A man with a mission
The Tablet Interview Francis CampbellElena Curti
- 19 November 2005
The appointment was announced this week of Francis Campbell as British Ambassador to the Holy See, the first Catholic in the post since the Reformation. Elena Curti talks to him about a career in which politics and religion have unexpectedly met
At a crossroads in his life, Francis Campbell deliberated over whether to enter politics or become a priest. Now, more than 10 years later, this farmer?s son from Northern Ireland has just been appointed Britain?s Ambassador to the Holy See.
The announcement was made on Tuesday and that afternoon he agreed to talk to The Tablet in the grandeur of the Foreign Office. Francis Campbell is waiting for me with two more FCO officials. He makes us tea and offers a choice of blends. Such informality will be a boon for Mr Campbell, whose mission has been scaled down so drastically that he will have no domestic staff of his own.
The new ambassador will travel to Rome soon and hopes to present his credentials to Pope Benedict XVI before the end of November. His title for the moment is Ambassador Designate though his friendliness is such that it is impossible to address him as anything other than Francis. Still only 35, he scarcely seems to believe he?s got the job. He is Britain?s first Catholic Ambassador to the Holy See since the Reformation and the first Irish Catholic to become a British ambassador since the Republic of Ireland was granted independence in 1921. He confesses to feeling apprehensive.
?It?s a wee bit surreal,? he says, and follows up with a tale from a recent visit back to Newry where his widowed father still lives. ?I told some people in the village who live down the road that I was going to be an ambassador. I thought the lady understood what I was saying but then she shouted across to her husband that I was coming back to work in the Ambassador Caf? in Newry. It is very strange.?
Modesty and earnestness are hallmarks of this career diplomat whose openness sometimes leads him into areas just a little too sensitive for the minders. But this is his first media interview since the announcement and he scarcely notices their discomfort. He laughs easily and suddenly, with a slight nervous edge but also with a sense of the absurd. The more personal the question, the louder the guffaw, but a straight answer usually follows. He is no smooth diplomat. On the contrary, with his Northern Irish burr and his old-fashioned spectacles he still has the air of a country boy.
Francis Campbell was born on a farm in border country, the youngest of four boys whose mother stayed at home while his father spent long periods away working in Canada as a miner. After leaving school, he attended St Joseph?s Seminary in Belfast, part of the philosophy faculty at Queen?s University, and popularly known as The Wing. But after three years he says he got itchy feet and took time out. Apart from the Church, the other major passion in his life at the time was politics. He had been a student activist in the SDLP since the age of 16 and studied politics alongside scholastic philosophy. With not a little understatement he says it was a lively time politically, with the South Down constituency represented by Enoch Powell. It was then he struggled with determining whether his vocation was to politics or the priesthood. The idea of going into the Foreign Office didn?t even occur to him.
?I loved foreign policy but my assumption was all this would have been closed to me. It would probably have been my own narrowness of perspective that in a Northern Ireland context one could assume that things were closed that weren?t closed.?
And yet in 1997 he joined the fast stream of the Civil Service and the Foreign Office. By that time he had studied politics in greater depth, specialising in European issues, and including a Master?s degree in European Integration at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. He continued specialising in Europe at the Foreign Office, and later in the Downing Street Policy Unit. His four years at the latter broadened the scope of his work, and led him for the first time to consider domestic issues: he was involved in organising 10-year strategy plans bringing together academics and think tanks as well as those directly affected by policy changes to brainstorm together on issues such as the future of the National Health Service and the family. Working in the policy unit also brought him into direct contact with Tony Blair, accompanying him on visits to heads of state and preparing his briefings. He advised the Prime Minister on a range of issues although he is not allowed to be specific. Given his background, it would be surprising if the subjects did not include the peace process and Northern Ireland.
After 9/11, he turned his attention to interreligious dialogue. He helped plan the Building Bridges Seminar, a Christian-Muslim dialogue launched by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, in 2002, and funded by the Government. He also organised a reception for 220 religious leaders from around the world, a first for No. 10. Such initiatives got him on to what he calls the ?interfaith circuit? and an opportunity to make lasting friendships.
