Paul brings skills learned in Galashiels opera to his latest foreign office role

A Galashiels man appointed Britain’s ambassador to Ireland says he learned a lot about diplomacy in his Borders home-town.

By Kevin Janiak
Tuesday, 7th July 2020, 2:44 pm
Paul Johnston hard at work in Brussells.
Paul Johnston hard at work in Brussells.

Paul Johnston, who was educated at St Margaret’s Primary School and Galashiels Academy, takes over the role rom Robin Barnett, who is retiring from the Diplomatic Service.

The 52-year-old, whose mum Muriel still stays in the town and brother Alan is a coach at Gala RFC, is not new to potentially difficult roles, having previously served as the head of Kosovo policy team and as the desk officer for Bosnia and Herzegovina in his time in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

He has also held diplomatic posts in New York and Paris, and most recently was based in Brussels as UK Ambassador to the EU for political and security affairs.

Paul Johnston, formerly of Galashiels, has been appointed the role of UK ambassador to Ireland.

He told us: “Growing up in Gala, I never imagined doing this sort of work.

“My dad worked in Woolworth’s and my mum for a trades union. I had no idea what diplomats were, let alone what they did.

“I was lucky to get an excellent education, at St Margarets and the Academy.

“I studied French, German and Spanish and my teachers, particularly Owen Rowlands, stimulated a love of language and an interest in “abroad” that might have been the inspiration for joining the FCO.

“My Mum was – and is – heavily involved with Gala Opera. She’s just celebrated 70 years with the society.

“I took part in a couple of productions as a boy – The King and I and Carousel – happily in the days before DVD recordings.

“But that might also have helped prepare me for the job, as there’s a lot of ‘performance’ in it – public speaking, even debating. So what you learn as an actor, even an amateur one, about diction, posture, breathing, pausing, etc, is very relevant when you’re appearing before a parliamentary committee or speaking in a UN, NATO or EU meeting.

“Most imporantly, growing up in Gala – and my mum in particular – taught me about the importance of personal warmth and friendships, which is also critical to being a good diplomat. If only I had my brother’s family’s sporting skills, I would be the complete package.”

On his newest role, he said: “The UK/Ireland relationship is a fascinating, complicated and close one. There’s a lot of history there, but also a real determination on both sides, I think, to look to the future.

“The economic relationship is massive. Ireland is our fifth biggest export market and our 10th biggest source of imports.

“Both societies and economies will need to work together and learn from each other as we seek to emerge stronger from the covid-19 pandemic.”

Paul, who is married to Nicola, takes up his new appointment in September.

He added: “Ireland will be on the UN Security Council for the next two years, alongside the UK.

“In one of my previous postings I spent three years in New York, working on the council.

“So I hope I can bring that experience to our dialogue with Ireland on UN issues.

“More generally, I’ll bring huge enthuasism, energy, affection and thirty years of experience in the public service to this big job, representing UK interests in Ireland.”