'We're Not Going to Let Violence Win'

Mo Mowlam has her eyes on the prize.

That prize is peace in Northern Ireland - including a functioning elected assembly that represents both Catholics and Protestants, republicans and unionists.

If an interviewer brings up seemingly unsolvable problems, like "decommissioning" - getting the Irish Republican Army and other paramilitaries to hand in their weapons - she talks about learning to "shave around the edges" of the problem, look for opportunities, wait for right moments. Confidence is a crucial quality for Britain's top politician on Northern Ireland. People have asked her, she says, "what was Plan B if [you] failed? And the honest answer is we never had one ... if you are determined and confident, it helps the process."

Add to confidence three more things - flexibility, listening, and patience - and you have Ms. Mowlam's bywords. "You don't get rid of sectarian bigotry overnight," she says. "There's still a lot of anger and frustration."

Mowlam, Britain's secretary of State for Northern Ireland, spoke with the Monitor's editorial board in Boston Sept. 7.

In a place where angry words have been flung for centuries, Mowlam says it is important not to be too swayed by the day's quote, whether it's from Unionist David Trimble or Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams. As the opening of the new Northern Ireland assembly looms Sept. 14, there have been "positive words and negative words," she says. The tough-sounding ones are often directed by leaders to their own followers. "And you just say to yourself - [those statements are] not helpful, they're a handicap to the other side, they don't build the trust that needs building." But the tough words do "actually manage to keep the followers, be they unionist or republicans, moving in the right direction."

Mowlam even recently began to see a ray of light in Omagh, where a bomb planted Aug. 15 by the so-called Real IRA killed 29 people and injured many more. "Omagh was the single biggest tragedy we've had" in the long history of sectarian trouble in Northern Ireland, she says. But in her four visits to the town since the attack, she has begun to see a shift beyond shock. "By the time we got to [President] Clinton's visit, there was almost a kind of determination in the crowd not to let these men of violence get their way, and it was stunning.... That was a sea change, in a sense, to say that we're not going to let this violence win.... We've come so far, we're not going to let it destroy us now."

The Real IRA, she adds, is "a very small group.... We are doing everything we can jointly with the Irish [government] to get them off the streets." Though some have referred to new antiterrorist legislation passed by both Britain and Ireland as "Draconian," she defends it. "We've got safeguards in place. The legal advice we got from the European Convention on Human Rights is that [the measures are] within the law.... We've worked very hard to make it focused, targeted on those groups that are still at war.... I think we got it about right."

The British and Irish governments now are working together so that terrorists "can't cross the border and find a hiding place. We've never got to that point [of close cooperation] before." Indeed, the "team approach" of three countries - Britain, Ireland, and the United States, represented particularly by former Sen. George Mitchell, who chaired the peace talks, and by a pair of visits from President Clinton - "is one of the main factors why we broke through this time and not previous times." The result was April's so-called Good Friday agreement, ratified by voters in May, that set up the new assembly and other forums for cooperation in Northern Ireland.

"With the Good Friday agreement, we put in place the building blocks," she says. "We've now got to put the doors and windows in, and that is what is slowly happening."

She knows the world is watching. "We're not there yet [to peace] - far, far from it. It would be a mistake to assume we are. [But if it] happens, then it is a positive message to other places that there is a hope, that you can do it. And hope is terribly important."

* Gregory M. Lamb is the Monitor's assistant international news editor.

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