Chris Pat­ten, who helped trans­form the RUC into the PSNI, on his Ir­ish­ness, Catholi­cism and the wrench of Brexit

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Lon­don Edi­tor De­nis Staunton

It’s hard to think of a Bri­tish politi­cian held in greater af­fec­tion in Ire­land than Chris Pat­ten, and dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a more un­likely pro­file for an Ir­ish hero. A mem­ber of the House of Lords since 2005, Pat­ten is a for­mer Con­ser­va­tive party chair­man and gov­ern­ment min­is­ter who has been at the heart of the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment for most of his adult life.

Af­ter he lost his seat in Bath in 1992, Pat­ten be­gan his very own march through the in­sti­tu­tions, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional, start­ing in Hong Kong where he was the last Bri­tish gover­nor be­fore the colony was handed over to China.

Since then, he has served as a Euro­pean Com­mis­sioner, chair­man of the BBC, chan­cel­lor of Ox­ford Univer­sity and an ad­viser to the Vat­i­can on me­dia strat­egy, be­com­ing known as the “Grand Poobah”.

In Ire­land, how­ever, he is best known and most ad­mired for his role in 1999 as chair­man of the com­mis­sion which trans­formed the Royal Ul­ster Con­stab­u­lary (RUC) into the Po­lice Ser­vice of North­ern Ire­land (PSNI). The com­mis­sion made 175 rec­om­men­da­tions, in­clud­ing a new oath for of­fi­cers, re­mov­ing the Bri­tish flag from po­lice build­ings and re­cruit­ing equal num­bers from both com­mu­ni­ties.

“I think it’s fair to say that my time in North­ern Ire­land, both as a ju­nior min­is­ter, which I re­ally greatly en­joyed, and then go­ing back to do the po­lice com­mis­sion, which was the most dif­fi­cult job I’ve ever had, made me much more aware of my Ir­ish roots,” he said when we met at his house in south Lon­don this week.

Ir­ish Catholic

Now 73, with sev­eral heart at­tacks and some se­ri­ous car­diac surgery be­hind him, Pat­ten is phys­i­cally slower than when we knew each other in Brus­sels over a decade ago. But he has lost none of the in­tel­lec­tual vi­tal­ity, flu­ency and mis­chief which made him such an at­trac­tive politi­cian.

Pat­ten grew up in an Ir­ish Catholic fam­ily in west Lon­don, the son of a charm­ing but mostly un­suc­cess­ful mu­sic pub­lisher whose for­bears had come to England from Co Roscom­mon.

In his new book First Con­fes­sion, which he de­scribes as “a sort of mem­oir”, Pat­ten ex­plores his Ir­ish roots and his grow­ing aware­ness of the Ir­ish part of his iden­tity.

“As I thought more about where I came from, it was the Ir­ish di­men­sion which par­tic­u­larly struck me. And I thought to my­self over and again, first of all, this is a fairly typ­i­cal Euro­pean di­as­pora story,” he says.

“I be­came more aware of my Ir­ish roots and thought a lot about them and re­alised it wasn’t just that I was a schol­ar­ship boy, I was part of a di­as­pora story which could have hap­pened on so many con­ti­nents.”

Pat­ten won a schol­ar­ship to St Bene­dict’s, a fee-pay­ing Catholic school and later an ex­hi­bi­tion to Bal­liol Col­lege, Ox­ford, where he read mod­ern his­tory. Af­ter a brief stint in the United States, where he worked for the lib­eral Repub­li­can John Lind­say, Pat­ten re­turned to Bri­tain and joined the Con­ser­va­tive Re­search Depart­ment in 1966.

He rose fast as a party ap­pa­ratchik and was al­ready a sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure within the party when he en­tered par­lia­ment in 1979, when Mar­garet Thatcher be­came prime min­is­ter. Pat­ten worked closely with Thatcher and writes about her more ap­prov­ingly than about her pre­de­ces­sor, Ted Heath.

“I think that there’s a sense that be­ing in No 10 can drive peo­ple into ab­nor­mal­ity. You no­tice the dif­fer­ence be­tween some­body as leader of the op­po­si­tion and be­com­ing prime min­is­ter. As leader of the op­po­si­tion, you may get what you want when you ex­press a view on get­ting up in the morn­ing, or you may not. When you’re prime min­is­ter you say some­thing and the win­dows up and down White­hall rat­tle. And I think that has a bad ef­fect on some peo­ple. I think they usu­ally have dif­fi­culty in get­ting ad­vice if it in­volves be­ing told things they don’t want to hear,” he says.

“Ma­jor was the clever­est prime min­is­ter I worked for. It some­times sur­prises peo­ple when I say that be­cause Heath and Thatcher had gone to Ox­ford. They were both clas­sic lower-or-mid­dle-class schol­ar­ship prod­ucts. I think Ma­jor left school when he was 16. He was very much self-taught but very clever, a won­der­ful ne­go­tia­tor, ter­rific at know­ing peo­ple’s body lan­guage, al­ways had com­plete con­trol of the brief, thor­oughly de­cent.”

Brexit worse than Suez

As one of his party’s most ar­dent ad­vo­cates of Bri­tain’s mem­ber­ship of the EU, Pat­ten is hor­ri­fied by Brexit, which he de­scribes as a doomed at­tempt to pacify the right wing of the Con­ser­va­tive Party. Con­temp­tu­ous of what he de­scribes as “all this ide­o­log­i­cal crap about sovereignty and tak­ing back con­trol”, he nonethe­less be­lieves that Bri­tain will leave the EU in 2019.

