State Papers1992-2002

Mowlam wanted her successor to face down UK right-wing press on North

Peter Mandelson was singled out by the British Northern Secretary for having ability to ‘resist the pressures from both sides’, declassified papers show

The former Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam recommended Peter Mandelson to be her successor so that he could tackle criticism of the Belfast Agreement from the right-wing press in the UK.

In newly-released cabinet documents from the National Archives in London, Mr Mandelson is described as one of the few senior politicians who would be able to “resist the pressures from both sides” in Northern Ireland.

Ms Mowlam, seen as being one of the most popular Labour politicians of the time, was appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland after the landslide election win in 1997 and was in office for the signing of the Belfast Agreement. She was moved in 1999, against her will, to the Cabinet office. At the time, unionists had voiced their distrust of her, saying she was too soft on Sinn Féin and had nationalist sympathies.

In a letter to prime minister Tony Blair in October 1999, Ms Mowlam said she would “press the case strongly for Peter M”.


“I can imagine that when I leave here both sides will be looking to push their issues up the agenda. Peter is one of the few I know who could resist pressures from both sides and navigate his way through all of the subtleties involved,” she wrote.

“He also stands a better chance than I’ve had of working on the Mail and the Telegraph to tone down their criticism of the Good Friday Agreement.”

Mr Mandelson was appointed as her successor in the days after the letter, and remained in the position until January 2001.

Peter stands a better chance than I’ve had of working on the Mail and the Telegraph to tone down their criticism of the Good Friday Agreement

Papers released in Dublin show Irish officials shared the view that Mr Mandelson would be acceptable to both sides in the North.

The Irish ambassador to the UK, Ted Barrington, wrote a three-page assessment of Mr Mandelson describing him as “one of the most controversial and colourful members” of the British Labour Party with “a fine political brain”.

In the letter to second secretary, Dermot Gallagher, Mr Barrington did not agree with the perception that Mr Mandelson was, by instinct, a unionist. “It stems from an interpretation that if David Trimble was calling for his appointment then he must be seen as a strong supporter. I see no strong evidence for this view and he has not shown it, or chosen to reveal it, in my own conversations with him,” he wrote.

The ambassador’s impression was that Mr Mandelson was not someone with strong personal views or prejudices, and he did not think that he would bring a personal agenda to the issue.

In handwriting in the margins of the letter, Mr Gallagher wrote: “Ruthlessly pragmatic”.

Ms Mowlam went on to have a stint in the cabinet office before announcing she would would relinquish her seat in the 2001 election and retire from politics. In a handwritten note to the prime minister in September 2000, she thanks him for meeting her about the decision.

“I have thought long and hard - but have not changed my view on going at the next election. I will certainly do all I can up to the election to achieve the second term,” she wrote.

She died in August 2005, aged 55.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times