Alastair McPhail OBE has had quite the life. The former Waitaki Boys’ High School pupil served as the head of the team charged with supporting the Sudan peace agreement, worked on the northern Iraqi Kurdish peace process, and is now the British Consul General to Jerusalem. He talked to Hayden Meikle on a recent visit back to Oamaru.
Q: Were you raised in Oamaru?
We came here when I was 12, from Scotland. My parents, my brother, my sister and me. We were originally from Glasgow but we left there when I was small and we went to a place called Arbroath, on the east coast. But Oamaru is the closest thing I have to a home town.
Q: Do you have fond memories of your time at Waitaki Boys’?
Yeah, I do. It was the ’70s, of course, so it was a different world. Oamaru was very different then, too. But I have very good memories of Waitaki. I played football – soccer. I sang in operas with the girls’ school, and I tried all the sports. I studied languages, which made me a bit unusual. In my last year, I was doing Latin and German on my own, and my French class was one other guy and me. I had the same teacher for all three languages.
Q: And after Waitaki Boys’?
I headed off to university at Otago and studied languages there. I ended up doing Russian as my degree. Things just got stranger and stranger. I left it too late to get New Zealand citizenship. I was leaving to go do my PhD in Edinburgh so I never actually got citizenship, even though I’d represented New Zealand Universities at football.
Q: Where did life take you then?
I studied in the Soviet Union, Moscow and Leningrad, for my Russian studies. That’s where I met the woman who is now my wife. She’s English. I went and taught at Nottingham University for three years. She joined the foreign office, the diplomatic service, and we moved to London. I did a few jobs – collecting rent in a housing estate, and working in publishing. Our first posting was to Moscow, and that’s when I joined the diplomatic service.
Q: Do you feel a strong connection to Russia?
I’ve got two degrees in Russian, and I taught Russian at university. So I did have that strong connection, though that’s gone now. My career has been mainly based on conflict resolution. I’ve taken part in three peace processes.
Q: Which ones?
The Kurds, in northern Iraq. I worked on the peace agreement there which was concluded in 1998. I was the only foreign diplomat going into Kurdistan on a regular basis. And I had a bounty on my head from Saddam Hussein. I was sentenced to death. Then I spent a long time working on the Sudan peace agreement between 2002 and 2005. I was there the whole way through negotiations, and I was the first ambassador to South Sudan from any country from 2011. That was an interesting time and place. And the other peace process I worked on was between the two countries, Sudan and South Sudan, to clear up things that hadn’t been cleared up.
Q: What has kept you in the job?
It’s a desire to help, but also I’ve built up a career in conflict resolution. That necessarily drags me to certain spots. It’s challenging but it’s very rewarding.
Q: Are there simple keys to conflict resolution?
The people have to want peace, for a start. But the biggest issue is maintaining attention on the agreement after it’s been concluded. When we started the Sudan talks, we thought it was an impossible challenge. War had been going on for 20 years, and two million people had been killed. We realised it was going to be tough. But the hardest thing was implementation at the end of it, because the situation was fragile.
Q: You’re now based in Jerusalem. What is your role?
It’s interesting. I’m actually not accredited to any country. As far as the international community is concerned, Jerusalem’s final status has not yet been agreed. In reality, I’m the UK’s representative to the Palestinians, not to Israel. Every embassy to Israel is in Tel Aviv. There are nine consulates-general in Jerusalem, and I’m one of those. It’s a unique role.
Q: What’s life like in the city?
It’s tense. There are so many pressures on people living there. There are two peoples who want it for their own, and they can’t agree on it. It’s a state of not war, not peace.
Q: Will there ever be peace in that part of the world?
I certainly hope so. It would suit both sides. They’ve spent far too long not at peace.
Q: How much longer do you think you will stay there?
I’m only there till the summer. I’ve been there three years. It’s time for me to move on.
Q: Is your family with you?
My wife splits her time between London and Jerusalem. She’s still in the diplomatic service. My kids are in their 20s now.
Q: Have your experiences at global hot spots made you more or less optimistic that peace is possible in the most difficult areas? My experience has taught me that conflicts are very rarely confined to one place. Because the world is getting smaller, there’s no longer such a thing as a distant war. No matter where you are, there will be some sort of ramifications whether that is security or migration or whatever.
Q: Favourite part of the world?
In between the hot spots, I spent three years in Italy, which was probably the nicest of my jobs. So Rome was the easy posting, if you like.
Q: Hardest or most dangerous?
It’s hard to say. Kurdistan, probably, because of the bounty on my head. South Sudan was and still is very dangerous. Lots of conflict. I travelled around the hot spots in a UN helicopter, and there was always a chance of catching a stray bullet. One of the consequences of living there was that I put on weight, because you can’t exactly go out for a run.
Q: Fancy a quiet retirement in Oamaru?
I wouldn’t mind it. I come back every few years to see my parents and have a wander around. But I’m not ready for retirement yet. We’ll see what my next job will be.