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Mo Mowlam

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Mo Mowlam
Official portrait, 1999
Minister for the Cabinet Office
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
In office
11 October 1999 – 7 June 2001
Prime MinisterTony Blair
Preceded byJack Cunningham
Succeeded byThe Lord MacDonald of Tradeston
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
In office
3 May 1997 – 11 October 1999
Prime MinisterTony Blair
Preceded byPatrick Mayhew
Succeeded byPeter Mandelson
Member of Parliament
for Redcar
In office
11 June 1987 – 14 May 2001
Preceded byJames Tinn
Succeeded byVera Baird
Shadow Cabinet portfolios
1992Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
1992–1993Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities
1992–1994Shadow Secretary of State for National Heritage
1994–1997Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Personal details
Marjorie Mowlam

(1949-09-18)18 September 1949
Watford, England
Died19 August 2005(2005-08-19) (aged 55)
Canterbury, England
Political partyLabour
Jon Norton
(m. 1995)
Alma mater

Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam (18 September 1949 – 19 August 2005) was a British Labour Party politician. She was the Member of Parliament (MP) for Redcar from 1987 to 2001 and served in the Cabinet of Tony Blair as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Mowlam's time as Northern Ireland Secretary saw the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Her personal charisma and reputation for plain speaking led her to be perceived by many as one of the most popular "New Labour" politicians in the UK. When Tony Blair mentioned her in his speech at the 1998 Labour Party Conference, she received a standing ovation.

Early life[edit]

Mowlam was born at 43 King Street, Watford, Hertfordshire, England, the middle of three children of Tina and Frank,[1] but grew up in Coventry, where her father progressed to become Coventry's assistant postmaster. She would later be awarded the Freedom of the City in 1999.[2] She was the only one of the family's three children to pass the 11-plus exam. She started at Chiswick Girls' grammar school in West London, then moved to Coundon Court School in Coventry,[2] one of the first comprehensive schools in the country.[1] She then studied at Trevelyan College, Durham University, reading sociology and anthropology. She joined the Labour Party in her first year.[1] She became the Secretary of the Durham Union Society in 1969 and later went on to become the vice-president of the Durham Students' Union. She worked for then-MP (Labour) Tony Benn in London and American writer Alvin Toffler in New York, moving to the United States with her then-boyfriend and studying for a PhD in political science at the University of Iowa[1] on the effects of the Swiss system of referendums.[3][4]

Mowlam was a lecturer in the Political Science Department at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in 1977 and at Florida State University in Tallahassee from 1977 to 1979. During her time in Tallahassee, her apartment was broken into by someone; she suspected that it was Ted Bundy, a serial killer and rapist who is thought to have murdered at least thirty-five young women and attacked several others.[1]

Her house in Summerhill Terrace, Newcastle upon Tyne, with plaque

Mowlam returned to England in 1979 to take up an appointment at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.[1] She also worked in adult education at Northern College, Barnsley, with students who had fewer opportunities than traditional university students. In 1981, she organised a series of alternative lectures to the Reith lectures being given that year by Laurence Martin, the university's vice chancellor. These were published as Debate on Disarmament, with their proceeds going to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Mowlam married Jonathan Norton, a City of London banker, in County Durham on 24 June 1995;[5] Norton died on 3 February 2009. Mowlam had two step-children from Norton's first marriage to Geraldine Bedell.[6]

Member of Parliament[edit]

Having failed to win selection for the 1983 general election, Mowlam was selected as Labour candidate for the safe seat of Redcar after James Tinn stood down. She took the seat in the 1987 general election, becoming the Labour spokesperson on Northern Ireland later that year. Together with Shadow Chancellor John Smith, Mowlam was one of the architects of Labour's "Prawn Cocktail Offensive" dedicated to reassuring the UK's financial sector about Labour's financial rectitude.[7]

Mowlam joined the Shadow Cabinet when John Smith became leader of the Labour Party in 1992, holding the title of Shadow Secretary of State for National Heritage. During this time, she antagonised both monarchists and republicans by calling for Buckingham Palace to be demolished and replaced by a "modern" palace built at public expense. Later, her willingness to speak her mind, often without regard to the consequences, was seen as her greatest strength by her supporters.

Following Smith's death in 1994, Mowlam, alongside Peter Kilfoyle, became a principal organiser of Tony Blair's campaign for the Labour leadership. After his victory, Blair made her Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. She initially resisted being appointed to the position, preferring an economic portfolio, but, after accepting it, she threw her weight into the job.

