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Just hang on a Mo

Let me put my hand up. I believe 'Plum' Smyth when he says that Mo Mowlam told him that Troubles murders would not be investigated once peace was made.

It was typical of Mo - and he should have taken it with a pinch of salt. She was given to making rash promises and she had an empathy that inclined her to grand gestures to fit her audience; that is why people liked her so much.

Was it because she was suffering from a brain tumour that affected her judgment, shortened her attention span and undermined her grasp of detail? Or was it just her nature?

That is one of the questions she is shown grappling with in the recent drama documentary in which she is played by Julie Walters.

Whatever the reason, it made many people warm to her. In his autobiography, Bertie Ahern says that he much preferred dealing with her than Peter Mandelson, who followed her as Secretary of State. I can understand his point, but not his claim that the peace process would have moved along faster if she had continued in office, ill as she was.

We only have to think of what happened to her next. Friends had some difficulty in dissuading her from taking on Tony Blair for the leadership of the Labour Party.

Asked to tell a secret on You Only Live Once, a BBC chatshow, she broke the Official Secrets Act by confessing that she had authorised the bugging of a car used by Gerry Adams. Her judgment was poor and that made her an easy person to negotiate with.

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Like Ahern, I have very pleasant memories of Mo; she gave far more in interviews than Mandelson, who measured every word he spoke to you as if with a micrometer.

In contrast, when I met Mo on my first visit to Washington in 1995, when she was in Opposition, she sensed immediately that I was on unfamiliar territory.

She immediately took me in hand, pulling Kennedy aides and White House staffers aside to tell them it would be in their interests to get me onside.

In May 1997, shortly before the Labour landslide victory, I phoned her to see how things were looking. She told me, on the record, that she was confident she would get the Northern Ireland job at a time when many people thought she wouldn't.

She outlined the policies she would pursue and told me whom she wanted on her ministerial team. Her frankness helps explain why her advisers attempted to shield her from the press once she was in power.

A third kindness came in 2001, when my wife and I were arrested under the Official Secrets Act for publishing a bugged telephone conversation between Mowlam and Martin McGuinness, which had been taped in July 1999.

She called McGuinness "babe", flattered him, confided her differences with Tony Blair and said she was "fighting like f***" to stay on as Secretary of State.

She took criticism as a result yet, shortly after we were released from police custody, she rang to offer her sympathy and support, leaving her new phone number and address to show she meant it.

Mo's love of giving people a boost when they were down was one of her most endearing qualities, but it didn't necessarily make her a good Secretary of State.

She liked to tell people what she thought they needed to hear. Shortly after taking office she intervened in the Drumcree dispute, promising nationalist residents' groups that she would consult them before making a decision on whether to allow an Orange march past their homes.

It eased the tension and won her praise, but the mood changed to bitter resentment when, faced with the harsh reality of a serious security standoff that could plunge the province into chaos, she opted to slip the march through without giving anyone time to resist it.

But the legend of Mo Mowlam's dramatic impact on Northern Ireland is built around her visit to the Maze prison. Gary McMichael, then a spokesmen for the UDA-linked Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), told her that UDA prisoners were threatening to withdraw support for peace talks unless she personally reassured them about the political process.

The UDA had just killed three Catholics and McMichael's sincerity was palpable, so she entered the prison, visiting IRA and UVF compounds as well as the UDA one so that no one would feel excluded. Afterwards, I was in a group of journalists who were also allowed to tour the compounds. It was immediately clear that some prisoners thought she had made a mistake in showing UDA leaders like Johnny Adair that she would yield to pressure.

It was hailed as a success when Adair and his crew gave the go-ahead for continued UDP participation in the talks. The problem was that, within less than three weeks, the UDA had murdered two more Catholics, other loyalist terrorists had murdered four, and the UDP left the talks.

The effect of her visit was to show paramilitaries that she could be pushed around. Mandelson, by contrast, was a cold fish, but he had the skills necessary to restore the peace process.

Mo was a sick woman doing her best to keep everyone on board and she didn't always succeed.

Given her record, 'Plum' Smyth should have known better than to have taken her word for it.

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