?This is something more than just a professional contact. In that sense it is an unusual area of government activity. That crossroads between politics and religion where you have people who are very motivated, have very strong principles and there is a lot of meaning behind what they are doing.?
Interfaith relations will, he says, be a major theme of his time as ambassador and central to the address he will deliver to Pope Benedict XVI when he presents his credentials.
?In my background, in my grammar to an extent, there is that ecumenical dimension in terms of the Northern Irish conflict. I am very aware personally and privately as to what happens when faith communities collide and the importance of dialogue, the importance of moderation and the importance of genuine faith. When you look back and see how far we have come in relation to the Northern Ireland peace process, I think there is a lot of hope there. Sometimes people make false cousins of religion and violence and I think the Northern Ireland process would give us a lot of hope about the sort of progress we can make in a short space of time and think there is a central role for the faith communities themselves.?
Then there is the matter of his Catholicism. It is understood that Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O?Connor recently let it be known he was unhappy about what seemed a bar against Catholics being appointed ambassador to the Holy See. On Tuesday he welcomed Mr Campbell?s appointment which, he said, ?had broken with the unspoken assumption that the British representative to the Holy See should not be a Catholic?. The Foreign Office has been scrupulous in stressing that religious affiliation played no part in the selection, and that the board responsible for making the appointment was not aware of the religious background of candidates. But if Francis Campbell?s Catholicism is a coincidence, it is a happy one for the Government, given the criticism. Is he, I ask, a serious Catholic? This provokes laughter and when I suggest ?devout? instead it gets louder.
He eventually explains that he goes to Mass and used to be a reader at Westminster Cathedral and was at one time a lay Eucharistic Minister. ?Like anyone who claims to practise the faith I think you have to be conscious as well that you struggle. That is just human,? he adds. There is a sense that the experience of growing up in Northern Ireland makes him reluctant to speak too much about his own faith and an earlier remark about his love of London is revealing in this respect.
?There is a degree of openness in London. ?I don?t mean to say that religion is not important but it is one aspect of identity, it does not define everything about you. In the past, Northern Ireland did.? He found it easier to deal with a question about a difficulty he might experience in conveying a government policy that might be unwelcome in Rome.
?I don?t know any two states where there is a direct alignment of view and if there always was a direct alignment of views we would be out of business. There is a duality in terms of the role. It is to explain British government policy to the Holy See and NGOs aligned to it. Even now there will be some areas where there will be a difference of perspective and view and sometimes the circle cannot be squared.?
But in Campbell?s view there are many more areas where views converge. Recent examples include the Pope?s support for Gordon Brown?s International Finance Facility scheme to enable wealthy countries to roll out aid to developing countries more quickly by issuing government bonds. There was also Vatican endorsement for the Britain?s leadership on aid when it chaired the G8 Summit in the summer.
On the matter of whether the UK?s mission to the Holy See is being downgraded, as has been widely reported, he puts a positive spin on the changes. The new headquarters within the British Embassy compound is, he says, safer than the former independent HQ. The five-bedroom house beside St John Lateran is more central than the previous residence and as for the shrunken entertainment budget, well, he has assurances from the Foreign Office that it will be flexible about expenses ? but the minder intervenes. His stated aim is to make the post more ?policy relevant? as opposed to being merely ceremonial.
Certainly, having spent two years until last January serving as a senior official at the British Embassy in Rome, he has a good idea of what life will be like. His was one of 120 applications for the job of ambassador when it was openly advertised for the first time by the Foreign Office. At the time he was working in London as a senior policy director for Amnesty International, where he has spent most of this year. He describes it as a career break of a kind that is common in the Civil Service. The choice of work is interesting and another indication of where his interests lie. Francis Campbell is indeed a new kind of ambassador ? and not just because he?s Catholic.