Alex Massie

The Problem with Mo

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David enjoyed the Mo Mowlam biopic Channel 4 showed on Sunday; I wish I could say the same but am not surprised that I can't. (You can watch it here, incidentally.) Yes, Julie Walters was just as excellent as one imagined her to be and, yes, it's carping to complain about what wasn't in the film (though an acknowledgement that the Peace Process didn't start on May 2nd 1997 would have been usefu) and it can't be terribly surprising that the movie gives the impression that the Peace Process was somehow Mowlam's own possession.

Despite that I thought the film was, in terms of the politics of the matter, quietly devastating. For it showed the limits of Mowlam's approach to politics most effectively: brilliant on the PR side of the equation, hopeless on the detail and equally flawed in terms of judgement. The film also provided a portrait of political vanity that, while intended to be sympathetic, reminded one that more than anything else, power deludes. (Mowlam apparently believed she could succeed Blair...)

David Trimble* was traduced but the film-makers also, unintentionally I think, showed why he was right not to trust Mowlam and, thus, why, in the end, she failed. The film suggested that her inability to empathise with Unionism - Just look at these ghastly proddy bigots I have to deal with! - was the reaction, indeed the only attitude, any right-thinking person could have. Unionists, in this telling of the story, were the only obstacle to "peace" and all their concerns were trivial, petty and foolish things that no sensible observer could possibly take seriously.

And in one sense, that was the case. If getting a deal was more important than the detail of the deal then Unionist intransigence was a bigger problem than the repeated bad faith demonstrated by Sinn Fein and the IRA. By the time the Mitchell negotiations began, the government position had essentially become Get a Deal, Any Deal. London wasn't going to walk away and the Republican movement knew this and had a much stronger negotiating position because of it. 

The British government's stance wasn't necessarily deplorable; indeed it was perfectly justifiable. In many ways the situation we've reached now - despite all the problems that remain - is a great improvement on some, perhaps many, of the alternatives one can imagine. Half a loaf of peace is better than no loaf.

Nevertheless, if you had told the British and Irish governments in 1993 that the process would end with Sinn Fein and the DUP running Northern Ireland I doubt that you'd have had a Downing Street Declaration to sign in the first place. This isn't where it was supposed to end up.

But we reached this point because, at least in part, London helped hollow out the centre-ground. When that collapsed the extremes were gifted power. It's tempting to suppose that this was always going to happen. But it wasn't.

The ambiguities in the Good Friday Agreement didn't help. Nor did the fact that Mowlam seemed to have no interest in actually enforcing the rules Sinn Fein had signed up to play by. That meant decommissioning - a core principle - was punted down the road time and time again. With terrible consequences. Terrible that is, if you think a government of murderers and bigots is a disappointing end to the process. Of course, if the process is all that matters then that doesn't matter much.

The fundamental weakness of the Peace Process still lies in each side's estimation of the value of what it gave up and its parallel unwillingness to concede that the other side gave anything substantial up at all. For Republicans embracing the principle of consent over-turned eighty years of Republican orthodoxy. Recognising that Northern Ireland existed was a bigger step even than putting the guns away. But it was a psychological step that, to Unionist eyes, simply recognised the reality on the ground. Nor could silencing the guns much impress Unionists who never thought they should have been fired in the first place.

The tragedy of Unionism was its lack of confidence. Philosophically and substantively, it prevailed. That's why Trimble was able to sign up and proclaim, correctly, that the Union was safe. But this was, in some ways, an abstract victory. The concrete signs and symbols of victory all seemed to benefit the terrorists, not the mainstream centre. Prisoner releases and the disbandment of the RUC were tough pills to swallow - and made tougher still by the failure to move quickly on decommissioning. The kind of things that made the news every night were Unionist defeats and Republican victories. The longer this went on - the longer the arms werent put away - the weaker the UUP and the SDLP became. Sinn Fein and the IRA were prepared for a Long Game; London was not. 

Looking back on it all, one wouldn't want to return to the 1980s but equally one ought not to forget that this great process has been less brilliant than is sometimes allowed. Not a disaster exactly but far from a total success either. Time - and the next generation of political leaders on all sides - may cause one to revisit and rethink this conclusion but for now at least, I wonder what might have happened had Peter Mandelson been posted to Northern Ireland in 1997. Perhaps it might have been harder to reach a deal but perhaps any deal that was reached might have been a better one.

*Trimble, though his story doesn't have the emotional pull of Mowlam's, would be a fascinating subject for a biopic. Prickly, difficult, thin-skinned, hot-tempered yet analytical, a little pompous, thrawn but, above all, couragous and far-sighted, he's an awkward, interesting politician and, it might also be noted, one of the few who really suffered as a result of the vital role he played in delivering the agreement.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.