Axworthy, who is married with four children, joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1986 and has recently headed its department for North Africa, as well as for the Great Lakes, East Africa and Somalia regions.She has also had diplomatic experience in Russia, Ukraine, Germany and India.
Just after the papal audience, she came to Vatican Radio to share her impressions and to talk about the skills she hopes to bring to this new position.
Ambassador Axworthy speaks first of her first meeting with Pope Francis who, she said, was very humble, simple, friendly and keen to “pass on his good memories of meeting the Queen”.
In her first blog post, the new ambassador talks about her top priorities as countering violent extremism and conflict resolution. She notes that in the last 5 years she’s worked on Somalia and Libya, two countries where “the UK took a lead with international partners in trying to bring conflicts to an end” by getting the warring parties around the negotiating table. In Somalia, she points out, a new government has been formed which “is inching forwards towards greater stability” and in Libya there’s also been a government of national unity formed, so it has been an important experience “to see how the international community could support local processes”.
In preparing for her new job, Axworthy says she’s been very struck by the extensive networks of both bishops conferences and religious communities, “often working in conflict areas when others have found it too dangerous or too difficult to remain”. She believes the Holy See and the UK have “complementary things to bring to the table”, the former through its grass roots information networks and the latter through its political and diplomatic influence, so she hopes to help “bring the two things together to support peace processes in some of the troubled parts of the world”.
Asked about the migration crisis and about Britain’s intention to build a wall in Calais to stop migrants heading towards the country, the ambassador says this issue was not on the agenda during her first papal audience. She says the solutions to this crisis are “not clear to anyone” but she praises the Pope’s focus on treating people as individuals with their dignity respected. The UK, she continues, also has to consider the impact of migration on the local population, and she points to the need to help end the conflicts in those countries from where most of the migrants come.
Speaking of Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union, Axworthy says the Holy See is not part of the EU so the referendum should not affect that working relationship. The will of the people must be respected, she says and the government must work “in line with that decision”.
On a personal note, she says that in preparation for her new job, she walked along parts of the ancient pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome, the Via Francigena, to help her “step back” and reflect on the challenges ahead. She explains that although she is an Anglican, she used to stay in Catholic monasteries in the UK to find space for peace and reflection. She notes that “one doesn’t apply to this role without being interested in faith and religion”.
Speaking of the challenge of operating in “largely male world” in the Vatican, the new ambassador notes that the UK has moved a long way over the last 20 or 30 years towards greater gender equality, so that “you’d now expect to see women in all walks of life”, and in every job. “This is a different environment”, she says with a smile, “so I’m going to need to get used to that!”