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Peter Mandelson viewed by Irish officials as ‘arrogant’ in public but ‘insecure in private’

State papers: An MP colleague also remarked that Mandelson’s tunnel vision was his greatest strength and his greatest weakness

Peter Mandelson was a divisive choice as the northern secretary by Tony Blair in 1999 but many involved in the peace process were united in opinion on one regard at least – a largely negative attitude to his brusque and bristly personality.

Following Mandelson’s sudden resignation in January 2001 over his role in the controversial granting of UK citizenship to wealthy foreign nationals, Irish ambassador to the UK Ted Barrington wrote a highly critical assessment of his 15-month tenure.

In a long and candid analysis on how Mandelson had fallen from power, Barrington noted he had courted the media relentlessly before his appointment, “telephoning reporters, correspondents and editors, to charm or cajole”.

He suggested the demotion of his predecessor Mo Mowlam “may not have arisen directly out of her successor’s media activities – her difficulties with Blair and Number 10 were deeper than that – but Mandelson was skilled in picking up the scent and encouraging the hunt”.

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Barrington said Mandelson had assumed that the issues in Northern Ireland could be sorted out or managed with relative ease.

“It was more complex and demanding than he may have imagined, and tested his abilities and resilience. Many of his colleagues in the Labour Party and in the media ... were prepared to question his judgment during the suspension crisis.

“Notwithstanding his public demeanour and self-confident manner, he was surprisingly sensitive and insecure in private.

“He had a high conception of his own role and abilities and a concern for his place in history. I have reported on my own strange meeting him last November when he called me in to protest at criticisms of him in Dublin. He wanted to send a message, but he was also clearly put out that his carefully cultivated image of cool and competence might somehow be tarnished.”

The biggest fear among Mandelson’s colleagues, Barrington wrote, was that his return to the cabinet table would rekindle old animosities.

“In December I witnessed the froideur with Gordon Brown when twice in the space of a few minutes they were forced to pass each other in a narrow Commons corridor. The first time they both pretended to be preoccupied with their business, Mandelson with me and Brown with a colleague. The second time, they simply ignored each other.”

Barrington’s view was that Mandelson no longer had the clout he once had, partly because he was seen as “damaged goods”.

“He was still close to Blair but I was struck when I saw them together that the relationship was not as cosy or as equal as the media would have us believe. Part of the problem was that Mandelson had no real friends in the party or in Cabinet ... So when the second fall came there was no one to speak for him, and few tears shed.

“I have two abiding images from those days. Mandelson, pale and strained with the PM in his study in Downing Street on the evening before the resignation. He barely acknowledged the presence of the Irish officials, said nothing and excused himself after a few moments. We know now from various accounts that the crisis was developing at that moment.

“The second image was the front page of the London Independent on the morning after the resignation with smiling photos of his Cabinet colleagues entering Downing Street and the ironic headline ‘A Cabinet United in Grief’.”

During his 15 months as northern secretary, Mandelson was the subject of constant criticism by nationalist politicians, especially Sinn Féin

Barrington wrote that Mandelson’s arrogance was a fatal flaw in his character and continued that the big winner in his resignation was the chancellor Gordon Brown.

“Mandelson is clearly embittered by his treatment at the hands of his old friends,” concluded the note.

In a separate note on his successor John Reid, Barrington said the new northern secretary had “none of Mandelson’s supercilious or condescending manner”.

During his 15 months as northern secretary, Mandelson was the subject of constant criticism by nationalist politicians, especially Sinn Féin. A record from a December 2000 meeting noted Gerry Kelly from that party “reprised the SF mantra on Mandelson – arrogant and totally influenced by the securocrats”.

A few weeks previously, Dermot Gallagher, the secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, had met Gerry Adams. He reported that Adams was “in a fairly sombre mood. His gut instinct was that the institutions of the Agreement were in a terminal state. He was particularly and bitterly critical of the stewardship of the Secretary of State over recent months, claiming that Mandelson’s attitude and approach across a range of issues, especially on the Policing Bill, had massively eroded confidence in the nationalist community.”

Mandelson spoke with minister for foreign affairs Brian Cowen by telephone in December 2000, a conversation taken up almost entirely by the tangled issue of policing reform. It was clear that he also had a poor relationship with SDLP deputy leader Séamus Mallon.

[Brian] Cowen said it was clear Mandelson saw [Séamus] Mallon as the ‘the stumbling block’

An account of Mandelson’s contribution stated: “The meeting [with] the SDLP had been pretty destructive and lacked candour and honesty. Mallon had angered the prime minister [Tony Blair] by mentioning things which were not entirely true.

“Mallon and the prime minister had had a very bullish argument which was useful and good. Mallon had introduced two new conditions, one of which was inquiries. Blair said he was not going to agree to inquiries but would not rule them out. Mandelson believes Blair’s message went well. Blair’s view is that Mallon’s position is hardening and that he is growing more resistant to policing. Sinn Féin spooked them completely on policing.”

Cowen said it was clear Mandelson saw Mallon as the “the stumbling block”.

A Northern Ireland minister and a Labour MP for Knowsley in Merseyside, George Howarth, served with Mandelson and also with Reid. He told an Irish diplomat the spring of 2001 that Reid was more open to to other people’s views that had been the case with Mandelson.

The note of the meeting stated: “[Howarth] remarked that while one of Mandelson’s great strengths was his tunnel vision; his greatest weakness was also his tunnel vision.”

At a dinner in Washington on October 31st, 2000, Richard Norland, a senior figure in the US National Security Council, told Irish officials of a recent conversation he had had with Mandelson.

The note stated: “Norland said it had ended on a sour note. ‘I won’t be surprised if [Mandelson] doesn’t return my calls for a while.

“Mandelson had been very critical of what he viewed as unhelpful interference by Dublin in efforts to make progress in implementing the Agreement. The main bone of contention appeared to be the offer of a package to republicans to encourage movement on illegal arms.

“Mandelson had a clear awareness of the purpose and shape of such a package. However, the prospect of offering further concessions to republicans elicited a very angry reaction: ‘He said it stuck in his craw’.”

(National Archive files 2023/155/23 2022/48/616 2023/155/22)

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