In government[edit]

Mowlam in her official portrait as Northern Ireland Secretary

In 1997, Mowlam was once again re-elected as MP for Redcar with an increased majority of 21,667.[8] With the Labour Party election win in May 1997, she was made Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the first woman to have held the post. A reflection of her personal approach was the organisation of a walk about in Belfast city centre.

Good Friday Agreement[edit]

[Mo Mowlam] was the catalyst that allowed politics to move forward which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. She cut through conventions and made difficult decisions that gave momentum to political progress.

— Peter Hain, 2005[9]

Mowlam "oversaw the negotiations which led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement".[9] On 6 August 1997 she met with the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams to have "their first face to face discussions since the breakdown of the IRA ceasefire in February 1996".[10] She was successful in helping to restore the second IRA ceasefire which eventually led to Sinn Féin being included in the multi-party peace talks. The talks led to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement achieved on 10 April 1998, bringing an end to conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles.

On 4 January the Ulster Loyalist UDA/UFF prisoners in the Maze prison, voted not to continue supporting the peace process. Gary McMichael of the Ulster Democratic Party, their political representatives quickly flew to London requesting the Secretary of State meet with the prisoners. After consulting with her advisers and the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair [11] on Friday 9 January 1998 she visited the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) prisoners represented political by Gary McMichael. The visit was unprecedented for a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. "The Maze was a focal point of a troubled peace process today as Mo Mowlam arrived for a visit that had been variously described as mad or brave."[12] The same day she also visited the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) H-block wings of the prison.

The message that I brought was very clear and simple. The only way that we're going to make progress towards a permanent peace in Northern Ireland is by taking a proactive stance and talking to reach the broadest possible agreement.

— Mo Mowlam[12]

The visit was unprecedented and a political gamble,[13] and was potentially dangerous when she met with prisoners, some of whom had been convicted of murder, face-to-face.

She went on to oversee the Good Friday Agreement signing in 1998,[9] which led to the temporary establishment of a devolved power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly. However, an increasingly difficult relationship with Unionist parties meant her role in the talks was ultimately taken over by Tony Blair and his staff, prompting Mowlam to remark to then-US President Bill Clinton: "Didn't you know? I'm the new tea lady around here".[14] In 1999, Mowlam referred to paramilitary punishment attacks in Northern Ireland as "internal housekeeping" and maintained that the violence did not count as breaking the ceasefire.[15]

Cabinet Office Minister[edit]

Whilst her deteriorating relationship with Unionists was the key reason Mowlam was replaced by Peter Mandelson as Northern Ireland Secretary in October 1999, her move to the relatively lowly position of Cabinet Office Minister may have involved other factors, notably her health and her popularity.[16] Mowlam resented being appointed to the post, having previously disparaged it as "Minister for the Today programme".[17] As Cabinet Office Minister, she was reportedly intended to be Tony Blair's "enforcer".[18]

As head of the Government's anti-drugs campaign, in 2002, she called for international legalisation.[19] She caused some controversy when she admitted in 2000 to having used cannabis as a student: "I tried dope. I didn't particularly like it. But unlike President Clinton, I did inhale".[20]


On 4 September 2000, Mowlam announced her intention to retire from Parliament and relinquished her seat at the 2001 general election.[21]

After retirement from the House of Commons, she became a critic of government policy on various issues, especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq. She took part in the anti-Iraq War protests alongside Vanessa Redgrave, Tony Benn, Tariq Ali, Ken Livingstone and Bianca Jagger.[22]

Following her retirement, Mowlam became agony aunt for the men's magazine Zoo. She said she missed her constituency work as an MP. She also set up a charity, MoMo Helps, to help drug users who are successfully completing their rehabilitation and provide support for the parents or carers of disabled children.

Her political memoirs, entitled Momentum: The Struggle for Peace, Politics and the People, were published in 2002.[23]

She was the subject of This Is Your Life in January 2003 when she was surprised by Michael Aspel.[citation needed]

Illness and death[edit]

Five months before the 1997 general election which took Labour to office, Mowlam was diagnosed with a brain tumour, which she tried to keep private until the tabloid press started to print jibes about her appearance. Although she claimed to have made a full recovery, the various treatments caused her to lose most of her hair. She often wore a wig, which she would sometimes casually remove in public stating that it was "such a bother".[24][25]

On 3 August 2005, the BBC reported that she was critically ill at King's College Hospital in London.[18] She appeared to have suffered from balance problems as a result of her radiotherapy. According to her husband, she had fallen over on 30 July 2005, receiving head injuries and never regaining consciousness. Her living will, in which she had asked not to be resuscitated, was honoured.

