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Mo Mowlam and The Good Friday Agreement

Updated Wednesday, 19 April 2023

Henrietta Norton recounts Mo Mowlam's story, and her importance for The Good Friday Agreement.

Mo Mowlam was my stepmum. She became my step mum when I was eight years old in 1991.

Life changed dramatically for me when this happened. She burst into my life with all the energy that those who do remember her will inevitably  describe. She was playful, warm, energetic and loving. She broke the rules and challenged the status quo. She was passionate, kind and caring. She was forceful, strong willed and determined. She was fiercely clever and ambitious for the people around her and she wanted to achieve a better society for everyone. 

In that sense she was a real old fashioned politician who believed by being in politics she could have the greatest impact on the world.  She was always on the side of the underdog and this was often played out in her contempt for authority for authorities sake, she challenged pomp and ceremony and she staunchly believed in women and young girls and the potential for their impact on society from the ground up. 

Mo died in 2005 when I was 21 and she was just 54 years old. 

It would be a mistake to assume that everyone has heard of Mo Mowlam. They haven’t. In fact many people under the age of 35 that I speak to in the UK have never heard her name before and couldn’t even make an educated guess at who she was. I have been told she is not even mentioned in the school textbooks in relation to studying the Good Friday Agreement and The Northern Ireland Peace Process. 

Her name has not been forgotten everywhere of course. Ireland and Northern Ireland still talk about her often and the people I meet there still recall the enormous impact she had on their lives, often on both a personal level, as well as on a constitutional level. Mo is also getting a fair amount of attention at the moment as the world marks the 25 year Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. 

I wrote a piece in 2018 in which I insinuated that Mo’s name seemed to be being overlooked at some of the most public facing celebrations of the 20 year anniversary by key figures and leaders and it would be wrong of me not to note now how much recognition she and many of the other women who were pivotal in bringing the violence to an end across Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Ireland in 1998 are now receiving. 

There have been many events in recent weeks taking place globally and celebrating some of the key female players such as Monica McWilliams, Liz O Donnell, Martha Pope, Brid Rogers and Hillary Clinton to name but a few, so maybe things are changing for the better. 

I think at this time of celebration Mo would have wanted it acknowledged  that it wasn’t just the female political leaders who had a platform who helped to achieve this peace in a very male dominated environment but it was the unseen, quiet work of the women in the communities that was arguably the key to securing and maintaining peace on the streets of Northern Ireland, both back in the mid 1990’s but also still today as paramilitaries and drug gangs maintain a strong hold over some of the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland.

Mo never seemed to doubt that peace was possible in Northern Ireland, largely I think because she believed in the people’s desire for safety and security for their children, their partners, their friends and their families. This is what Mo tapped into when she took on the role of Northern Ireland Secretary. She met people on a human level and she spoke to them on a human level. She listened and she heard and she wasn’t afraid to talk about the pain and the suffering whilst also focusing always on the need to compromise and to listen to one another,  in order to stop the violence and the killings. You had to treat everyone as a human being even if you disagreed with them, or they had committed terrible crimes. 

What made Mo such an extraordinary individual and an outstanding politician was her strength, her courage and her determination. 

The moment that stands out for me above all was when Mo had just started chemo for the brain tumor she had only recently been diagnosed with. I had come home from school and Mo was sitting on the sofa. Next thing, she whipped away her wig to reveal her bald head. I gave her a cuddle and it was then that I realised how brave she was being; battling this horrible illness while performing her exhausting job in Northern Ireland. She never made an issue of her treatment, even when the press began to remark on how fat she was becoming, or later when it was suggested that she was going mad: even this campaign, which she felt drove her out of her position in Northern Ireland at a pivotal point in the peace process ... She refused to let it rile her.

Mo never gave up and fought till the very end for what she believed in. She wasn't a saint: she got angry, she snapped at people, she cried and she got scared, but she wouldn't let these things beat her. And she left behind a legacy.

Sometimes I worry about that legacy and feel a responsibility to fight for it, maybe that is just being a woman in a world where so often women are not even written into the story, let alone written out, but I also hope that  in remembering Mo we can remember the many other women who believed in her and who Mo believed in respectively. The women without whom peace might never have been possible 25 years ago.  

I am currently developing a documentary Mo+Me in which I explore some of these themes around legacy and how women’s stories are remembered or forgotten. I will explore who Mo was, where she came from and who was the woman behind all the stories I've heard? Where did this fight and belief Mo left with me when she died, come from? What drove Mo to be Mo? 

I will always think of Mo when things get tough or frightening.I hope that, like Mo, I never forget to remember everyones part in the story, not just the ones who shout the loudest in the end. Mo is missed by everyone who loved her, and I know her memory will always make me smile even when it makes me cry.


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