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Friday 20 July 2018

Blair broke 500-year tradition for Catholic to get Vatican post

Steven McCaffery

Former British prime minister Tony Blair railed against tradition to urge the appointment of the first Catholic as British ambassador to the Vatican, it was revealed yesterday.

Northern Ireland-born Francis Campbell was appointed UK ambassador to the Holy See in 2005, making him the first Catholic to hold the post since the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

A new documentary which looks at his historic appointment reveals how successive British governments had avoided appointing a member of the Catholic faith for fear they would be too much in awe of the Pope to do their job.

The BBC Northern Ireland programme, 'Our Man in the Vatican', also records that Mr Campbell was the first British ambassador appointed following public competition and was the youngest British ambassador at the time he took the post, aged just 35.

In the documentary, Mr Blair recalled 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," said the former British PM.

"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."

Mr Blair added: "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.'"

Mr Blair said 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 added: "So Francis was the first."

Mr Campbell took up his post in December 2005, after 120 people responded to the job advert.

It was noted at the time of his appointment that Mr Campbell was also the first Northern Ireland Catholic in a British ambassadorial position since Ireland gained independence in 1921.

The three-part series, 'Our Man in the Vatican', begins on BBC1 Northern Ireland tomorrow at 10.45pm.

Irish Independent

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