An interview with a diplomat

Sir Vincent FeanSir Vincent Fean KCVO (BA French and German 1975, HonLittD 2010) is a British diplomat and an alumnus and honorary graduate of the University of Sheffield. He has had a distinguished diplomatic career, spanning over 38 years in the British Diplomatic Service which has included appointments as High Commissioner to Malta, Ambassador to Libya and most recently Consul General to Jerusalem from which he retired in 2014.

We spoke to Sir Vincent earlier this year when he visited the University to give a public lecture in the new Diamond building entitled ‘Can there be peace between Israel and Palestine? How can we help?’

How has your visit back to campus been so far?

Lovely, thank you. I’ve already been on the Paternoster, which was good – I used to do French and German in the Arts Tower so am a frequenter of the Paternoster. I am also very impressed by the Students’ Union which is a lot more spacious than it used to be, and looks very professional. One thing that hasn’t changed however is the friendliness of the Sheffield people.

I am very impressed by the University, especially its remarkable openness, lack of pre-conception and willingness to have a go. I am also very interested in the work the University is doing through the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures. I am glad that Sheffield is leading the way in this area.

I met my wife, Anne, while at the University and two of my three children are Sheffield alumni and loved their time in Sheffield. My son Dominic studied French and History and now works in business risk analysis in Moscow. My first daughter Catherine studied French and English and lives in Hastings where she works on Environmental and Architectural projects.

What made you decide to follow a career in diplomacy?

The Careers Service at the University, then based at Leavygreave Road, recommended I take the Civil Service exams while I was an undergraduate. Two things then happened that year – I was accepted by the Foreign Office on the condition that I obtain an honours degree, and I had a brief appearance on University Challenge.

What advice would you give to current students interested in a career in the Foreign Office?

I would recommend it. However, it is very competitive and popular – a bit harder to get into straight from university than it was in my time, so it is important to have other options too. It is important to develop an interest that ties in with foreign affairs, like living and working in a foreign country or doing a stint with an NGO or charity which brings you into contact with another culture.

It is also useful to know a language, but not essential. I have used languages a lot in my career, about half of which has been abroad, and languages are very important in being able to get under the skin of the country you are in. The Foreign Office is good at teaching you foreign languages – I learnt to speak Arabic there for instance.

What have been the main challenges of working in the varied political environments you have?

I have worked in Europe – in Brussels and Paris – where the relationships are strong and grounded.

The two trickier places that I have worked are Libya, under Colonel Gaddafi from 2006 to 2010, and Jerusalem, where I spent three years. Libya was very unpredictable. The leader of the regime was mercurial, nervy, selfish, vindictive and unpredictable, and trying to influence him through his circle of advisers and family was hard work. Libya had however come back into the international mainstream after the Lockerbie crisis as Gaddafi had agreed to send two suspects to Holland for trial under a Scottish court, and had given up weapons of mass destruction. Finally, working in Libya in those days, you didn’t need a diary – things either happened today, tomorrow or not at all.

Jerusalem was a different kind of challenge. I spent my time talking to both Palestinians and British people living and working in the occupied Palestinian territories – East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. I worked in parallel with my colleague in Israel and we were required to make joint recommendations to London. It was challenging because my main focus was the Palestinians, who are the occupied people and this made it hard to develop areas like the economy, which was heavily dependent on international aid from the European Union, the United States and so on. The division on the ground has got deeper over the years and the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are growing, and so already or very soon there will not be a possibility of creating a Palestinian state, which I believe would be a bad outcome for both Israelis and Palestinians.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of your work?

Without being too sentimental, it has been a privilege to serve the country. I have served successive governments of all stripes since 1975, and the British values and interests that the Diplomatic Service aims to represent abroad are a continuum. It is also a privilege to work abroad for Her Majesty’s Government. The responsibility of trying to promote your country’s values and interests is an honour.

There have also been a couple of happy memories for me that particularly stand out. Firstly, the day in Libya, in 2008, when a group of people who had been charged and sentenced to death for something they didn’t do were released and flown home. They were called the Bulgarian nurses and I was at the airport when they left. The French played a big part, as did the European Union, and we too played our part in persuading the Libyan regime to let them go, which was a great relief.

The other example was when a Libyan man, married to a British woman, kidnapped his young daughter, Nadia, and took her to Libya from Wigan without his wife’s approval. His wife, Sarah Taylor, went through the Libyan court process to get custody. The Libyan regime, which is not always well regarded, got it right on this occasion, introducing surveillance on the girl’s school in Tripoli. She was picked up and spent six weeks with us in the Embassy, with me and my wife, and her mother, before eventually the Libyan regime allowed her to return home, which is quite rare. Nadia is now 12 and is doing well at school in a safe place where she can develop and grow.

Finally, what are your current areas of focus?

I retired two years ago and continue to talk about Palestine and Israel pro bono. I advocate UK recognition of the state of Palestine, even if it is under occupation. I am a trustee of a charity called Medical Aid for Palestinians and I am the patron of the Britain Palestine Friendship and Twinning Network. I also offer fundraising advice for the St John’s Eye Hospital in Jerusalem.

Today’s occasion is a great one for me. It is an honour to be here. Coming back and being able to share my thoughts on the conflict and how best to address it is an honour. I feel at home here and I feel that the University has continued to reach out to me after leaving, which I am very grateful for.

I would just like to mention Terry Pratt, who is now retired, from the French Department of the University who taught me to love French poetry. He was not much older than me when I was here and was a great enthusiast and communicator. When I listened to Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Keith Burnett talking in London a few weeks ago about people who had made him think about physics, science and the academic life, Terry was the man who sprung to mind for me for the way he made me love France.

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