Mowlam determined to give her all in quest for peace


WHAT'S that in the skies over Northern Ireland? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Supermo! Whirlwind, hurricane or tornado, the hacks are ransacking the Thesaurus for a proper description of the nonstop, ubiquitous, everrolling, neverending Mo Show.

New Labour has at least superficially transformed the British political scene, but Northern Ireland still clings to the dreary steeples of sectarian spite. Mo Mowlam has embarked on a onewoman crusade to implant the New Labour seed in the stony ground of the Six Counties.

This week she set off on another round of meetings with the hostile battalions on both sides of the parades dispute. She explained herself in a typical piece of Mospeak: "What I am trying to do is get around everybody to make sure that I am fully appraised of where everybody is. I just hope in the next two weeks that the different groups I am talking to realise that, in the end, [it is] only by them talking in accommodation that we are going to avoid appalling violence in about three or four weeks".

"Talking in accommodation" is what Joxer Daly would call "a darlin phrase", but it's not a popular sport around here. Yet many observers have been impressed by Dr Mowlam's willingness to go out and meet people and stake her all on the off chance that somehow, some way, the clouds will part and the irresistible force of the Orange Order will come to terms with the immovable object of the residents' groups. At the very least, they might meet her in the same room at the same time.

Parallel with her efforts to resolve the parades row, Dr Mowlam has been deeply involved in attempts to broker another IRA ceasefire. It is understood a paper was delivered to the republican movement last weekend from the British side which conceded much of what they had sought senior political sources revealed there weren't many i's to be dotted or t's to be crossed.

It is understood this paper was due to be released in the form of a British government statement yesterday. But for the shootings of two RUC officers on Monday, the paper could have set the stage for a renewed ceasefire by midAugust and Sinn Fein's entry to the Storemont talks on September 29th.

The British may decide to release the paper anyway. They may also release minutes of the two recent meetings between senior civil servants and a Sinn Fein delegation.

It was against this background that Mr Tony Blair said in the Commons that the Lurgan killings were "a doubly wicked act because those who were responsible knew perfectly well of the chances that were being taken and the opportunities to try and put this process back on track and get a lasting political settlement".

But now that the IRA has screwed up, has the peace process any future? It was noticeable that neither Dr Mowlam nor Mr Blair definitively closed the door on Sinn Fein in the aftermath of Monday's shootings.

One last push? It would certainly be Dr Mowlam's style. She has been pushing and pulling, coaxing and cajoling, going hither and yon in her efforts for peace. No Secretary of State since William Whitelaw has started out with so much goodwill from nationalists. Even republicans have kind words for her. "She's good," a republicans source said. "She's in there trying to do it."

Unionists seem to be in two minds. They clearly feel more comfortable with the Prime Minister than with the proconsul and they give the impression that anytime Mo gets seriously out of line she will be reported to headmaster Tony. Their response when Dr Mowlam unveils the joint Anglo Irish paper on decommissioning at the end of the month is keenly awaited.

There are doubts on all sides about Mo's state of health and journalists noticed she has been looking tired lately. On the political level, doubts remain about her ability to cope with a job requiring so much skill and subtlety. Does she have the right mix of high vision and low cunning?

Seven weeks into the job, most observers are still keeping an open mind. But her bonhomie and unflagging appetite for meeting the common people should not be allowed to disguise her innate toughness.

Her free flow discourse with the media is in stark contrast with the measured patrician utterances of her predecessor, Sir Patrick Mayhew. Nevertheless, there is a political brain ticking away behind the soundbites.

Nor should the republican movement or anyone else assume they are dealing with someone who is soft on security. Labour are the people who brought us Roy Mason, after all, and the party will have no problem with a policy of zero tolerance if that is what the situation seems to require.

On her first day in the job the new Secretary of State went walkabout in downtown Belfast. Seeing the commotion, a passerby thought it was the Spice Girls. Yes it was, all rolled into one currently, we have Cheery Mo, but later on, if things don't work out, we might have a glimpse of Scary Mo as well.

Whatever happens, one can't help feeling the North of Ireland will never be the same again.