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.

Derry Peace Women

Mary Barr / Kathleen Doherty / Margaret Doherty / Harriet Hipsley / Eileen Semple

Derry Peace Women.jpg

Co-founders of ‘Derry peace women’ (no official title)

In January 1972 a Civil Rights protest march against internment through the Bogside in Derry was cut short when British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians, all of whom were Catholic. 13 people died outright, and another died a few months later due to his injuries. It became known as Bloody Sunday. On 21 May, a 19-year old Catholic British Army man named William Best, originally from the Creggan area in Derry, was picked up by the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA) and shot dead.

These two events helped to inspire five women - Eileen Semple, Margaret Doherty, Mary Barr, Kathleen Doherty, and Hariett Hipsley - who all lived in the Bogside and Creggan areas - to found the Derry peace women (as they were known), after meeting at a protest held the day after Best’s death. M. Doherty, whose brother had been killed on Bloody Sunday, was determined to not have his death be used as the motive for further violence.

This protest reportedly led to a guarantee from the OIRA ‘that shooting would stop, except in defence.’ On the 23, the Derry peace women demanded a similar guarantee from the Provisional IRA and met with them, however no concrete guarantee could be secured. On 24 May, they met with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, in a meeting that lasted 40-minutes. They told him that ‘most of the 35,000 people living around [their] home were behind [them]’ and that ‘the very least [they] wanted was a ceasefire for a time.’ To prove their point, the women organised a petition for peace and managed to get upwards of 20,000 signatures. Whitelaw was impressed with the women and encouraged them to continue in their fight for peace. The Belfast Telegraph credited them with having ‘played an important part in the moves for an end to violence’ before the ceasefire of 29 May and stated that ‘without the women’s peace movement, Mr Whitelaw’s task of obtaining a ceasefire would have been impossible.’

In June, the women travelled to Dublin with the hope of meeting Sinn Fein President Rory Brady or chief-of-staff of the Provisional IRA, Seán MacStíofáin. While in the Dáil, they met, at his request, with boxer Muhammad Ali, well known for his civil rights campaigns. Over the coming months they continued on their mission for peace by trying to encourage better community relations. They moved throughout Ireland, lobbying politicians from both the North and South, consulting military chiefs and ‘putting the cause of peace to militant republicans.’ They even met with Prime Minister, Edward Heath, in November 1972 to express their concerns to him.  Their determined activism for an end to all violence earned them the approbation of many but also the resentment of others.

‘Fear is the main problem we have to cope with in our community but all it takes is just one person to […] say, ‘I won’t stand for this.’’ – Semple

By September, all five peace women were receiving threats and intimidation. M. Doherty and her family were forced out of their home ‘after a nail bomb was planted outside their house.’ It was reported that ‘certain individuals and small groups’ had started ‘a propaganda campaign’ which ‘aimed at discrediting [the women]’. They fought back in a statement which read that ‘they do not take sides with the Army or the IRA’ and that ‘everyone who agrees with us should be able to express their views freely and should do so without fear.’ They urged their community and church leaders to ‘let their voices be heard strongly against all the wrongs in [their] society, wherever they spring from.’ John Hume, MP, also came to their defence by stating that ‘the objective that these ladies sought was an honourable one…’

Peace March

Peace March

‘The peace women have never taken any political stand and all our efforts over the past year have been directed solely against violence.’ – M. Doherty

The women also tried to help the young men from Derry who had fled over the border by making arrangements for some to be employed in the Republic.  The Derry Journal credits M. Doherty with meeting regularly with police and army officers to try and establish better community relations in the city. When young people were arrested, she was often able, when no one else could, to make arrangements for their parents to visit them. In August 1976 the peace women organised buses to join Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams in Belfast for their historic Peace People rally and on 4 September they organised a similar rally to be held on the Craigavon Bridge. Both Corrigan and Williams were in attendance and principal speakers. Records of the five Derry peace women specifically become even more scarce around this time – it is quite likely that they became amalgamated with the Peace People movement to a large extent, as M. Doherty particularly became very involved in setting up the Derry branch of the Peace People with a woman named Joyce Kelly.

‘… my family are behind me. The only thing that will stop me is a bullet.’ – M. Doherty

It was around this time that M. Doherty’s son was slashed with a knife as he walked home from work one evening. The letters IRA were cut into his leg and hand. M. Doherty, however, was not put off her fight for peace and stated that she had the support of her family behind her still. In 1977 she left the Peace People movement, believing that its leaders in Belfast had lost touch with the grassroots supporters, a common belief held by many. She continued her fight on a community level up until a few weeks before her death in 1981.

‘I will continue to speak out when I feel it is necessary to do so. Intimidation cannot change my views.’ – Semple

In 1978 Semple, helped to found the Bogside and Creggan Christian Women’s Association ‘to help with various community work in the areas.’ She continued to speak out against murders in her area and on the eve of 20 April 1982 her car was burned out in front of her terraced home in retaliation. The very next night, gangs of youths returned and set it alight again. Soon after, she received a phone call from a man warning her that ‘we got your car, now we are going to get your house.’ In the early hours of the 24 April, ‘a gang of three or four youths’ threw stones through the glass-panelled door of Semple’s house, waking her neighbours and leaving Semple shaken but undeterred. A similar attack happened less than a fortnight later on 3 May with a cement block being thrown through her door. In mid-June, following a statement by the Bogside and Creggan Christian Women’s Association condemning the murder of a policeman who died from an IRA booby-trap bomb, Semple’s car was once again burned out. It had been a new second-hand car, bought for her by her five daughters after her first had been destroyed. Despite this, Semple announced that:

‘I will continue to speak again and again and will go on condemning such murders in our city. I feel sorry for the people who set fire to my car. They feel they have to take revenge on me for speaking the truth. But I will go on airing my views and attacks like this won’t stop me.’

Semple died in July 2001. Unfortunately, little record could be found regarding the other three peace women.

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



Belfast Telegraph, 24 May 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 25 May 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 28 June 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 19 Sept. 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 17 Nov. 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 31 Aug. 1976.

Derry Journal, July 1981.

Derry Journal, 7 June 2016.

Special thanks to Caoimhin O Dochartaigh and his family for providing newspaper clippings, photos and other records of their mother Margaret Doherty.