Belfast Telegraph

Princess Diana: Winning hearts across the divide

Patrick Jephson, a former private secretary to Diana, Princess of Wales, tells Lee Henry how she won hearts across the divide in Northern Ireland and of his own continuing sense of loss at the all-too-early death of the woman with whom he had worked so closely

It's a sweeping statement from someone who understands the value of a soundbite, but there is good reason to believe that Patrick Jephson, former private secretary to Diana, Princess of Wales, is genuine when he says: "Of all the places we visited around the world - New York, Cairo, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, you name it - none were happier times than those we spent together in Northern Ireland."

After all, in Northern Ireland, despite the bombs, bullets and political squabbles, on the streets of Enniskillen, Belfast and elsewhere, Diana found a people divided, a people that she might, in some small way, be able to heal. In such circumstances, she was at her best.

"Even during those times when there was tension between her and her in-laws, and controversy in the mainland media, in Northern Ireland Diana always received a warm welcome right across the community," Jephson says.

"You have to remember, Diana's signature achievement was breaking down barriers of prejudice against addicts, against people with Aids and leprosy. A long and gritty list. She did so, she told me, because she felt like one of them, an outsider. She was able to share the feelings of those who felt excluded and she therefore empathised with all the people of Northern Ireland."

Diana's infrequent visits to Ulster are documented in Jephson's controversial book, Shadows of a Princess, originally published in 2000 and recently reissued with a new introduction to mark the 20th anniversary of Diana's untimely death. Since resigning as her private secretary in 1996 - to all intents and purposes her chief of staff, and the man who drafted all of Diana's speeches and communiques - Jephson has been criticised by some for breaking his silence on his years with the princess.

Few individuals, however, were in the position to reveal the truths behind Diana's many faces. It is understandable that Jephson would feel compelled to write about her. It was, he argues, "entirely natural".

"A lot of people have written books about Princess Diana, but my view was, by good fortune I had worked closely with her, and therefore, merely as a matter of historical record, I wanted to write it all down. It also enabled me to begin to understand some of the things I had seen."

Jephson (61) was born in Campsie, outside Londonderry, and brought up in Cork. He attended school in Scotland and graduated from Cambridge before joining the Royal Navy. It was while serving in the North Atlantic that he first met the princess.

"Oh yes, I remember the first time I met her," he laughs. "Everyone remembers the first time they met Diana. I was serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the frigate Arethusa when I was told that I had been selected as one of two Royal Navy candidates for the post of equerry to the Princess of Wales.

"The Army and RAF also put up two candidates each. The interview was lunch with the Princess at Kensington Palace. As you can imagine, there was obviously quite a contrast to having lunch with 250 sailors in the North Atlantic. I was delighted, honoured, to be selected, that she picked me."

After his service as equerry came to an end, Diana personally requested that Jephson stay on to form her own private household. With her marriage to Prince Charles coming to its conclusion, Diana sought autonomy. Jephson became, according to Lord Putnam, "the producer of the Diana show".

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Princess Diana visit to Northern Ireland at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald.

"It was an unusual situation to be in because most royal households are long established, but we had to create one from scratch. It was a huge challenge but also very exciting. We were able to organise her life the way she wanted it to be, small, versatile and very professional, as she was.

"Nobody had done what we were doing. In the Royal business, great value is placed on precedent and continuity. It wasn't necessarily a cause of friction (among the Royal Family), but in some cases it did arouse curiosity and in other cases suspicion. It was very intense."

The job became a vocation for Jephson, who was constantly on hand to organise Diana's staff, write speeches and provide support when needed. It was not all holidays in Monaco and shopping trips to Paris, he contends, but there were opportunities for mirth.

"Diana made a lot of high profile overseas trips, representing the country. Very high-pressure stuff. This tends to be forgotten. She wasn't just a mother and a charity worker; she was Diana the Queen-in-waiting. And what a queen she would have been. But she also had a great ability to instinctively know when the team needed a morale boost.

"Once we were on tour in Egypt and it was very serious, very hard-working. When the engagements were finished, the entourage was staying at the Ambassador Hotel, and all of a sudden we started to throw everyone in the pool. Diana as well, she threw people in. It was terrific fun. We were able to forget the pressure and just have a laugh."

Given Jephson's Northern Irish background, he was always "very keen" to visit. Diana shared his enthusiasm and the two developed a close working relationship with the Northern Ireland Office. Jephson describes the Northern Irish security offering as "the finest I worked with anywhere in the world".

"Diana made herself available to spend the maximum amount of time on the ground, and we went to Londonderry, Omagh, Armagh, Hillsborough, where she attended a garden party. She also led the Remembrance Service in Enniskillen a few years after the Enniskillen bomb, and I often return to the peace cairn there, which is wonderfully touching.

"There was also a very significant visit when she did a largely impromptu walkabout on the Falls Road in Belfast. That drew a lot of favourable media interest, not least from south of the border. Obviously her security detail was on its toes, but her appeal was plainly across every kind of divide. I was with her for eight years and I saw that over and over again. She had the ability to transcend cultural, religious and generational divisions."

Ultimately, however, Jephson and Diana finally parted ways in 1996 after disagreeing as to the nature of her future career. Having shared the same vision through thick and thin, and lived through the historic breakdown of her marriage, Jephson admits that cracks began to show.

"I felt that Diana held all the cards," he explains. "She had a hand full of aces, and she was in a position of great strength, able to influence people and events and determine her own future. She didn't recognise that. She, by that stage, had begun to see herself as a victim. Professionally, it was rather frustrating. Better that I should make way for someone else."

The straw that broke the camel's back, Jephson recalls, was the now iconic Panorama interview (right) that Diana consented to give to Martin Bashir in 1995. Sheepish, seemingly defeated, Diana famously remarked during the interview that there had been "three people" in her marriage, alluding to Prince Charles' long-running relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he subsequently married in 2005.

"I saw it as an opportunity to be a conciliator, to offer the hand of friendship, yet Diana used it as an opportunity to invoke sympathy," Jephson comments. "I felt that, as a strong, influential woman in her own I right, it was not the best course of action. It reduced her opportunities rather than capitalising on them. She played into the hands of her critics and that was avoidable."

Jephson was at home in the English countryside when he learned of Diana's death as the result of a car accident in Paris on August 31, 1997. He felt then as he feels now. "An enormous sense of loss, of unfulfilled potential, especially with regards to the many great causes she supported around the world."

Now resident in America, which in the year 2017 has become "a male-dominated environment", Jephson observes that Diana remains extremely popular, particularly among young people. "There is still enormous interest in her," he reveals. "She was, and remains, a valuable example for young women who were kids when she died but who see in her experience examples that are relevant to their own lives today."

History, Jephson contends, will ultimately judge Diana kindly. "A princess at 20, she learned through adversity to be a strong and determined woman who became a symbol of hope to sick and excluded people. She earned worldwide affection despite the failure of her marriage, her own fallibility and ostracism by the royal establishment."

Shadows of a Princess by Patrick Jephson is published by William Collins, £9.99

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