BY DAVID V BARRETT
TONY BLAIR has described the moment he appointed Francis Campbell as Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See in 2005 as “one of the great Sir Humphrey moments”.
He was referring to the longrunning BBC comedies Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister in which the civil service would often frustrate the will of the government.
In a three-part BBC Northern Ireland documentary beginning this week, Our Man in the Vatican, the former prime minister said he had been shocked by the reaction of civil servants.
“One of the funny things about the Yes Prime Minister show is that, if you have actually done the job, you realise there is parody but, my goodness, it is parody close to truth,” he said. “And one of the great Sir Humphrey moments was when the ambassadorship to the Holy See became vacant.” For the first time the post was put out to open competition. One of the 120 applicants was Northern Ireland-born Francis Campbell, Mr Blair’s former private secretary.
“I said: ‘Well, Francis would be a great person to do that.’ And they said: ‘Well, you know this, Prime Minister, but actually we don’t really have this open to Catholics.’” Mr Blair said he thought he had misunderstood what they were saying.
“I said: ‘How do you mean? We’re talking about that embassy, the Vatican one.’ “They said: ‘Yes, I know, but not a Catholic there.’ “I said: ‘It’s the Vatican. The Pope, he’s a Catholic. You mean we actually as a matter of policy... say you can’t have a Catholic... It’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.’” Diplomatic relations between Britain and the Holy See were only restored in 1914, but a Foreign Office memo said in 1917 that Britain’s representative in the Vatican “should not be filled with unreasoning awe of the Pope”. And so the policy was that a Catholic should not be ambassador to the Holy See.
On the documentary Mr Blair said: “Can you imagine we say for years and years and years the one category of person we shouldn’t have as ambassador to the Holy See is someone who shares their faith?” He told the civil servants: “I don’t think that is very sensible – not in this day. Quite apart from being discriminatory, how stupid is it? So Francis was the first.” At 35 Francis Campbell was also the youngest British ambassador.
Having helped oversee the planning for Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain this September Mr Campbell will move on from his post at the end of this year.