On 12 August 2005, she was moved to Pilgrims Hospice in Canterbury, Kent, where she died at 8:10 am on 19 August, aged 55.[26] She was survived by her husband Jon Norton and two stepchildren. Her death came just 13 days after the death of Robin Cook, another cabinet minister of the 1997 government.

In January 2010, it was revealed by her ex-doctor that her tumour had been malignant and was the cause of her death. Despite recommendations, she had withheld the true nature of her condition from Tony Blair and the electorate.[27]

Mowlam was an atheist[28] and was cremated in Sittingbourne on 1 September 2005 at a non-religious service conducted by Richard Coles, formerly of the 1980s band The Communards.[29] Half of her ashes were scattered at Hillsborough Castle (the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland's official residence) and the other half in her former parliamentary constituency of Redcar.[30]

Memorials and tributes[edit]

The plaque on her home

A memorial service was held for Mowlam at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on 20 November 2005, another at Hillsborough Castle on 1 December 2005 and another in Redcar on 3 December 2005.[31]

To honour Mowlam, Redcar and Cleveland Unitary Authority commissioned an official memorial mosaic which was unveiled at Redcar's newly refurbished boating lake on 23 October 2009. An intricate 800-tile mosaic, set in a three-metre raised circle, was created by local artist John Todd to illustrate her life and interests. The mosaic has her portrait as the centrepiece, surrounded by images including the beach where she loved to walk, racehorses at Redcar Racecourse (where she celebrated her wedding), the Redcar steelworks, the Zetland Lifeboat, clasped hands and doves (to symbolise the Northern Ireland peace process) and the Houses of Parliament.[32]

Her archive of personal papers, which was donated in 2006, is held by Teesside Archives.

The postgraduate common room of Trevelyan College, Durham (Mowlam's alma mater) was renamed "The Mowlam Room" in her honour. The room houses a small bust of Mowlam.[33]

A children's play park named after her is on the Stormont Estate.[34]