“I think it’s dif­fi­cult to see how it’s avoid- ed in any ra­tio­nal way. Ob­vi­ously there are two things I would feel. The first is that when I’m told that peo­ple like me have to get over it, I’m not bloody well go­ing to get over it. I think that it’s the worst thing po­lit­i­cally that’s hap­pened to Bri­tain in my po­lit­i­cal life­time. It’s worse than Suez in a lot of ways be­cause Suez was clearly the end of a story. Join­ing the Euro­pean Union was part of our ef­fort to ac­tu­ally find a dif­fer­ent role for our­selves in the world,” he says.

“How can you ac­tu­ally snuff out all of the op­por­tu­ni­ties which Europe of­fers in the name of this chimera of sovereignty? I think that the longer things go on, the more it will be­come ap­par­ent that the costs are very real.”

Europe has de­stroyed the last three Con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ters – Thatcher, Ma­jor and David Cameron – and di­vi­sions in the party over Brexit have left Theresa May all but paral­ysed af­ter last month’s dis­as­trous elec­tion. Pat­ten ex­pects that, de­spite her weak­ness, May will re­main in Down­ing Street for an­other cou­ple of years, per­haps un­til the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions are com­plete.

“She’s there be­cause she’s there be­cause she’s there be­cause she’s there. She’s not a bad woman. She’s not, I think, par­tic­u­larly ide­o­log­i­cal,” he says.

“If it’s not Mrs May, who is it to be? I think it’s very dif­fi­cult to see how you move seam­lessly to some other Con­ser­va­tive leader who will be able to play the hand bet­ter.”

Pat­ten was shocked by last month’s elec- tion re­sult for his party, par­tic­u­larly the loss of vot­ers un­der 45 to Jeremy Cor­byn’s Labour Party. He is con­temp­tu­ous of Cor­byn, and out­raged by at­tempts to com­pare him with the late Labour leader Michael Foot.

“I mean, Michael Foot was a bril­liant es­say­ist, a very good his­to­rian, a fan­tas­tic speaker. To com­pare Cor­byn with that is like com­par­ing the ad­mirable Ed Balls of Strictly with Nureyev. This not like with like,” he says.


Pat­ten’s Catholi­cism is im­por­tant to him, cul­tur­ally as well as philo­soph­i­cally, and he has re­mained ob­ser­vant through­out his life. In 2014, one of Pope Francis’s top ad­vis­ers, Car­di­nal Ge­orge Pell (now un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Aus­tralia for al­leged sex­ual abuse), asked Pat­ten to over­see a re­or­gan­i­sa­tion of the Vat­i­can’s me­dia op­er­a­tion.

Pat­ten was pleased to do so, partly be­cause Francis’s brand of Catholi­cism is sim­i­lar to his own – lib­eral but prag­matic and com­mit­ted to strength­en­ing the church as an in­sti­tu­tion. Like many lib­eral Catholics, Pat­ten would like the church to talk more about so­cial jus­tice and less about sex­ual moral­ity. But he stops short of urg­ing any change in the doc­trines that clas­sify re­mar­ried or gay Catholics as sin­ful.

“I think you can redo the rules at the risk of split­ting bits of the Church off or you can un­der­line the im­por­tance of the Church be­ing pas­toral, which I think is a more sen­si­ble ap­proach, and al­low things to change and emerge.

“I re­mem­ber go­ing to my grand­son’s First Com­mu­nion. It was a lovely oc­ca­sion. But just won­der­ing as I looked around the church, how many grown-ups there go to Con­fes­sion. They’re not bad be­cause they don’t, it’s just that it’s not like it was in my day, or when I was younger,” he says.

As Pat­ten looks around the world, at Brexit, the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump and the West’s timid­ity in the face of au­to­crats from China to Saudi Ara­bia, there is lit­tle to en­cour­age him. At home, he is re­pelled by the rise of English na­tion­al­ism, which he con­demns as “pro­foundly un-English” in its sen­ti­men­tal­is­ing of his­tory and glam­or­is­ing of English in­sti­tu­tions.

De­spite the gloomy global pic­ture, he sug­gests that it would be “a sort of de­mented ego­cen­tric­ity” to imag­ine that the kind of politics he be­lieves in no longer ex­ists.

“I think a be­lief in a role of the state in pro­mot­ing a wel­fare democ­racy with­out snuff­ing out in­di­vid­ual en­ter­prise; I think a be­lief in in­ter­na­tional co-op­er­a­tion; I think a scepticism about de­mol­ish­ing in­sti­tu­tions; I think an un­der­stand­ing of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween strong in­sti­tu­tions and sol­i­dar­ity; I think a be­lief [which doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean re­li­gious] in a so­ci­ety hav­ing a moral core; I think a be­lief in avoid­ing a sort of bread and cir­cuses deca­dence re­sult­ing in a lack of any sense of hon­our in for­eign pol­icy – I think all those things still ex­ist,” he says.

“They may just not be win­ning the game at the mo­ment.”

First Con­fes­sion: A Sort of Mem­oir is pub­lished by Allen Lane at £20

I’m not bloody well go­ing to get over it. I think that it’s the worst thing po­lit­i­cally that’s hap­pened to Bri­tain in my po­lit­i­cal life­time. It’s worse than Suez in a lot of ways be­cause Suez was clearly the end of a story

Chris Pat­ten: “My time in North­ern Ire­land made me much more aware of my Ir­ish roots.”


Chris Pat­ten, then chair­man of the In­de­pen­dent Com­mis­sion on Polic­ing in North­ern Ire­land, af­ter ques­tion­ing on the com­mis­sions ac­tions by the DUP in 1998.

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