Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

Hillsborough, Co. Down

The castle here, which, despite its name, is really a handsome Georgian house, has seen some changes. It was built for the Marquises of Downshire, who laid out the elegant, almost French village, but sold up at Partition in 1922. Then it became the residence of the Governors of Northern Ireland. Since direct rule began, each secretary of state for Northern Ireland has lived here. 'Saint' Mo Mowlam was one, well known for throwing her wig at the staff and shouting, when offered excellent local produce, 'Go out and get me a f *** ing pizza!' Peter Mandelson lived here too. In his memoirs, he tut-tuts about Mowlam and her drunken guests 'bouncing up and down on the Queen's imposing bed'. His own reign, he says, was 'decidedly sober in contrast'. He loved being at Hillsborough, and soon acquired a golden retriever puppy, Bobby (so named, at Tony Blair's suggestion, because Peter was vaingloriously known as Bobby Kennedy to Tony's Jack). A photo of Bobby looking more monarchist than Mo when the Queen visited is on display. Today's occupant is Owen Paterson, who, with his wife Rose, have been friends of ours for more than 30 years. He took over from Labour's last man in the post, Shaun Woodward. I notice that members of his team appear slightly dazed by the fact that the Patersons always make sure they are being fed when they escort them to engagements.

Words like 'thank you' (though, to be fair, Mandelson was an exception to this) were not prominent in the New Labour vocabulary.

In fact, it is a symptom of our sick celebrity culture that a full-length Channel 4 film has been made of the life of Mo Mowlam, with Julie Walters in the lead role. Mowlam courted the terrorists with indecent interest and, it recently emerged, took the job in Northern Ireland without telling the Prime Minister that the prognosis for her brain tumour was such that her capacity was bound to be affected.

Why is she made such a heroine? In a better world, there would be a film about the life of Owen Paterson - his heroic struggles to export British manufacturing when he worked in the family leather firm, his mastery of the foot-and-mouth crisis, his insane courage as a horseman, not to mention his longstanding commitment to Northern Ireland. Owen would be played by Pierce Brosnan, or possibly the late Trevor Howard.

In one of the formal rooms at Hillsborough is a framed photograph of Blair and George Bush meeting when Bush stayed here in April 2003 to discuss the subsequently painful subject of postwar Iraq. One reason that Blair wanted Hillsborough for the rendezvous was his desire to make his peace-process Northern Ireland the model for conflict-resolution all over the world, including Iraq. The Americans were sceptical, but polite enough to come and confident enough of the security to let the President sleep here. Even today, the windows are bullet-proof, making the house hot, and cutting one off from the beautiful garden which has the second largest rhododendron in the world. We arrive at the end of a week when the peace has been looking strained.

There were four nights of violence in the Ardoyne and elsewhere in which dissident Republicans exploited resentment against Twelfth of July Orange parades. Eight-year old children were enlisted, and vicious attacks were made on the Police Service of Northern Ireland. All the establishment, including Paterson, support the replacement of the RUC by the PSNI, but I can't see that this over conciliatory gesture to Republicans has worked. …

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