Senior diplomat takes over as head of ‘bridging team’ after official is suspended over memo
BY ANNA ARCO
AN EXPERIENCED diplomat is to take over the Foreign Office team which prepared a controversial memo for the Pope’s visit to Britain.
George Edgar, a senior diplomat in his 50s, was appointed take over the team responsible for writing the memo that suggested the Pope open an abortion ward during his four-day visit to Britain in September.
His predecessor, Anjoum Noorani, 31, was at first moved sideways and later suspended for his role in the affair after senior Catholics put pressure on the Foreign Office for firmer action.
Mr Noorani is reported to have written the controversial memo. He also gave the go-ahead for the document to be circulated to Downing Street and other Government departments.
A Cambridge graduate, Mr Edgar was ambassador to Cambodia and Macedonia and was consul general in St Petersburg in his most recent foreign posting.
A spokesman for the Church welcomed the news, saying that it was a positive sign that the Foreign Office had chosen a senior diplomat who would be more sensitive to the issues at stake.
He said: “It’s good that there is now a senior diplomat from the Foreign Office oining the papal visit planning board, which is the Government-wide group overseeing the visit.” Oxford-educated Mr Noorani led the Foreign Office’s “bridging team” which is part of the larger papal visit planning board, which spans Government departments and is lead by Dame Helen Ghosh.
The bridging team does not cover either the logistics or protocol for the Pope’s visit.
The team responsible for the memo which also included the idea that the Pope launch his own brand of condoms, was sent to receive “urgent diversity training” and will no longer work on the papal visit.
A junior member of the team, Steven Mulvain, had circulated the memo to three department’s – including the Prime Minister’s Office and the Department for International Development – with the approval of Mr Noorani.
When other civil servants blew the whistle – and leaked the document to Church officials and to the press – Francis Campbell, the British Ambassador to the Holy See delivered an apology from the Government to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “As we have made clear publicly, it was a foolish document that did not in any way reflect FCO views. Although it was intended only for internal use, it was ill-judged, naïve and disrespectful of some key tenets of the Catholic faith.
“It has caused great offence and done considerable reputational harm to the standing of the Diplomatic Service.
“Having considered all of the facts carefully we have taken the decision to ensure that staff involved in the production of the memorandum undergo urgent diversity training and have no further involvement in the visit. In one case a member of staff will be suspended pending a misconduct investigation.
“The FCO very much regrets this incident and is deeply sorry for the offence which it has caused. We strongly value the close and productive relationship between the UK Government and the Holy See and look forward to deepening this further with the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK later this year.” Mr Noorani served as press secretary to the British Embassy in Moscow until 2007 and handled media inquiries concerning Alexander Litvinenko’s death. Last week he was told to stay at home while the department launched a misconduct investigation.
The memo, headed “The ideal visit would see...”, listed suggestions ranging from the Pope opening an abortion ward to the selling the Vatican to feed the poor.
Senior Catholics in Britain expressed their dismay when the document was leaked to national newspapers.
A papal visit “stake holders” chart accompanied the document, listing Susan Boyle as a positive influence and footballer Wayne Rooney as a negative influence.
Andrew Brown, the editor of the Guardian’s Comment is Free Belief section, wrote: “My parents were diplomats, so the thing that shocks me most about the FO memo is its blinding unprofessionalism.
“It’s not funny and it didn’t stay private and those are the two requirements of a Foreign Office joke. If it had appeared as a comment from a reader here it would have been an unremarkably nasty collection of conventional prejudices. But diplomats are quite rightly held to higher standards.” Paul Vallely the Independent’s associate editor called for the team which composed the memo to be collapsed and reformed and the cultural mindset of the diplomatic service should be questioned.
He wrote in the Church Times: “It was not a spoof memo written by some individual office jester as satirical light relief from a serious workload. It is, rather, three official documents produced to stimulate discussion on the detail of the papal visit.
“It is not therefore a question of freedom of speech, but of the way Foreign Office should deal with a head of state who has been invited to the UK by the Prime Minister.” He said the fact that alarm bells only rang when the document was circulated outside the Foreign Office “lays bare a Foreign Office culture that is so pervasive and so homogeneous that such outlandish thinking went unchallenged for so long”.
Mr Vallely argued that it was indicative of wider antireligious sentiment “that is mutating into something more virulent as it interacts with the Dawkinsite New Atheism”.