The documents were far too important to be sent by Royal Mail and arrived by courier. Alan Ramsay was intrigued by the embossed 10 Downing Street logo on the reverse flap of the envelope. As a civil servant of over 35 years, he was used to getting mail from various Government departments, especially his own Foreign Office, but not 10 Downing Street. He carefully peeled it open to find a covering letter and a second official-looking envelope. The letter from the PM announced that Her Majesty had been pleased to appoint the recipient as the new UK Ambassador to the Republic of Costa Rica.
He had long felt that such an appointment was overdue. Alan could look back on a lifetime of diplomatic activity. He had honed his skills of negotiation, communication, compromise, determination, cultural empathy, patience and restraint. He had learned to deploy them to end conflict situations, secure treaty sign offs, or sometimes just to keep parties talking and avoid everyone walking out.
He was particularly proud of his time seconded to the diplomatic team involved in the negotiations that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. It had ticked nearly every box of what should be involved in diplomacy. The history of armed struggle made this a classic conflict situation. It may not have reached the proportions of many modern international conflicts but it certainly proved polarised and intractable. The path to that agreement stretched from John Major to Tony Blair. There was no shortage of candidates for diplomatic prizes when the Good Friday Agreement was finally reached. Alan had thought he might have been due some reward for his role in the process but on his return to the Foreign Office he had been disappointed.
He couldn't help feel that his lack of advancement was in no small measure down to his marriage a few years earlier to Joan McPherson, the Second Secretary in the UK mission to Belarus while he served as First Secretary. They had spent a couple of years there at a time when joint postings were still frowned upon. Diplomats' spouses tended to put their careers on hold so they could support their husbands or wives (usually husbands) in their postings wherever that led. Married women had remained barred from the Foreign Office altogether until 1973.
Joan had never any intention of stepping down to support Alan's career. She was a formidable character in her own right who had once kneed the Belarus Third Secretary in the balls after unwanted sexual advances while they were in a one-to-one negotiation. The British Ambassador told her afterwards that 'kneeing your counterpart in the balls was a whole new take on diplomacy'.
Joint postings had followed to Malawi and Israel, before Joan spent a short time seconded to the UK mission at the UN. There, she was involved in the Syrian peace talks. The conflict in Syria was as fascinating as it was depressing. The timeline of negotiations and initiatives to seek a resolution and an end to conflict just went on and on. Different key players took the lead at different times, but always without success, because they did not have shared outcomes or goals in mind. Joan witnessed at first hand the patience and perseverance of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan finally crumble. There are times in diplomacy when all that is left is to walk away and that's what he did.
Alan and Joan had recently been working together on tutoring the course for new entrants to the Diplomatic Service. Alan focused on his experiences in Northern Ireland while Joan talked about the lessons to be learned from the Syrian Peace Talks. Alan came up with a great case study in 'How not to do Diplomacy'. He got them to discuss the Trump Middle East Peace Plan. This was really a bilateral proposal to secure Israel's national interests at the expense of any acceptable outcome for Palestine. Diplomacy can involve negotiating separately with only one party at a time in the room. But this plan was unique with only one party involved and present – Israel.
The final session of the course was called 'What does the Good Diplomat look like?'. Alan emphasised the need to be dynamic, skilled, intelligent, bringing your weight to bear on the big issues. In contrast, Joan suggested that the good diplomat shouldn't look like anything. The 'good diplomat' is the 'invisible diplomat'. He or she should be inconspicuous – in the background – hardly noticed as the process unfolds.
Alan had never really told Joan of his frustration at not reaching the highest office in the Service, and certainly hadn't hinted that he suspected it could have been down to their marriage. Now, at long last, he was holding the envelope containing the diplomatic credentials for an Ambassadorial appointment.
He allowed himself a wry smile as he read the inscription on the front. He was just a little disappointed that it wasn't in French, which used to be the 'lingua franca' of all diplomatic documents. Modernity now meant it was in English: To his Excellency the President of Costa Rica on the appointment of Her Majesty's Ambassador, Her Excellency, Joan McPherson Ramsay.