Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam, 74MA, 77PhD, Britain's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has earned worldwide respect for her distinctive contribution to the landmark peace agreement between the Irish Republic and the province of Northern Ireland.
While turning the hearts and minds of political assassins probably was not covered in any of the classes Mowlam attended while working on her doctorate at the University of Iowa 25 years ago, that's how Mowlam has spent the past several years as she endures what has been called the most frustrating and thankless job in international politics. Appointed to the cabinet of British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997, Mowlam has helped orchestrate a delicate peace accord within a social and political culture that's been marked by bigotry, ivisiveness, and violence for more than 300 years.
Her task has put Mowlam face-to-face with killers from both camps: loyalists desperate to preserve Northern Ireland's political and economic ties with England and nationalists willing to use violence to unite Ireland's 32 counties into a single nation. While Mowlam admits it wasn't easy to warm up to people of violence, her ability to do so proved critical to reaching the so-called Good Friday Agreement, a commitment endorsed in May 1998 by 95 percent of voters in Ireland's 26 counties and 71 percent in Northern Ireland's six. The milestone agreement is a political blueprint for building a road toward peace after 20 years of violence that spawned some of the world's most atrocious terrorist acts and left 3,000 dead.
For more than ten months, Mowlam both hosted and refereed fragile political negotiations. Among the lessons she learned from the peace process, Mowlam says, is the need to involve people at all levels, to build their confidence, and to buy them enough space and time to make progress within their own distinctive communities. "You have to overcome fear," she says. "You have to build trust and build respect."
Known for her brash populist approach, Mowlam overcame her own fears by literally going into the streets of Belfast to get to know ordinary citizens. At one point, she stunned all involved in the peace talks by entering the notorious H-Block of Northern Ireland's Maze Prison to brief senior Ulster Defence Association and Irish Republican Army prisoners on the peace process and issues such as early release of political prisoners. After meeting with Mowlam, the prisoners gave their political representatives the go-ahead to keep bargaining, and an editorial the next day in the Irish Times termed her negotiations within the high-security prison "a humane and disarming gesture by a brave woman."
Mowlam is quick to note that peace in Ireland remains a hope, not a reality, that there's "a wee way to go." Toward that end, she continues to have faith in the people of Ireland and complete confidence that peace is inevitable. "It was the people who wanted peace," she says. "If they hadn't wanted it as they so desperately do, we wouldn't have gotten to where we are now."
Before her rise in British and world politics, Mowlam lectured at Florida State University and at Newcastle Upon Tyne. She also served as an administrator for Northern College in Barnsley, England.