In 2009, Channel 4 commissioned a docudramatic film, Mo, portraying Mo Mowlam's life from the Labour election victory of 1997 to her death in 2005.[35] The film starred Julie Walters as Mowlam.[36] Mo was broadcast on 31 January 2010[37] and attracted over 3.5 million viewers, making it Channel 4's highest-rated drama since 2001.[38] The film was also a critical success, with MP Adam Ingram claiming that it "brought home the essence of Mo".[39] Mo was nominated for a BAFTA award for Best Single Drama[40] with Julie Walters and Gary Lewis receiving nominations for, respectively, Best Actress[41] and Best Supporting Actor. The Best Actress award was given to Walters.[42]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Mo Mowlam". The Guardian. London. 20 August 2005. Retrieved 31 January 2010.
  2. ^ a b "City remembers schoolgirl Mowlam". BBC News Online. BBC. 19 August 2005. Retrieved 23 September 2009.
  3. ^ Loewenberg, Gerhard (2006). "Marjorie Mowlam". PS: Political Science & Politics. 39 (1): 167–168. doi:10.1017/S1049096506240319.
  4. ^ Mowlam, Marjorie (1979). "Popular access to the decision-making process in Switzerland: The role of direct democracy". Government and Opposition. 14 (2): 180–197. doi:10.1111/j.1477-7053.1979.tb00671.x. S2CID 143315565.
  5. ^ "Marriages England and Wales 1984–2006". Findmypast.com. Archived from the original on 4 November 2015. Retrieved 13 April 2010.
  6. ^ "Why deny Mo Mowlam, my stepmum, credit for the Good Friday agreement?". The Guardian. 28 April 2018. Retrieved 11 October 2018.
  7. ^ "The Scotsman". Thescotsman.scotsman.com. Retrieved 13 April 2010.
  8. ^ "Results & Constituencies". BBC News. Retrieved 17 June 2014.
  9. ^ a b c "Political tributes to Mo Mowlam: As Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam oversaw the negotiations which led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement". BBC News. 19 August 2005. Leading political figures have been giving their reaction to her death
  10. ^ "Gerry Adams Meets Mo Mowlam". RTÉ Archives. Retrieved 26 December 2022.
  11. ^ Mowlam, Mo (2002). Momentum – The Struggle for Peace, Politics and the People. UK: Coronet Books. pp. 182–183. ISBN 0340793953.
  12. ^ a b "Mo Mowlam in Maze Prison 1998". RTÉ Archives. Raidió Teilifís Éireann. Retrieved 27 February 2023.
  13. ^ Moriarty, Gerry (10 January 1998). "Mowlam clears the first loyalist hurdle as the prisoners tell her to keep going". The Irish Times.
  14. ^ "Mowlam 'sidelined by Blair'". BBC News Online. BBC. 10 September 2000. Retrieved 3 February 2010.
  15. ^ Gallaher, Carolyn (2011). After the Peace: Loyalist Paramilitaries in Post-Accord Northern Ireland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-8014-6158-3.
  16. ^ Trimble calls for Mowlam's head, The Guardian, 23 June 1999.
  17. ^ Asthana, Anushka (20 August 2005). "Mo Mowlam". The Times. London. Retrieved 31 January 2010.
  18. ^ a b "Mo Mowlam condition 'unchanged'". BBC News Online. BBC. 5 August 2005. Retrieved 3 February 2010.
  19. ^ Wintour, Patrick (19 September 2002). "Legalise all drugs worldwide, says Mowlam". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 September 2018.
  20. ^ "I smoked cannabis, admits Mowlam". BBC News Online. BBC. 16 January 2000. Retrieved 3 February 2010.
  21. ^ "Mowlam to stand down". BBC News Online. BBC. 4 September 2000. Retrieved 3 February 2010.
  22. ^ "'Million' march against Iraq war". BBC News Online. 16 February 2003. Retrieved 29 December 2015.
  23. ^ Mowlam, Mo (2002). Momentum: The Struggle for Peace, Politics and the People. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-79394-5.
  24. ^ Mo Mowlam's vote is number one Archived 4 March 2007 at the Wayback Machine, MyVillage, 22 November 2002.
  25. ^ "Life in pictures: Mo Mowlam". BBC News. 19 August 2005. Retrieved 27 November 2011. [Mowlam] wore a wig after her illness caused her hair to fall out. … [She] famously removed her wig in discussions leading to the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
  26. ^ "Mo Mowlam dies". The Guardian. 19 August 2005. Retrieved 22 September 2020.
  27. ^ Merrick, Jane (17 January 2010). "Mo Mowlam lied to Blair about her brain tumour". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 15 May 2022. Retrieved 13 April 2010.
  28. ^ "Times obituary: Dr Marjorie Mowlam". The Times. 19 August 2005. Retrieved 10 June 2019.
  29. ^ "Colourful Goodbye to Our Mo". Mirror. Retrieved 22 September 2020.
  30. ^ "Celebration of Mo Mowlam's life". BBC News Online. BBC. 1 December 2005. Retrieved 31 January 2010.
  31. ^ "An Evening For Mo and Friends". Momowlam.co.uk. Archived from the original on 19 October 2009. Retrieved 13 April 2010.
  32. ^ "Mowlam memorial mosaic unveiled". BBC News Online. BBC. 23 October 2009. Retrieved 24 October 2009.
  33. ^ "The Mowlam Room | Trevelyan College Middle Common Room". Retrieved 25 January 2019.
  34. ^ "Mo Mowlam play park reopens in Belfast after £800,000 investment". The Irish Times.
  35. ^ Dowell, Ben (25 March 2009). "Julie Walters to play Mo Mowlam in Channel 4 drama". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 31 January 2010.
  36. ^ Hough, Andrew (20 January 2010). "Julie Walters nearly quit playing Mo Mowlam in new Channel 4 drama". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 27 January 2010. Retrieved 31 January 2010.
  37. ^ Little, Ivan (31 January 2010). "Face to face with Mo... again". Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 31 January 2010.
  38. ^ "Mo Mowlam biopic gets 3.5m viewers". BBC News Online. BBC. 1 February 2010. Retrieved 3 February 2010.
  39. ^ "Scots MP reveals agony over Mo Mowlam TV drama". Daily Record. 31 January 2010. Retrieved 1 February 2010.
  40. ^ BAFTA Television Awards Winners in 2010 Archived 30 May 2010 at the Wayback Machine at bafta.org.
  41. ^ BAFTA Television Awards Winners in 2010 Archived 30 May 2010 at the Wayback Machine at bafta.org.
  42. ^ BAFTA Television Awards Winners in 2010 Archived 30 May 2010 at the Wayback Machine at bafta.org.

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Redcar
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Succeeded by
Preceded by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Succeeded by
Preceded by Minister for the Cabinet Office
Succeeded by
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster