TV series on historic UK appointment to Vatican
A new three-part BBC television series reveals how Tony Blair as prime minister stood up to civil servants and tradition to secure the appointment of the first Catholic as British Ambassador to the Vatican.
The BBC Northern Ireland programme, Our Man in the Vatican, begins on Wednesday and looks at the historic appointment.
It shows how successive governments had avoided appointing a Catholic for fear that their loyalty to the Pope would hinder their ability to do their job.
Northern Ireland-born Francis Campbell was appointed ambassador to the Holy See in 2005, making him the first Catholic to hold the post since the Reformation.
Mr Campbell was also the first UK ambassador appointed following a public competition and at 35 years old, was the youngest UK ambassador at the time he took the post.
In the series, Mr Blair recalls how he believed that Mr Campbell, who had served as his private secretary, would be ideal for the job, but was 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,” the former prime minister says during the course of the programme.
“And one of the great Sir Humphrey moments was when the Ambassadorship to the Holy See became vacant. 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’.
“I honestly thought I misunderstood what they were saying,” he recalls.
Mr Blair adds, “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’.”
In the series, Mr Blair says he told civil servants: “I don’t think that is very sensible – not in this day. Quite apart from being discriminatory, how stupid is it?”
He adds: “So Francis was the first.”
Diplomatic relations between the UK and the Vatican had only been restored in 1914 after a break of 350 years. But in 1917 the Foreign Office ruled that Britain’s representative “should not be filled with unreasoning awe of the Pope” and as a result the job had always been filled by a Protestant.
Mr Campbell took up his post in December 2005, after 120 people responded to the job advert.
He had served as private secretary and policy adviser to the then prime minister from 1999 until 2003, but the Vatican posting represented a major development.
It was noted at the time of his appointment that Mr Campbell was also the first Northern Ireland Catholic in a UK ambassadorial position since the Republic of Ireland gained independence.
Mr Campbell was brought up outside Rathfriland, Co Down. He attended St Colman’s School in Newry, before going to Queen’s University Belfast to study scholastic philosophy and politics, with the intention of becoming a priest.
His career took a different path, however, and, in 1997, after studying overseas, he joined the fast stream of the Civil Service and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
In an interview with his former university, he once described his posting as a busy one.
“It’s the most demanding job I’ve ever done,” he said. “On any one day I could be dealing with matters relating to a hostage situation in Columbia, religious violence in India or the latest developments in Lebanon.
“If it’s of interest to the Vatican, it’s of importance to the UK.”