sanctions on loyalists and republican parties when their paramilitary wings carried out shootings and punishment beatings; she defended this as a necessary evil to sustain the peace process.
Criticisms of Mowlam's outlook and behaviour came predominantly from unionists, many of whom were shocked by her fondness for swearing and informal behaviour such as putting her feet up on tables (conduct which she justified as ice-breaking and moving participants out of their comfort zones). Her public boast, that by sending her embarrassed security guards to buy her tights and tampons she was 'civilising the Ulster male', were seen by some as admirably free-spirited and by others as wantonly humiliating employees out of adolescent dislike for men in uniform; what the security guards thought of it is not clear. Her relations with the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble became particularly tense; although Trimble later commented that at least she was straightforward whereas her predecessors had been deviously untrustworthy, he preferred to negotiate directly with Blair.
As the negotiations towards the Belfast agreement entered the final stages and the heads of government became involved, Mowlam was relegated to a secondary role, at one point remarking to the US president Bill Clinton that she was 'the new tea-lady here'. But she was involved in the negotiations up to the last minute, wandering the corridors of government buildings at Stormont wigless and in stockinged feet, holding discussions with different groups of delegates and conveying their concerns to the two prime ministers. This may have been a secondary role, but it was not insignificant; and with her community-group allies she played a prominent role in the subsequent referendum campaign.
To the outside world Mowlam was widely seen as the central figure of the peace process. She developed strong links with the White House (particularly Hillary Clinton and the US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright) and used this to lobby for US investment in Northern Ireland. She was briefly the most popular cabinet member with the British public; she was awarded the freedom of Coventry, Sheffield, and Redcar and Cleveland, and honorary degrees, including one from Durham University (which commissioned a bust of her); the University of Iowa gave her a distinguished alumna award.
Mowlam came to believe that events at the Labour party conference in September 1998, where the mere mention of her name in Blair's leader's speech provoked a standing ovation, helped to provoke her political demise by making the leadership see her as a threat. This view was exaggerated; the leadership continued to regard her as a potential asset whose popularity reflected well on the government, though it also came to see her as unpredictable. By 1999 her relations with Trimble had completely broken down, exacerbated by disputes over the process of decommissioning paramilitary weapons and the Patten commission, which recommended major changes in policing and was seen by many unionists as retrospectively casting shadows on the role of the RUC in the Troubles. Mowlam argued that just as it had been necessary to go a long way to meet loyalist concerns, it was now necessary to cultivate republicans; but British official circles felt she overstepped the bounds of discretion in her dealings. (In 2003 leaked telephone transcripts published in a biography of McGuinness showed Mowlam talking with startling frankness to the prominent Sinn Féin leader about her relations with Blair.)
Mowlam resisted Blair's initial attempts to move her to another ministry, declaring that she wished to see the peace process through to completion. She expressed an interest in becoming defence secretary or foreign secretary, resisting a proposal that she should become health secretary on the grounds that, as head of a spending department, her freedom of action would be unduly circumscribed by the Treasury. She also turned down a proposal to contest in 1999 the first election for the mayoralty of London against Ken Livingstone, a Labour rebel running as an independent candidate, who went on to win the contest. She successfully resisted an attempt to move from Northern Ireland in summer 1999, but discovered that her authority to conduct negotiations was affected as her interlocutors assumed she would not be around to implement decisions.
In October 1999 Mowlam was replaced by Peter Mandelson as Northern Ireland secretary and appointed instead as minister for the cabinet office and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. She disliked this vaguely defined portfolio, which she described as 'minister for the Today programme' (BBC Radio 4's influential morning news and current affairs programme) and took little interest in it. She did, however, make a number of high-profile visits to countries with problems related to the drugs trade (the position included responsibility for work against illegal drugs), and in 2000 aroused controversy by stating that she had taken cannabis when younger, 'and unlike President Clinton, I inhaled'. She also attracted comment by appearing on the talkshow So Graham Norton (renowned for its 'blue' humour) in February 2000, conducting a mock marriage ceremony for two dogs.
Later years Mowlam retired from the cabinet and from parliament at the 2001 general election. She had told colleagues of her decision in 2000 but was asked to remain in the cabinet until the election rather than leaving it immediately. In 2002 she published a memoir, Momentum: the struggle for peace, progress and the people. This mainly dealt with her political career and role in Northern Ireland; she found it painful to recall her early life, which is described in Julia Langdon's biography (based on interviews with friends and family). The memoir is conversational in tone, somewhat poorly organised and contains minor errors of detail.
Mowlam publicly denounced the Blair government's decision to join the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and in 2004 suggested that the United States should enter into negotiations on the Northern Ireland model with the Islamist terrorist organisation al-Qaeda. Her retirement activities included a touring one-woman show, 'An audience with Mo Mowlam', and numerous television appearances. In 2004 she became agony aunt for the 'lads' magazine Zoo. She kept up her connections with community groups in Northern Ireland and paid many private visits to the province; she took a particular interest in promoting integrated education. She also founded a charity, Mo Mo Helps, which assisted recovering drug addicts and those caring for disabled children.
Mo Mowlam died in Pilgrims' Hospice, Canterbury, Kent on 19 August 2005, two weeks after going into a coma when she fell and hit her head (she developed balancing problems after radiographic treatment). She was cremated and her ashes divided in two; half were scattered at Redcar and the other half in the grounds of Hillsborough Castle, where she resided when secretary of state. Several memorial services were held, and a memorial mural was unveiled at Redcar in 2009. A docudrama entitled Mo, with Julie Walters playing an earthy Mowlam haunted by mortality, was shown on Channel 4 television on 31 January 2010.