Anniversary of day Mo Mowlam visited the Maze to persuade prisoners to try peace

MP Mo Mowlam. Andy Butterton / PA.

AS Northern Ireland's latest secretary of state Karen Bradley yesterday began to grapple with her daunting new brief, she was doing so 20 years to the day her most famous predecessor Mo Mowlam embarked on the most audacious gamble of her career.

On January 9 1998, in the face of strenuous opposition from some victims, Ms Mowlam visited the paramilitary prisoners at the Maze in an effort to persuade loyalists to take part in peace talks.

In doing so she was sitting down with some of the north's most notorious killers and racketeers, including Michael Stone - who was serving six life sentences for murder, including the killing of three mourners at a 1988 IRA funeral at Milltown Cemetery- and Johnny `Mad Dog' Adair, the UFF's Shankill Road leader.

Also present was UDA leader in the Maze, Sam McCrory, serving 16 years for attempted murder.

He had contacted media ahead of the meeting to say: "We don't want to play second fiddle to Sinn Féin or the IRA. We want to be treated equally. If the Government gives concessions to republicans, you must give them to loyalists also."

The UDA/UFF prisoners were reluctant to support the on-going talks process, although their political wing, the UDP, were keen to stay at the table.

Belfast Sinn Féin councillor Jim McVeigh was in the prison at that time and a senior member of the IRA group which also met the secretary of state.

Their encounter, he said, was a more relaxed affair as they were leaving negotiations "to the leadership outside".

"We weren't going to try and whinge about poor prisoners," Mr McVeigh said.

Sinn Fein councillor and former IRA prisoner Jim McVeigh said Mo Mowlam `got on like one of the lads'. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

"The loyalists were more excitable about their place in things. At the time one of the key reasons was to reassure the loyalists.

"I recall at the time the situation with the loyalists was a bit unstable. We were always content to let other people go on with it on the outside. We were always of the view that there were much more important issues to be addressed than prisoners."

He said there was a "very obvious sort of tension" within the prison emanating from the loyalist wing.

The murder of the LVF leader Billy Wright inside the prison in December 1997 precipitated the crisis that saw Ms Mowlam march determinedly into the high security jail to try and rescue the fragile peace process which seemed so close and yet so far from a conclusion.

She met the five-man leadership of the 130 UDA/UFF prisoners at the Maze for 50 minutes, during which she told them that there could be no settlement on Northern Ireland's future without talks, promising a more important role for the talks sub-committee dealing with confidence building measures.

Secretary of State Mo Mowlam chairs a high level security meeting in Stormont following the murder of loyalist Billy Wright in 1997. Picture by William Cherry/Pacemaker

The secretary of state ruled out any benefits for prisoners belonging to paramilitary organisations actively engaged in terrorism.

Mr McVeigh said she lived up to her "relaxed" reputation - her demeanour a stark contrast to that of her Tory predecessor Tom King who also visited the prison during his time in office.

Mr King was "a typical upper-class, detatched Tory, totally removed from the reality".

"She sat down and talked to people like one of the boys," he recalled.

"She was very down to earth, very easy to talk to. She got on like one of the lads."

The meeting came against a backdrop of criticism of Ms Mowlam, who was accused of setting a dangerous precedent, with Alliance Party leader Lord Alderdice accusing the loyalist paramilitaries of "hyping up" the situation and the secretary of state of falling into their web.

"Both she and they can claim a great victory, thoroughly ensconsing them as the important arbitrators of our future, not democratic politicians," he said.

However, she was unfazed, confirming she would go back to see convicted terrorists "if necessary".

She did, however, apologise to victims' relatives who had complained about her initiative - while thanking others who had called to endorse her approach.

"I have listened and it's a difficult balance, but I don't want to leave a stone unturned," Ms Mowlam said.

"I want to be sure we did everything we could to keep the process moving forward."

UDP leader Gary McMichael said it "was a symbolic recognition by Mo Mowlam in coming to see the prisoners that they and the issues at the heart of this crisis were being taken seriously".

Before the month had ended, however, he had led the party out of talks, after the UFF admitted taking part in the killing of three Catholics. If it had not left, it would have been suspended as parties are not allowed in the talks if groups to which they are linked take part in violence.

The party was re-admitted in February - the same month that the IRA was blamed for two killings and Sinn Féin was expelled for three weeks.

MP Mo Mowlam. Andy Butterton / PA.

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