Mo Mowlam surprised us all before she shocked us.
She was a heartening break from the sequence of plummy male
Secretaries of State whose job had been to speak implausibly for the
people of ‘Nawthen Arlan’ and their desire for peace. It is a pattern
we have now returned to, despite the sense then that she had broken
She seemed an ordinary decent Northern woman, more like most of us
than the others were like any of us.
On her first day in office she got out of her car and walked about
meeting people in Donegall Place. Of course it was all PR, but it had
a grounded civility that none of her predecessors had quite managed.
And we knew while she was in office that she was a difficult woman.
There were early stories about her brain tumour, her weight gain, her
bawdy humour and how she stunned local politicians by taking her wig
off during meetings. All of these things made her likeable too. Though
not to everybody.
There is a scene in the film Mo, in which Julie Walters as the new
Secretary of State, confronting David Trimble for the first time,
spreads out her legs and tells the unionist leader that she is hiding
nothing from him.
Adrian Dunbar is as frighteningly good a Trimble as Walters is a Mo.
He plays a wooden and emotionally constipated protestant with nowhere
Yesterday Daphne Trimble traced that incident back to a meeting in the
Portadown constituency office, at which Mo met David Trimble and
Gordon Lucy. She says the meeting was not confrontational and that is
is nonsense to suiggest that it was then that David Trimble decided he
could not work with Mo. ‘Did he even notice?’ she said with a laugh.
In the film, the Mo that Trimble will have to deal with is shocking
and revolting. Her language is unquotable.
And that is how she was, apparently.
I remember once getting into a conversation with an ashen faced
broadcast technician who had just been dealing with her and he
expressed himself shocked and embarrassed. He did not expect to be
spoken to like that when he was doing his job, and he knew that a
colleague who addressed him in those terms would be asked to leave the
building. Apparently our local broadcasters have footage of the
moments before formal interviews, when sound levels and pictures are
checked, when she addressed them in the language of a docker.
Julie Walters’ portrayal of Mo is true to that experience.
Former members of her own staff complained about this behaviour. Andy
Wood, a press officer, later described how she had sent him out to the
shops for her tampons.
But there was warmth in her through all this. Local artists who have
been her guests at Hillsborough Castle have spoken of how she invited
them to use the Queen’s toilet, or even how she continued
conversations with them while having a pee herself.
Another civil servant I spoke to, on the day she left Northern
Ireland, talked of his first ‘ministerial hug’.
Two questions are implied by the film about this ribald and candid extravagance.
One is whether it worked some kind of magic among the stiff and
intractable local politicians. The other is whether it was really her
at all or a symptom of the tumour’s disinhibiting effect.
The producers of the film appear to believe that Mo came among us as a
saving angel, bringing joy and candour to a region that was humourless
The weakness in the case the film makes is that that portrayal of
Northern Ireland does not ring true.
Mo’s first experiment in breaking down the reserve of a stuffy,
immovable poltiician is with Trimble. It fails. Trimble, in the film,
is so appalled by her that he simply refuses to deal with her, from
the first day. This is all good comedy and the target of it is the man
who became our first First Minister.
But is it true?
Well, Trimble can be stiff and irascible, but he too can also be funny.
And the fact is that he did work with Mo through the negotiations to
the Good Friday Agreement and that it was only later, during the
deadlock over decommissioning that he and his party worked more
directly to Blair and angled for Mandelson’s appointment.
The several interventions by Blair were presented as undermining Mo,
but this will seem particularly implausible in the week in which
Gordon Brown has similarly come in over the head of Shaun Woodward to
lead negotiations at Hillsborough.
Throughout the peace process, the heavy lifting has been done from
Downing Street and the job of Secretaries of State has been to
schmooze with the locals and placate them in small things.
The depiction of Adams and McGuinness is particularly naff.
They meet after a flirty call with Bill Clinton to have a wee word
with them to secure a ceasefire.
Actually the ceasefire was negotiated by the British and secured with
clear concessions to IRA demands. No one was quite as pliable as the
In their first meeting with Mo, they are like stuffed dolls.
Their first argument is about the question of whether the talks should
be time limited. Mo says they must be. A surly Adams says that a
problem that lasted eight hundred years can not be resolved in a few
months. A nice caricature, but actually the argument was the other way
It was the republican movement which insisted on a time frame for
talks and refused to restore the ceasefire until that concession was
The murders of two policemen in pursuit of that demand should not have
been lightly omitted.
There are a lot of historical weaknesses.
We see Mo at Hillsborough Castle, on the day after the 1997 Drumcree
Parade making a snap decision to create a Parades Commission.
This is nonsense. There was a long preparatory period in which Rev
John Dunlop and Oliver Crilly drew up a report recommending the
commission. Unfortunately, it would feed nicely into Orange disdain
for the Commission to suggest that it was thrown together in a hissy
fit by a mentally unstable Mo.
And there are other historical weaknesses.
The SDLP does not even exist in the film. Couldn’t the producers have
had fun with Mo and a late night whiskey with John Hume of Seamus
There is practically no violence, other than in a collage of old
footage that she appears to witness through her car window as she
drives through the Bogside and Sandy Row from the airport to Donegall
The story of her visit to the Maze to meet Loyalist prisoners should
not have been told without an account of the killing by Loyalists in
Belfast in the same week.
And the producers presumably thought that mentioning the Omagh bomb
would have cast a shadow on the miracle ofpeace making they were
crediting her with.
But Mo has worked her magic and then been brought down, apparently
through a conspiracy between David Trimble and Peter Mandelson,
neither of whom could see what a world’s wonder she was. From there we
have the second part of the story that raises the question of how much
of her charm and influence came from the warping of her real
personality by the tumour.
Mo is persuaded by her husband that Blair is really jealous of her and
urges her to challenge him for the party leadership.
He is motivated by a sense that her political committment is
prolonging her life and that a reduction in her responsibilities will
bring her to an early death. What he sees, really, is that Mo needed
Northern Ireland more than Northern Ireland needed Mo.
It takes a word from the well grounded Scot, Adam Ingram, played by
Gary Lewis to put her right, but she never forgives him for that.
The deterioration of Mo is heart wrenching, and in the end she faces
the cruel question of whether she was ever really herself, when she is
told that she may have had the tumour for decades.
So even the fun-loving Mo that everyone had known before the illness
and the work in Ireland – never Northern ireland, in the film, for the
English don’t seem to know the difference – was a pathology.
This is a more serious question than the political one of whether she
really answered the irish question with a dirty joke.
It is a question about nature and the self, faced at the point of
death by a woman who finally doesn’t know who she was.
Julie Walters’ achievement in recreating this woman is a marvel. From
now on we will have a much firmer image in mind of the Walters’ Mo
than the real one, if there ever was a real one.
February 1, 2010 by Malachi
Mo Mowlam surprised us all before she shocked us.