'We're in a new political space'

 

WHEN BRITISH ambassador to Ireland David Reddaway leaves next week to take up his next posting in the Turkish capital, Ankara, he will have spent three years and three days in Dublin. This is his 18th move since he joined the Foreign and Commonwealth office, but the irony is that he didn’t actually want to become a diplomat in the first place, writes DEAGLÁN De BRÉADÚN, Political Correspondent

His father was in the foreign service and was serving in the British high commission in Canada when the future envoy to Ireland was born there on April 26th 1953. Growing up, the young Reddaway never felt inclined to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“When I was at university the one thing I didn’t want to do was become a diplomat, because it seemed so feeble,” he says. “Somehow, to go into Dad’s business didn’t seem very imaginative.”

He read history at Cambridge and the career advisers all said: “Oh well, teaching’s the obvious thing to do.” But Reddaway didn’t think it was at all obvious and applied to join the foreign service after all.

Although much is taken for granted now, the last three years have seen remarkable developments in British-Irish relations and especially in Northern Ireland. Ambassador Reddaway has been deeply involved in the North-South relationship, meeting First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness both in Belfast and Dublin. Did he find it unsettling, as Britain’s representative, to meet McGuinness, given the latter’s role as an IRA leader?

“No, because I think he’s moved on,” Reddaway says. “We’re in a new political space.”

Referring to the photograph of McGuinness and Robinson with then chief constable Sir Hugh Orde at a joint press briefing after two British soldiers and a police officer had been shot dead by republican dissidents last March, he comments: “The sight of those three people standing together was really a sign of how far things have moved forward – and he’s committed to that process.”

On that occasion, McGuinness denounced the dissidents as “traitors to the island of Ireland”, and the ambassador comments: “I thought it was very important that Sinn Féin should show that they had no truck with these people and it could not have been a clearer disassociation and condemnation. I think it was a very impressive piece of political courage.”

McGuinness still adheres to the republican ideal of national unity, but what is the British government’s attitude to a 32-county Ireland?

“We now have an agreement that means that a majority could decide to change the status of Northern Ireland, and until that time we continue as we are,” Reddaway says.

So if a majority in the North voted at some future stage for unity, where would the British government stand? “We’ve accepted it. We’ve said we have no long-term strategic interest in Northern Ireland. It’s a policy we’ve seen applied in other contexts, in the Falklands, in Gibraltar. The commitment is to the wishes of the people,” says Reddaway. The Ireland versus England rugby encounter in Croke Park two years ago was a big event for him: “I had tears in my eyes because it was so moving. A lot of people sang the British national anthem who didn’t really mean it but who wanted to make the event right – and it was right.”

As for the 43-13 win by the home side, Reddaway quips: “I did think the margin of victory was unnecessarily vulgar.”

When England came back to Croke Park last February, it was just another rugby game. “In a sense, that’s what our recent history has been about – getting to milestones that are very difficult to get to, but then, as soon as you’re beyond them, you think ‘what was that about?’, because we then move ahead.”

Had Ireland’s membership of the European Union altered her relationship with Britain? “I think it has, hugely and very helpfully, because, instead of being obsessed with each other and seeing all our relationships in the context of two neighbours with a long history and different sizes, we are now equal partners in a club that benefits us both,” Reddaway says. “And it gives people in Ireland a perspective that includes but washes beyond the UK, and that’s been very helpful indeed.”

He weighs his words when asked about the British attitude to the forthcoming Lisbon referendum. “It’s clearly not for us to tell the Irish people how to vote, but our parliament has approved it and we’re very keen that the EU should be able to move beyond institutional navel-gazing and into delivering benefits to the people of Europe,” he says. “And we think the EU will function better if the Lisbon Treaty is implemented.”

AMONG HIS OTHERpostings, Tehran was clearly the most memorable. He did two tours of duty there, in 1977-80 and 1990-93, but when foreign secretary Jack Straw sought to send him there as ambassador in 2002, the Iranians rejected him and sections of the local media accused him of being a Jewish or Zionist espionage agent.

When he initially joined the foreign office in 1975, he was persuaded to learn Farsi, Iran’s national language, as “we train young officers in hard languages”. He was posted to Tehran in 1977 when the Shah still ruled, but then “the whole house of cards started to collapse”. It was an extraordinary period.

“A lot of people went into exile and a lot of people were killed, and we’re living with some of the consequences of it today still,” he says. “But I don’t regret having lived through it myself, because it was a formative experience in my early life.”

It was in Iran that he met his future wife, Roshan Firouz, who was acting as an interpreter for some foreign journalists covering a demonstration outside the British embassy (“The previous week we had been held prisoner for six hours and the embassy had been broken into by an armed mob”). Roshan’s background is aristocratic: “Her ancestors were the emperors who were deposed by the last Shah’s father.” Courtship between a British diplomat and a native Iranian under the political circumstances of the time must have been quite challenging, but the couple were married in 1981.

The Iranians renamed a street beside the embassy after IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, and Reddaway was reported as asking a Tehran official how he would like it if a street beside Iran’s London embassy were renamed after the deposed Shah.

Britain’s relations with the Islamic regime have always been difficult and there was a complete rupture in 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini called on all Muslims to kill author Salman Rushdie because of alleged insults to Islam in his novel, The Satanic Verses. The following year, Reddaway was sent back to Tehran, for three years, as chargé d’affaires, where he was instrumental in securing the release of businessman Roger Cooper, who had spent five years in jail on spying charges.

Then, in 2002, Reddaway hit the headlines when Tehran turned him down as ambassador. No official reason was given, but he was described by Iranian media as a “Jewish spy”. He responds that he is neither Jewish nor a spy. “We don’t make intelligence officers ambassadors,” he says. “Formally, we never comment on intelligence matters at all, but no, I was never a member of the intelligence service.”

The Iran job having fallen through, he spent six months as UK special representative for Afghanistan. “I was London-based but doing the policy co-ordination,” he says.

Despite the growing casualty list, he believes there will be a British military presence in that country “for some time”.

“The reasons why the operation started still apply. The fact was that Afghanistan had been taken over effectively as a terrorist training camp, and 9/11 was planned and executed from there.” He says that the Pakistan-Afghan border area remains “the primary threat to our national security”.

As he leaves for Ankara, his successor, Julian Beresford King, moves in from Brussels, where he has been working in the cabinet of EU trade commissioner Catherine Ashton.

“I don’t yet speak Turkish, I’m learning it,” says Reddaway. Although he has not studied Irish in any great depth, the ambassador did begin his speech in the first official language when presenting his credentials to President McAleese.

During his time here, he had to cope with a strike at the embassy over staff cutbacks. He also conferred an honorary knighthood on Bono. “What he has contributed to raising awareness of poverty and disease in Africa is extraordinary,” Reddaway says.

Now he is leaving after what was clearly one of the happier sojourns of his career. Based on his lengthy experience, the Reddaway axiom of diplomacy goes as follows: “There will be disputes and, particularly between neighbours, there will always be issues on which you have different points of view, but the key point is how you manage those differences, and where they fit, in the overall relationship.”