There are a lot of strong, inspiring women throughout Irish history and one of my main goals when I started this project was to honor a lot of them. Sometimes that leads to highlighting women who aren’t Irish at all but who had a profound effect on Ireland whether they loved it, hated it, or were forced to endure it. I believe all of those descriptors and emotions applied at one time or another when it came to the indomitable Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam.
Honest is not usually a word that people ascribe to politicians. Mo earned this description with her blunt speech and strong, opinionated frankness when dealing with friend or foe alike. She was not especially good at the inconsequential small talk or diplomacy that most politicians are ingrained with. She cursed like a sailor, smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, and was unabashedly what many conservatives (and misogynists) would call “unladylike”. Mo demanded the same autonomy and authority that any male politician would have been given and she fought for power in every position she ever held.
Behind the scenes, Mowlam was even more of a fighter. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1997 and she hid it from nearly everyone, including her boss Tony Blair. She wore a wig to cover her hair loss and blamed her weight gain on giving up smoking. When Blair appointed her to be the Secretary of State for the North of Ireland, he was unaware of her terminal medical condition. When the media began reporting on her declining appearance, she called them out for their misogynistic double-standards on appearance before finally revealing her condition. She still didn’t share how serious it was but the media quickly changed their tune. Mowlam was lauded for her bravery and praised as a fighter. She turned her attention on her new surroundings in the North. The goal was peace in the region – something that many before her and since have failed miserably at achieving. Many would have said it was an impossible task.
Mo Mowlam used every connection and every opportunity she could to bring that goal to fruition. It wasn’t easy and many would have liked to have seen her fail. Unionists didn’t like her because they thought she was sympathetic to Nationalists. Nationalists didn’t trust her because she was an English politician who went to Orange lodges, allowed contentious parades, and had meetings with Loyalist paramilitaries. Some of her fellow politicians thought she was obnoxious and avoided her at all costs. Lesser men and women would have given up in the face of this hostility, but not Mo. She walked a very fine line in the powder keg of the North. She helped bring Sinn Fein into ongoing peace talks and managed to bridge the gap between rival factions but it took its toll on her and made her some powerful political enemies. Still, a tenuous peace finally came to the region while she was the Secretary of State.
Many people got credit for the roles they played in the creation of the Good Friday Agreement. Tony Blair publicly thanked them all but only Mo Mowlam got a standing ovation when she was mentioned. The applause went on for several minutes, interrupting the Prime Minister’s victory speech. Politicians from every walk of life stood and clapped. Of course, this approval was not completely universal. Her volatile personality and blunt manner of speaking was intolerable for some. She angered Rev. Ian Paisley when she told him to piss off, and she had no regrets about it. David Trimble didn’t like her and his constituents called for her head. These were only some of the excuses that were used to demote her the following year. Shamefully, Mo was forced to leave the North of Ireland before the new power-sharing government that she helped create really got off the ground.
Mo Mowlam was a forceful woman and a formidable politician who had a profound effect on the North. She tried to fight for everyone in the region, rather than aligning herself completely with one group or party. She stood her ground when other politicians tried to undermine her and she held her head high, with or without her wig. The cancer finally got her on August 19th, 2005, nearly a decade after she was first told that she was dying. Mo seemed to understand that peace and power went hand in hand – and she wasn’t willing to settle for one without the other. It is a lesson that certain current politicians in the North would do well to remember.
“It’s important for women not just to be in office, but to be in power, because often we get put into office but it’s not really power,” so said the indomitable Mo.