The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Dr Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam (1949-2005)—“our one and only Mo”, according to then Prime Minister Tony Blair—received a standing ovation at the 1998 Labour party conference in recognition of her work on the Good Friday/Belfast agreement in Northern Ireland. Opinion polls showed she was then the most popular member of the Cabinet with the public and in a 2005 poll she was voted the nation’s favourite politician of all time.
Mowlam joined the Labour party in her first year studying social anthropology at Durham University. After graduating, she spent some years in the United States, studying for a PhD in political science at the University of Iowa and teaching. Returning to the north-east of England in 1979, she took up a post as a politics lecturer at Newcastle University; in 1984, she moved to the adult education Northern College in Barnsley.
She chaired Tyne Bridge constituency Labour Party and was a volunteer for Neil Kinnock’s leadership campaign, but failed to secure a seat in the 1983 election. In 1987, the sitting candidate for Redcar stood down at short notice; within days, Mowlam was in Parliament as the MP for Redcar.
In her maiden speech, she paid tribute to Ellen Wilkinson, who was MP for Middlesbrough East (1924-1931) as well as Jarrow on Tyneside (1935-1947), describing her as “a practical woman who liked to see things done.”
Mowlam became a member of the Public Accounts Committee and, within 10 months, was an Opposition spokesperson on Northern Ireland. Other shadow ministerial posts followed, including as Labour’s spokesperson on the City of London and corporate affairs and as shadow Minister for Women. She played a major role in Tony Blair’s campaign for leadership in 1994 and was made shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. She was also a member of Labour’s national executive committee.
After Labour’s 1997 election victory, Mowlam, the former head girl of a comprehensive school, became the first female Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, where she was instrumental in negotiating the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast agreement. On her first visit as Secretary of State, she took to the streets of Belfast; she had no difficulty relating to people, although her informal style and approach did not endear her to everyone.
In her work in Northern Ireland, Mowlam believed that the principle of consent was “central and inviolable”. She reached out to all parties, supported the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, and controversially visited the Maze prison to encourage loyalist prisoners into the peace process. She said that “unless you bring people into the process and talk to them, you are not going to make progress”. She was keen to share credit with the hundreds of people who had given years of their lives to building peace in Northern Ireland.
In a 1998 profile, Mowlam discussed what drove her politics: “It’s the real life of people that needs changing.”
Mowlam was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1996 and underwent radiotherapy, which she kept secret until gibes from the press about her altered appearance led her to go public. Her bravery, and her determination to make progress in Northern Ireland, won many plaudits.
In 1999 she was appointed Minister for the Cabinet Office, which was considered a lower profile job. She focused particularly on the international drugs trade.
In 2001, she retired from Parliament. She died from her illness in 2005. In his tribute, Tony Blair described her as “one of the most remarkable and colourful personalities ever to come into politics…one of the shrewdest political minds I ever encountered…I remember the early meetings leading up to the Good Friday Agreement and the slightly bemused astonishment of all and sundry as, by a mixture of determination, charm and sheer life force, she bowled everyone over.”
Hansard Writing Team
2000 opinion poll: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2000/may/16/uk.labour
2005 favourite politicians poll: https://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/7145717.mo-beats-churchill-poll/
Maiden speech 7 July 1987: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1987-07-09/debates/fb94ce61-2fe2-4856-96b1-d3cc2caae8d6/CommonsChamber#contribution-625ca0d6-4b12-4d98-913b-7251e338bf74
News reports on Mo Mowlam’s appointment and walkabout in Belfast 1997
Archived Irish Times article by Mo Mowlam, 22 July 1997 https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/mo220797.htm
The Guardian profile of Mo Mowlam: Personality of the year, 16 May 1998 https://www.theguardian.com/politics/1998/may/16/immigrationpolicy
The Good Friday/Belfast agreement https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-belfast-agreement
BBC Desert Island Discs https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p00942gb
Article by founding member of Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/01/how-women-helped-to-build-peace-in-northern-ireland
The Times 15 July 2003 interview [paywall] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/i-was-tired-exhausted-sleeping-falling-over-and8212-now-im-a-new-woman-9rgq76zxqnh
House of Commons Library briefing on Devolution in Northern Ireland https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8439/
Tony Blair’s tribute to Mo Mowlam
BBC NEWS | Politics | Blair statement on Mo Mowlam
Article by Louise Haigh MP on Mowlam’s legacy https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/mo-mowlam-death-northern-ireland-15-anniversary-good-friday-agreement-a9677306.html
2018 opinion column on anniversary of Good Friday agreement https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/12/good-friday-agreement-mo-mowlam
Profile in the Dictionary of Irish Biography https://www.dib.ie/biography/mowlam-marjorie-mo-a9403