Dedicated to Making a Difference

Interview with the UK’s High Commissioner to Cyprus, Irfan Siddiq

The UK’s new High Commissioner to Cyprus, Irfan Siddiq, hopes to further strengthen relations between the two nations while contributing to a solution to the Cyprus Problem as part of his long-term vision to make the world a better place.

By Athena Yiazou I Photo by TASPHO

Having taken up his post amid the August heat, the UK’s High Commissioner to Cyprus is more than aware that the island is a ‘hot spot’ for reasons other than the weather. However, having witnessed a number of historic moments during his 25-year career, Irfan Siddiq recognises the obstacles but remains hopeful that a solution to the Cyprus Problem can be found. He is also keen to help modernise and expand UK-Cyprus cooperation.
Speaking to GOLD in the gardens of his official residence last month, Siddiq displayed an enduring passion for his work and a quiet determination that speaks to his being more than up to the tasks of contributing to efforts for a Cyprus settlement and building on longstanding UK-Cyprus relations.
“The Cyprus-UK relationship has been a really deep, historic one but it isn’t just about relying upon those connections,” Siddiq suggested, noting that since the UK left the EU, it had focused on modernising its bilateral relations with its partners, including Cyprus. Memoranda of Understanding, such as the one signed by Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides in London last month, no longer only cover matters of traditional concern such as foreign policy and security, but also areas in which Cyprus is seeking growth, including science, technology, innovation and business, he added.
These come in addition to the many other areas of existing cooperation such as education exchange and working with British educational institutions on the island, even as fewer Cypriots study in the UK. Siddiq also mentioned cooperation on non-military development such as more accessible planning permission within the British Bases in Cyprus, opening the way for Cypriots from all communities to improve their businesses and homes there, potentially also putting millions of euros into the coffers of local construction companies.
Many other areas are also ripe for further cooperation, the High Commissioner continued, including sectors where Cyprus can benefit from the UK’s longer experience, such as high-tech, making businesses more environmentally friendly and the circular economy. “I think that, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have seen Cyprus shift a little bit of its strategic orientation and so we are seeking to cement that and to build stronger links with Western security and political institutions,” Siddiq said. He continued, “Of course, leaving the EU has meant that our relationship has changed but it’s also meant that we can invest more in a bespoke way in some of the relationships and the markets where we have such a deep history, where people-to-people links are so strong.”
The High Commissioner pointed out that hundreds of thousands of Greek and Turkish Cypriots reside in the UK, that tens of thousands of Britons have made Cyprus their home, and that the island welcomes some 1.3 million British tourists every year. All this encourages the UK to continue to invest in strong areas of the Cyprus economy, including tourism and financial and professional services.
The UK’s role in efforts to solve the Cyprus Problem, meanwhile, is significant and Siddiq is confident that a solution is still possible, so many years after the events of 1974. “I think it becomes a little bit more difficult with every passing year because the division becomes more of a fact of life for people,” he said, but was quick to add, “But from all the discussions I’ve had with leaders on both sides of the two communities, it’s clear to me that there is still a possibility for a settlement and that the benefits are clear for both sides. I hope that the incentives will align, so this can happen.” He acknowledged that as a guarantor power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, as well as the pen-holder for Cyprus-related resolutions, the UK has a particular responsibility for, and interest in, the support of a settlement.
The benefits of such a settlement also go beyond the humanitarian aspect. “Particularly in terms of economic development, it’s really important. You can see how Green Line trade isn’t as effective as it could be. Removing barriers to trade, to investment, to development and to the movement of people would stimulate a huge amount of economic activity across the island,” the High Commissioner noted. As well as investment in underdeveloped parts of the occupied areas, dividends also await in the sectors of energy and hydrocarbons once geopolitical tensions can be overcome.
When it comes to his own country, the UK, Siddiq is also confident that it will, for many reasons, remain a major player on the global stage. “Firstly, we have strong institutions in the UK despite some of the challenges we’ve had. You can see it in our media, our Parliament and our courts. We have the systems to both hold institutions and people to account and to correct. So, although we’ve had a bit of political instability with changes in Prime Ministers recently, Parliament and the Conservative Party were able to move ahead very quickly and efficiently and create more stability.”
