Telling it like it is Momentum Mo Mowlam 320 pp, Hodder From all the pre-publicity during the past few weeks, you might have thought that Mo’s book was largely about the inner workings and tensions of the 1997-2001 government, revealed for the first time from within. It touches on some of these things, yes; but overwhelmingly this book is an intelligent, thoroughly readable account and analysis of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Its central purpose and its achievement is to demystify the twists and turns of the route to peace. After a brief (and salutary) history lesson, it leads us through the tortuous process that secured the Good Friday Agreement, and then through the even more difficult tasks of sustaining public support and of actually implementing it. Mo, of course, is better placed than anyone to detail for us the frustrations, the hopes and miseries, the triumphs and the near-disasters that made up the progress towards agreement. What emerges from this account is not only a vivid sense of the sheer exhausting difficulty of it all, but an appreciation of the fact that it is small steps of give and take, something for one side, something for the other, that are needed – coupled with an ability to get people to trust one another, or at the very least to set aside their total distrust.
There are lessons here for everyone involved in conflict resolution around the world – needed now more than ever. Towards the end of the book, Mowlam sets out in seven pages a checklist of 10 ingredients for the successful development of any peace objective. Some of it is obvious, but there is much wisdom here: about inclusivity, about addressing past grievances, and about taking risks for peace. This should be required reading for Ariel Sharon.
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Mowlam describes how she recognised early on that her first and most important task – the sine qua non of the exercise – was to bring Sinn Fein into a realistic peace process and that the second task, having secured the first, was to keep the unionists in it. Over time, though with difficulty, both were achieved. Mo’s lasting legacy will be the role she played in ensuring that there was indeed a road to peace along which everyone else could stumble. Without her the peace process would have been far more difficult, if not impossible.
No one can or should dare to take that away from her. She did it with a mixture of charm, insouciance and bluntness that was unique in the world of politics. It comes through in the book, too. I’m not sure that the effect is always decorous – “we were crap at handling the media”; “we had a plod on duty at the front of the house”; “I just listened and took the shit” – but there’s no one other than Mo who could get away with writing quite like that. This book has a breezy quality that is endearing and sometimes infuriating. At times it reads as though it was written in answer to a series of unseen questions, or as though items on a list are being ticked off.
But then Mo forgets to do that, and her writing gallops off with its own story and becomes all the better for it. Taken as a whole, this is a good read – and it will sweep along even those who never dreamed that they would be interested in the labyrinths of Northern Ireland politics. In the years to come this book will be remembered above all for what it has to say about Ireland, about peace, and about the resolution of conflict. That’s the accolade it deserves.
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I suspect that the immediate interest will lie, though, in what some will see as the lifting of a veil – on the inner workings of the government, and on the thoughts that went through Mo’s own mind towards the end of her period in the cabinet. We have no way of knowing whether the barrage of briefings did in fact occur in the way she describes, or whether there was the degree of coordination to it that she has come to believe. Virtually everyone in government is subject from time to time to adverse briefing, from rivals, from opponents, from dissatisfied interest groups, from young tyros wanting to appear important when talking to journalists. It’s all part of the warp and weft of politics. On the whole, the best way to deal with it is to ignore it; and in a way I wish Mo had done that in this book. If, however, the things she reports were indeed being said, they were very wide of the mark.
It was said that she was somehow “too popular.” She was hugely popular, yes, and still is, and rightly so. In fact, that was a major asset for the party and the government. It was said that she had offended the unionists. This was surely part of her job. Any Northern Ireland secretary who doesn’t from time to time offend the various parties she or he has to deal with is probably not making any progress at all. And it was said that she was somehow “lightweight” at the cabinet table.
Anyone who might have said that doesn’t know Mo. Behind the charm and the informality there’s a sharp political mind, and an ability to shape and manipulate events. Mo is an effective political player, even if she is kicking off her shoes and dumping her wig on the table at the same time. Indeed, in writing parts of this book, Mo knew that she’d create a storm – much in the same way as she did when she walked through the gates of the Maze. When she moves from talking about briefings to talking about the way the government operates, she is doing so deliberately: not out of revenge (as some commentators have erroneously suggested), but as a way of raising issues that any government has to address – about inclusivity, about collectivism, and about what makes for good or bad government. She isn’t always right, but it’s surely valuable to the political culture for her to talk about it.
Attorney-General V Jonathan Cape Ltd Attorney-General V Jonathan Cape Ltd  QB 752. (Public Interest Case) Between 1964-70, whilst a Minister of the Labour Government, Richard Crossman kept diaries of Cabinet proceedings. It was his intention to publish the diaries, giving the public a detailed account of government affairs. Following Crossman's death in 1974, the diaries were left to a ...
Take one example. At one point she writes: “More and more decisions were being taken by Number 10 without consultation with the relevant minister or secretary of state.” In fact, this hardly ever happened, or happens. There is, however, a valid debate to be had about the changing nature of cabinet government; about the triangular decision-making processes between department, Treasury and Number 10; and about the balance that needs to be struck between the efficiency of such a system and the more untidy but more inclusive nature of round-the-table cabinet discussion. These more general issues about the nature of governance are surely important.
And if Mo doesn’t precisely address them, none the less no one should complain that she has struck out towards them. This is a book that has made a splash. Some will read it for the gossip or the occasional sally against parts of the government. The wise reader, however, will move rapidly on and read it for what it primarily is: the record of a momentous journey towards peace, and of the life and thoughts of a remarkable woman… Chris Smith is Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury.