- Matt Bendoris
- 18 May 2021, 22:53
A TOUGH Scot, who once survived having a bounty placed on his head by Saddam Hussein, is leading the UK’s efforts to help bring peace to Ethiopia.
Glasgow-born Alastair McPhail has served as a UK Government conflict resolution specialist in trouble spots including Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Gaza strip.
Now as the UK’s Ambassador in Ethiopia, the top diplomat is helping deal with the fallout from the eruption of violence in Tigray, which has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
And Alastair knows he will need all his diplomacy skills face if he’s to help quell the violence in the African region.
He said: “I’ve handled conflict resolution in Northern Iraq and Sudan, and of course I’m now in Ethiopia, where the situation in Tigray is bad.
“Sometimes I think that maybe I’ve been typecast. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, there’s this guy from Glasgow. He can go to the tough places,’ and so I’m often not considered for the nice jobs.
“I’m originally from Maryhill, where Taggart was set, and it had a certain reputation in the 60s. It was known as ‘Scaryhill’, so even from a young age, I had conflict around me.
“But our primary focus in Tigray is to try and de-escalate the violence and secure humanitarian access to ensure civilians get the life-saving support they need.
“The governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea announced last month that Eritrean forces were to withdraw from Tigray – and we are adamant that this must commence.”
Earlier this month the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab met with his G7 counterparts in London and they put pressure on Eritrean forces to pull out of the troubled region.
The UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) has so far pledged £15.4million of aid since the crisis flared six months ago in November.
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That’s on top of the £105million package of support that the UK provided in 2020 to support efforts to respond to the triple threats of COVID-19, climate change, and locusts, which are having a devastating impact on the country.
But although he now holds a lofty position, before the dad-of-two Alastair joined the Foreign Office in 1994 he previously worked as a binman, barman, factory labourer, farm labourer and even a rent collector on a London housing scheme.
He joked: “Being a rent collector was useful in giving me conflict resolution skills, as it taught you certain ways to approach people who are very hostile.”
And it’s not all been pressing the flesh with the great and the good as The Scot survived death threats from Saddam Hussein and was once taken hostage by Sudanese fighters.
He said: “While posted to the UK Embassy in Ankara from 1996 to 2000, I was the only foreign diplomat going into northern Iraq on a regular basis to mediate between the Kurdish factions.
“I had a bounty on my head from Saddam Hussein, although that was a far from exclusive club.
“He didn’t get me, but he did kill a friend of mine. He and his girlfriend were both shot, but she survived.
“That’s why I was so strict on radio silence the whole time I was there. When I went in, nobody knew I was coming.
“So, if I went to see a British NGO like the Mines Advisory Group or Save The Children, the first they knew I was coming was when I knocked on the door.”
The Scot, whose wife Jo is also an ambassador to neighbouring Djibouti, also once played a major role in brokering the peace deal which saw the creation of South Sudan as an independent state in North Eastern Africa in 2011.
He recalls: “The extreme violence of the Sudan civil war is well documented, and I was caught up in a few incidents.
“It wasn’t unusual for the UN helicopters I travelled in to be shot at and once we were taken by the Sudan armed forces.
“They weren’t violent towards us, but they did have us confined for a few hours and they were preparing to take us somewhere else when we were released.”
The brave Scot has been honoured at Buckingham Palace twice – receiving an OBE from Prince Charles and a CMG from Princess Anne.
As for having a price put on his head by former Iraqi dictator Hussein – who was executed in 2003 – he says: “I was never scared.