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So, how did a farmer’s son from Co Down become a key figure inside the Vatican?


Francis Campbell is greeted by the Pope

Francis Campbell is greeted by the Pope

Francis Campbell

Francis Campbell

Francis Campbell is greeted by the Pope

Ambassadors get a bad press. Almost no one in their home country knows what they really do and they suffer from the image of a life filled with Mercs and perks.

So making a series about Northern Ireland’s highest-flying, home-grown Ambassador was, I knew, going to be a challenge.

But I was lucky. I had known Francis Campbell, the subject of Our Man in the Vatican, for close on 20 years from when we overlapped in the politics department at Queen’s University, Belfast.

But, as is often the way, I’d managed to lose contact with Francis until his name popped up in the London papers in late 2005.

It was announced that he was to be the new Ambassador to the Vatican, or the Holy See as it’s sometimes called, one of the UK’s smallest embassies, and probably one of the most misunderstood.

One of the questions that I’ve been asked many times in the past 12 months is, ‘What does an Ambassador to the Vatican actually do?’ The answer is quite a lot, actually. Francis describes the two main parts of his work as pressing the flesh and writing home. Every programme-maker is always searching for a handy way to get across complex ideas and Francis' shorthand description of his job turned out to be an accurate summary of his day to day work and a good way of understanding why the UK keeps an Embassy at the Vatican.

On the map, of course, the Vatican itself looks like a small dot, a micro-state in the middle of Rome.

But across the globe there are over a billion Catholics, about a sixth of the world’s population, all with some attachment to the Vatican.

If any country wants to influence these people, then it’s not a bad idea to keep an Ambassador at the Vatican and there are almost 180 countries with accredited diplomats to the Holy See. On one of the first public occasions we filmed with Francis, he disappeared to speak to some colleagues.

In the car back to the Embassy he told us he’d been speaking to the Israeli Ambassador, the Iranian Ambassador, as well as the Chilean and the Dutch representatives.

So keeping an ambassador at the Vatican allows one man to reach a huge part of the world.

But meeting fellow ambassadors is only one part of pressing the flesh.

There’s also Francis’ work inside the Vatican which of course has its own global, diplomatic corps with sharp eyes and ears.

Add in the Catholic Church’s network of bishops and priests across the world and it’s fair to say the Vatican often knows what is going on at a grass roots level, far sooner and in far greater detail than many governments.

Last June, we filmed a meeting between the Ambassador and representatives of a Catholic refugee service about the treatment of refugees in northern Sri Lanka.

This was on the ground, up-to-date knowledge of people detained in camps that the British High Commission hundreds of miles away in Sri Lanka’s capital may have struggled to hear about. In Rome that sort of information can be just a meeting away.

And getting those sorts of reports back to London is the other part of any ambassador’s job — the writing home.

Almost every time we filmed with Francis he had his trademark little black notebook with him.

Throughout all sorts of meetings he would be scribbling notes, making comments, jotting down exact quotes from the people he met.

Later that evening he turned those notes from a whole series of meetings into a report, sent first to the Foreign Office in London, and from there, on to the British Ambassador.

Filming Francis as he prepared his evening reports and realising how soon this information would be available to Foreign Office colleagues across the world brought home to me, and I hope to our viewers, what an amazing global listening post the Vatican is, and why the UK maintains an Embassy there.

And yet still ambassadors get a bad Press.

Mostly I suspect because they’re often anonymous figures, who rarely speak in public and are seen as coming from a particular class.

Francis Campbell shatters all of these stereotypes. Still not yet 40, he’s from an ordinary farming background outside Rathfriland and despite years away from Northern Ireland retains his local accent. Several years ago, when he came to speak about his work in the diplomatic service at Queen’s University, one careers advisor told him he was the first person to come to Queen’s who spoke with an accent the students would recognise as their own.

He was fast-streamed into the Foreign Office and worked in Downing Street, first as a policy advisor to Tony Blair and then as Private Secretary. After that he was First Secretary at the British Embassy to Italy and then spent a year with Amnesty International.

But of themselves these career details don’t capture Francis Campbell’s personality which shines out in all three programmes and which is fundamental to his work.

He’s a witty and engaging public servant with incisive political skills and a memory for detail best seen in his story-telling.

One early profile of him quoted a No 10 insider recalling how Francis valued everyone — the cleaners, the messengers and the coterie of the PM's closest advisers. As a result he knew more about what was going on than anyone else.

Little, it would seem, has changed in Rome. Francis knows everyone, has time for everyone, and speaks to everyone.

During Francis’ time in Rome there has been a growing alignment between the UK and the Vatican on issues such as aid to the developing world, disarmament, climate change, and inter-faith relations. More perhaps than any other single individual Francis Campbell has helped warm up relations between the UK and the Vatican, which may go some way to explaining why Pope Benedict XVI is coming to Britain later this year.

Adam Boulton, the veteran political pundit in his recent memoir about Tony Blair wrote that: “Blair’s direct personal lines of communication with the Vatican were dramatically improved by one remarkable young man called Francis Campbell ... from the moment they first started working together, relations between the British government and the Vatican acquired an intimacy they had not enjoyed since the 16th century.”

Tony Blair, who takes part in the series, describes how astonished he was when he learnt that, as a matter of policy, Catholics could not be appointed as UK Ambassador to the Vatican.

Blair says he thought he had wandered onto the set of Yes, Prime Minister and was sure his officials were joking when they told him the only category of people who couldn’t be sent to the Vatican were Catholics.

This autumn, after the Pope visits the UK, Francis leaves his posting in Rome. After that who knows where he goes next.

But if it’s as fascinating a posting in such a complex location, then BBC Northern Ireland cameras might well be there.

Our Man In The Vatican, tonight, BBC1 Northern Ireland, 10.45pm


Francis Campbell received an honorary doctorate from Queen's Universityn Francis Campbell was born on a farm near the border and was the youngest of four boys. His mother, from Galway, stayed at home while his father, from Rathfriland, was away for long stretches at a time working as a miner in Canada. For 17 years his father would return home for just a few weeks once every year or 18 months.

  • After school he attended St Joseph’s Seminary in Belfast, part of the philosophy faculty at Queen’s University
  • After three years of study he faced a crossroads — the church or politics. He was a student activist with the SDLP since the age of 16
  • As a young man he held a variety of summer jobs, including hospital porter, aircraft cleaner and sandwich maker
  • In 1997, at the age of 27, he joined the fast stream of the Civil Service and the Foreign Office. By this time he had studied politics in greater depth, completing a Master’s degree in European Integration at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium
  • He spent four years at the Downing Street Policy Unit, where he was involved in organising 10-year strategy plans bringing together academics and think tanks to look at issues such as the NHS. He also worked closely with then PM Tony Blair, accompanying him on visits to heads of state and preparing briefings
  • He used to be a reader at Westminster Cathedral and was at one time a lay Eucharistic Minister
  • He was one of 120 applications for the job of ambassador when it was advertised by the Foreign Office
  • He has said that he is both “British and Irish” and that he is not “going to exaggerate one identity at the expense of the other”.

Belfast Telegraph