Siddiq also referenced the UK’s role in the world’s reaction to the war in Ukraine. “I think our leading role in tackling Russia’s barbaric war in Ukraine both morally, politically and legally – with sanctions, with the support we’ve given to Ukraine and the calling out of Russia’s crimes – has been a strong indication not just that institutions are strong in the UK but that our values are strong as well,” the High Commissioner said. He elaborated, “Our commitment to freedom, democracy, human rights and a stable, rules-based international order – all these things are inherent in the UK. Regardless of the political changes that might happen, they remain constant and so our ability to continue to evidence them and display them to the world are, I think, part of what makes the UK what it is. Despite the trials we’ve gone through, we are a reference point for many and, in some ways, an inspiration in terms of the ideals and values that they seek to emulate.”
Turning to his own service to the UK, Siddiq told GOLD how his interest in diplomacy began at an early age. “I was very interested in politics and history. I enjoyed studying them at school and felt that I wanted to try to get involved in this sphere,” he revealed, adding that while he did not have any family background in politics or in diplomacy, he decided to focus his studies on international relations. “And then I was lucky,” he continued modestly. “I managed to get into the UK diplomatic service. And it’s really because I wanted to try to work in global affairs where I could make a little bit of a difference.”
His close to 25-year career has since taken Siddiq around the world and the High Commissioner was able to share some of what he considers amongst his most historically transformative experiences so far.
“I worked in Iraq (as a Political Officer in the Governance Directorate’s Coalition Provisional Authority,) in 2003, just after the Saddam regime was toppled,” he recalled, adding that, while not a ‘normal’ diplomatic posting, it had been “a fascinating and hugely informative learning experience for a young diplomat.”
Siddiq is also grateful for his time working as private secretary to two British Foreign Secretaries, Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett. “Again, this was not a very senior level position but it gave me a really privileged vantage point to some of the higher echelons of diplomacy,” the High Commissioner noted, adding that his travels with the Foreign Secretaries, attending meetings and supporting them had led to his meeting presidents, prime ministers and kings.
More recently, Siddiq was Ambassador to Sudan during the uprising, something he described as “a hugely inspiring moment, people power demanding change after 30 years of a pretty stagnant dictatorship.” He went on, “In my time there I think I was able to play a small role in supporting the transitional agreement.” While this agreement has since been upended, he hopes civil order will soon return to Sudan.
Few meaningful careers are free of conflict and Siddiq’s is no exception. A theme that has defined his career so far has seen the High Commissioner carefully balancing the promotion of values such as human rights and democracy with avoiding becoming a persona non grata to the host countries.
“Attempts to resolve conflict and division, to promote human rights and democracy in some of the places where I have worked have been the challenge,” he said. “Because of the nature of the leadership of the regimes there and being a diplomat advocating for progress on issues of human rights and democracy in an environment where that isn’t particularly welcomed by your host – and you are ultimately there as a guest of that government – inevitably poses some challenges.”
The High Commissioner is also very aware of the baggage that comes with being a representative of a former colonial power but feels that his own background has helped him be a better messenger. “I’ve always felt that I have a slightly more nuanced approach to this because, as somebody who has a personal history and origins that come from a different place – my family’s origin is in Pakistan – I think I have a foot in both worlds and can therefore understand in a sense some of the sensitivities that people might feel about being lectured to or patronised,” he revealed. Siddiq explained that, while his own parents were products of the colonial system, they moved to the UK where he was subsequently born and raised him with British values. “And I think in some ways that helps with delivery of the message. People can see that you’re not totally alien to the world that you are trying to change,” he adds.
Accompanied by his wife and their two young children, Irfan Siddiq has enjoyed exploring Cyprus and is especially appreciative of the island’s natural beauty and the warmth of its people, as well as its food, culture and history.
He would love to see a Cyprus settlement as part of his professional legacy but he also appreciates the opportunity to use his role to promote British interests that also benefit the wider world such as human rights, democracy, conflict resolution and climate justice. “You can’t always do everything that you want but, as long as you can, I think it is important to leave things better than when you arrived.”