Dr Mo Mowlam

Mo Mowlam.jpg

Peacemaker / Politician / First Female Secretary of State in Northern Ireland


Marjorie ‘Mo’ Mowlam was born on 18 September 1949 in Hertfordshire, England but grew up in Coventry. She studied sociology and anthropology at Trevelyan College, Durham University and joined the Labour Party in her first year there in 1969. In 1973, following her graduation, Mowlam moved to America, where she completed a PhD in Political Science at the University of Iowa. In 1977 she lectured in Politics at both the University of Wisconsin and Florida State University.

Whilst living in Florida, Mowlam had a terrifying experience when a man, who had apparently been stalking her, broke into her apartment while she was there. She escaped unhurt but just weeks later Ted Bundy murdered two female students on the nearby campus, and for the rest of her life Mowlam remained convinced that it had been him in her house that day.

Mowlam returned to England to lecture Politics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1979. In 1987, she became Labour MP for Redcar, North Yorkshire, a position she would hold until 2001. In 1994 she began to help Tony Blair with his leadership bid and in August of that year he made her the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.  A year later, Mowlam married Jon Norton, and the two enjoyed family life with Jon’s two children from a previous marriage, Freddie and Henrietta.

‘All I can do is bring people together. All I can do is create a situation to encourage people to work together.’

Mowlam was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour in January 1997 and chose to privately undergo radiotherapy and steroid treatment as a precaution. As a result, she gained weight and lost her hair, which the media mocked her for. However, Mowlam did not let the negative attention get in the way of her work, and she only announced the treatment in the weeks leading up to the May 1997 General Election, teaching some journalists ‘to think before we speak.’ When Labour won the elections, Mowlam was made Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and her main priority was finding a solution to the troubles there.

‘I don’t take to heart the very negative and I don’t take to heart the very positive. You’d go mad if you did. I go through the middle, registering what’s happening but not engulfing it.’

She was faced with early criticism just two months into her new role, when in July 1997, she allowed an Orange march to take place on the Garvaghy Road, much to the anger of nationalists. It was a difficult decision and she would have lost support regardless of which conclusion she came to, however, it was the apparent ‘double-crossing’ in relation to when the decision was made, which became a point of contention for local nationalists living on the Garvaghy road. They had been told the decision was made on the eve of the march, but a leaked document threw up the possibility that it had been decided as early as 20 June. The event led many to believe that Mowlam was ‘in danger of becoming a ‘lame duck’ […] just a few months after her appointment.’ It also suggested that the IRA ceasefire, which Mowlam had been eager to achieve in order to permit them to take part in the all-party peace talks, would now be even further out of reach, however, British Officials speaking on behalf of British PM, Tony Blair, praised Mowlam for the way she handled the situation and said ‘nobody could have done more to get an accommodation, she could not have done more and she will continue to try.’

‘What keeps me going and helps me deal with the stress is the fact that over the previous twenty years lots of people in Northern Ireland have given year after year of their life to try and get a peaceful settlement. They so desperately want it […] and I just think – I’m in this position, the least I can do for those who don’t have the power that I have is to do everything I can to get a settlement, and I think I’m doing everything I can…’

On 25 June, both the British and Irish government gave the IRA five weeks to call a complete cessation to all military operations in order to be allowed to join the talks due to resume in September, and a month later, Gerry Adams and John Hume issued a joint statement calling on the IRA to renew their 1994 ceasefire by midday on 20 July 1997. On 29 August, Mowlam accepted the ceasefire as genuine and invited Sinn Fein to enter into the multi-party talks.

Towards the end of 1997, negotiations in Northern Ireland ‘had reached an impasse.’ So, on 9 January 1998, Mowlam took ‘an audacious gamble’ and entered the Maze prison to address loyalist prisoners, in an attempt to get them to reverse their opposition to the peace process. Some thought the move was foolish and insensitive to those who had been victim to terrorist attacks, but most – particularly in the months that followed - commended Mowlam’s bravery. Of the visit Mowlam said ‘putting my case face-to-face, arguing it through with them, I thought, was the best way of doing it, so I’m here. No gun, no metaphorical gun, just a very constructive, informed debate.’ Following her visit, the representatives of the prisoners announced that they would re-join talks. It wasn’t completely smooth sailing from there, but on 10 April 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Mowlam was considered a hero by many, and she won a standing ovation ‘in the middle of the Prime Minister’s speech at Labour’s 1998 party conference.’

‘It is so easy in Northern Irish politics to always look at the downside and say ‘this is a problem…that could happen…’ so we deal with every problem head on. What is important is to believe and be determined […] to show the determination, courage and confidence that we can do it.’

An increasingly difficult relationship with Unionist parties in the months that followed saw Mowlam replaced as Northern Ireland Secretary in late 1999 and moved to the position of Cabinet Office Minister, which she resented. She retired from parliament at the 2001 election and set up a charity – MoMo Helps – to assist in the rehabilitation of (ex-)drug users, and to provide support for parents and carers of children with disabilities.

Mo Mowlam died, aged fifty-five, on 19 August 2005 of cancer.  She is remembered as having been inclusive of all communities, often taking the time to involve ordinary people, victims and women in peace talks; groups that were and are fundamental in the upkeep of the Good Friday Agreement to this day. She was remembered on the twentieth anniversary of the 1998 Agreement by The Irish Times as having ‘injected a much-needed interruption of procedure’ in Northern Irish politics. She wasn’t always popular, but she ‘heightened appeal, she opened people’s minds, and she inserted a “get on with it” attitude into talks that were saturated with the weight of deep historical divisions.’


Herstory invites students and artists to create brand new portraits of Northern Ireland’s peace heroines. To have your art featured in the Herstory 2020 project please send your name, age and high resolution jpegs to khanna.herstory@gmail.com


Bios, History, online at https://www.history.co.uk/biographies/mo-mowlam [accessed 27 May 2019].

Sunday Independent, 20 Apr. 1997.

Wexford People, 9 July 1997.

Irish Independent, 8 July 1997.

Bios, History, online at https://www.history.co.uk/biographies/mo-mowlam [accessed 27 May 2019].

The Guardian, 10 Jan, 1998.

Irish Independent, 10 Jan. 1998.

The Guardian, 19 Aug. 2005.

The Irish Times, 5 Apr. 2018.

The Irish Times, 5 Apr. 2018.