Our hard-headed woman in Beirut

MAEVE FORT, who takes up her post as Her Majesty's ambassador to Beirut next month, is so atypical of Britain's diplomatic corps that she is almost a cliche. She is not male, she is not Oxbridge, she is not married. She lists her recreations in Who's Who as 'talking, eating, reading, sleeping'. She smokes heavily. And, as one acquaintance put it: 'She is probably the only diplomat I ever met who actually enjoyed working in Lagos.'

Ask anybody who has worked with Miss Fort about her character, and they will all tell you things like 'straight-talking', 'forceful and upfront' or 'not connable'. Try to find out simple facts about her, such as where she was born and what her father did, and even her close colleagues will plead ignorance. 'I think she would claim some connection with the Midlands, and some links to Ireland,' said one, 'and I think her father was something in manufacturing.' Miss Fort has declined to give interviews until she has got her feet properly under the table in Beirut and, as one colleague said, 'most of all she would not want to be written about because she is a woman'.

Miss Fort, 51, was educated at Trinity College Dublin and the Sorbonne. She entered the Foreign Office at 22, and worked her way up from desk officer to ambassador via postings in New York, Bangkok, Bonn, Lagos and Santiago, with a spell at the Falkland Islands Emergency Unit.

When she became ambassador to Maputo in 1989, Britain was well into its policy of seeking to woo Mozambique back to the capitalist fold, but, as one colleague put it, 'the honeymoon period was well over'. Miss Fort was noted for her forthrightness about government corruption and misuse of aid.

She also served on the Joint Verification Committee set up to monitor the 'peace corridors' along the Beira and Limpopo railways, where, for the first time, the Renamo rebel movement was represented.

'Now they all lie, but Renamo lie more than anyone,' said an observer who was there at the time. 'Maeve was the only one who would not partake in diplomatic niceties. If she knew they were behind an attack, she would say so. Renamo especially came to hate her.'

But a fellow diplomat who served in Maputo said this impression was due to the fact she was a woman: 'On a committee like that, you have all these male chauvinist ambassadors. They would listen more carefully when she said these things than if some boring old monsieur in a boring grey suit said it.'

Life in what are deemed to be unpleasant countries fascinated Miss Fort. 'She loved Nigeria. She thought the people were fabulous, that they would talk, that they were educated,' said one acquaintance. 'She finds problematic places interesting because they throw up interesting situations,' said another. If there was a problem in Maputo, it was that the Portuguese legacy of formality meant she sometimes felt as though male colleagues expected her to join the wives after dinner.

Miss Fort volunteered to go to Beirut. The Foreign Office does not draft people to serve there. Top mandarins, conscious of the need to update the service's image, are pleased as punch: 'It was thought to be an original idea to have a woman ambassador to that part of the world,' said one. 'It was thought to be a good idea to start with a place like Beirut which, although there is a security risk, is more open than some other Muslim societies.'

Whether Miss Fort would approve of that gender-based logic, only she will know.

(Photograph omitted)

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