Britain's brilliant ambassador to the Holy See talks to Ed West about seminary, Blair and when the Pope will come to Britain
I1 have to confess I was apprehensive about interviewing Francis Campbell, Britain's ambassador to the Holy See. Interviewers like controversialiSts, and diplomats are trained to speak without saying anything.
But the fact is, and I don't want to nominate myself for the Order of the Brown Nose here, that Campbell is a lovely man, decent and friendly and honest, and confirms all my best prejudices that when Ireland left the union the United Kingdom lost a natural race of ambassadors.
Born and raised in Newry, on the Down-Armagh border in Northern Ireland, he is our man in Rome in every sense, the first Catholic to represent this land since relations were broken in 1534.
Was it controversial, I ask, for an Ulster Catholic to work for the Crown?
"I have received nothing but support and encouragement," he says. "Traditionally this was a post that was restricted to non-Catholics. The Government decided in 2005, after consultation with the cardinals, to change that. We were not alone in having that rule — the Germans had it until 1948. We maintained it until 2005 when it was decided the best person for the job should do it irrespective of their religion."
We meet at the Foreign Office building in Whitehall, which takes me through the splendid Victorian corridors built in an age when the British emissary was second only to God himself in certain parts of the world, and down into the dingy and cavernous bunker downstairs (where Churchill ran the war effort) and finally to a bland modern office.
Campbell is in London for a regional get-together of ambassadors, which he describes as "back-to-back meetings with experts and ambassadors talking, on migration, Middle East peace process". Not the sort of thing many of us would enjoy, but he gives the impression that's it all quite gruelling, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Does he enjoy the social life out in Rome? He laughs, and shakes his head: "I would gladly forsake a lot of the social stuff. Your life as ambassador is like having two jobs. There is an office life, meetings and interviews. Then there is the other side, where you are the representative of Her Majesty's Government, which is important but it's often seven days a week, because a lot of religious events are held at weekends. You can go three or four weeks without a day off.
"I usually take church in Latin, because no one recognises me. There's an expectation that comes with job, and it's your day off. Otherwise I tend to go to Italian-speaking church but I tend to miss out on some of the sermon."
Sunday could have been his working day if things had turned out differently. Before entering diplomacy Campbell spent four years in seminary in Belfast, where he took the first order.
I'm sure everyone asks but I have to: why did he leave? "I went into seminary straight after school," he says: "I wanted to see more, do a bit more, I took time out, I became restless. I love the study of politics. I studied it even in seminary. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the priests I have come across in my life, in parishes and schools. I wouldn't have benefited so much without them, it's an inspiring way of life. Seminary was the most formative period of my life."
Campbell was active in politics from 16, inspired by John Hume, later a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to join the Social Democratic and Labour Party. "He believed that the European Union held out a model for reconciliation along FrancoGerman lines," he explains. "This was a model that could work in Northern Ireland."
Having attended Queen's University Belfast, the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and the University of Pennsylvania, he joined the Diplomatic Service in 1997, and then, from 1999 to 2003, spent four years as policy adviser to the Prime Minister. He still has warm words for his old boss.
His superhuman ability to absorb pressure is one of the best I've ever seen," hesays. "The rest of us would go under; it's a real skill to have so many balls in the air simultaneously." He also applauds Blair's "sheer commitment to the peace process in Northern Ireland which was daily, hourly. John Major too started that. Tony Blair followed on what John Major started." He says of the recent murders that "the overwhelmingly majority of the population are not supportive of these people. Actions designed to cause division have not worked, they have brought people together.
"It does cause fear. But is it a return? No, it's an attempt by a small minority of people to drag us back. When you go home now it's a radically different place." He laughs, then shows the characteristically black humour of the Northern 'Irish: "It's so radically different in many respects it ceases to be home."
Tony Blair recently said he always played his religion down for fear of being labelled a "nutter" but Campbell says it's not something he ever experienced himself. "I certainly haven't felt in my life that religion is something I have to put behind me,he says.
Campbell went with Blair to see the Pope in 2003 and they attended Mass together. Did he see signs of Tony Blair's move towards Catholicism?
He replies: "I've read so much about this subject and am always fascinated by the degree to which Tony Blair and the Holy Spirit were both left out of the equation. There were other people claiming influence left, right and centre. The only indication 1 had is we would have gone to the same church as parishioners of Westminster Cathedral. Sometimes I would go to evening Mass and I'd come in and see four or five familiar faces, the security people in plain clothes. And church is supposed to be time away from work! That's the only indication I knew."
Many of us over here tend to think of Labour-ruled Britain as an excessively secular country run by people who see the Catholic Church as a slightly camper version of the Talihan. But. as Campbell explains, collaboration between Britain and the Holy See is strong.
"The Vatican's critique on world affairs] would be different, but primarily the structure of the Catholic Church, the fact that the Holy See touches 17 per cent of the world's population, means that it has access to the grass roots that perhaps we don't have. and knowledge that feeds into our policy making.
"From the Vatican's point of view, this is quite a strong period in their relationship with Britain. In the past six years we have had four prime ministerial visits. In the previous 30 years we had one. We're not keeping an embassy open for sentimental reasons: it has to be relevant to our international objectives. And there is a rich exchange."
Before Campbell arrived there was a reduction in the British presence in the Vatican, which was taken as a snub. He tells me they are beefing up the mission once again — a deputy ambassador will he appointed in September.
And, I ask, will the Pope be visiting Britain any time?
He laughs an I-knew-you'dask-that laugh. "It's now a question for the Holy See, who are clearly aware of the interest of the British Government. The Prime Minister extended the invitation on February 19 when he was in Rome. The Vatican is giving it serious consideration. There are conversations going on between the Nuncio, the Holy See and the cardinals of Edinburgh and Westminster. If it were to happen we would probably have nine or 10 months' notice. And then I would kick in again."
He's met Pope Benedict several times personally. What does he make of the man?
"He gets unfair treatment from sections of the media. There were certain depictions given of him in the British press at the time of his appointment — the word `Rottweiler' was used — rarely have I come across a situation where the actual person is so different from this profile. He's a very kind, gentle, intelligent individual. He always asks very pertinent questions, he's always on top of the details of the United Kingdom, interfaith relations, the religious make-up of the country.
"There are separate discussions that Fr Lombardi, the Vatican's press secretary, has mentioned, about whether or not the communications infrastructure needs to be restructured, and that will be very much an internal Vatican issue. But they'have shown the self-knowledge that they will have to look again at the communications structure. I would separate that point from any critique of the Pope.
"Between the UK and the Holy See there will never be a direct line of alignment of interest. A diplomat's job is to work on those areas we cooperate on and keep talking about those areas where there is disagreement. Some cannot be bridged in a short period of time. There's a constant flow of information. On international development there is disagreement. It is our task as diplomats on both sides to actually find a way through and ensure a strong relationship exists."
As I leave he is off to attend a parliamentary meeting on global poverty. These are the things he cares about and this is what, he believes, Britain and the Vatican can help together: climate change and the environment, inter-religious dialogue and disarmament, ecumenical relations and migration.
"Sitting at St Peter's at the Easter and Christmas celebrations my immediate neighbour is the Moroccan who is a Muslim," he says. "Behind me I have the Turkish and Japanese ambassador. You really have interreligious dialogue all around you."