Mo Mowlam had ‘pro-nationalist’ plan for her first months in office, her key aide told the NIO in newly-declassified document

Mo Mowlam planned to begin her time as secretary of state with mainly “pro-nationalist” decisions, according to a memo of a conversation with her future special advisor a month before Labour swept to power.

Wednesday, 30th December 2020, 4:52 pm
Mo Mowlam became secretary of state in May 1997 after Labour swept to power under Tony Blair

In a confidential April 14, 1997 discussion with the NIO’s associate political director Peter Bell, Dr Mowlam’s aide and future NIO special advisor Nigel Warner described her as “pragmatic”.

Mr Bell, a veteran NIO official, said that “with the prospect of office concentrating Dr Mowlam’s mind, Mr Warner was more interested in the real world problems likely to face her on day one”.

Mr Bell said he had told Dr Mowlam’s advisor that “how the marching season was handled could, I emphasised, make or break Dr Mowlam’s tenure almost before it had begun, and with it any prospect of making progress in the talks. He said that Mr Warner’s response had been partly ‘encouraging’, but ‘also rather confused ... so much so that I thought it best to check with him again yesterday as to what it was he thought he had been saying to me’”.

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As several possible scenarios for the summer parading season and paramilitary activity were outlined to Dr Mowlam’s advisor, Mr Bell said that “the thought of body bags curbed momentarily Mr Warner’s enthusiasm”.

He said that Mr Warner asked whether “it would be possible to isolate Drumcree, prevent bus loads of Orangemen arriving, etc”, something which Mr Bell said highlighted the potential for conflict between the new secretary of state and the chief constable.

Mr Bell said he had been told that Dr Mowlam “is determined to ‘front load’ her political agenda with confidence measures (policing reform, incorporation of the ECHR, etc, etc) of a primarily pro-nationalist kind ... I did labour the point that in a situation where, as we both agreed, the balance of change was likely to be in a nationalist direction ... then no amount of would-be counterveilling sops to unionists (no matter how commendable – like ‘opening up’ Maryfield) would be worth anything if the unionists still thought they were on that proverbial slippery slope …”.

He said “in policy terms, Dr Mowlam should not frighten us; she has enormous assets as a person; her heart is in the right place; she is no fool. But having just passed her driving test, she may be asked to drive in a Grand Prix. Everything may depend on her team getting her round the first (and the second, and the third) bends …”.

Some 15 months earlier Dr Mowlam and her Labour team met the NIO’s top official, Sir John Chilcott. Sir John said he found them “already remarkably well informed”.

Civil servant Peter Bell said that Mo Mowlam’s aide asked him if the RUC would uphold the law. He said: “Looking meaningfully at me, Mr Warner asked whether the RUC could be relied upon to uphold the law? My response was that in terms of loyalty and discipline, the answer was an unqualified ‘yes’.

“Whether they would be able to do so, if their resources were stretched whether at Drumcree or at similar disturbances throughout NI, raised another problem – including a greater reliance on the Army.”


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