‘A Brit through and through’: Finland’s unlikely honorary consul in Sheffield interviewed

Philip Rodrigo tells Harrison Jones about ice hockey, Santa Claus secrets and the joys of Finland.

“I’m a stainless steel maker from Sheffield”, professes a senior vice president at a local company, in rather dull fashion.

As a former Sheffield Steelers ice hockey player, married father of two Philip Hodrigo could seem like a walking stereotype for the steel city, but don’t be fooled.

The 49-year-old is in fact the only honorary consul in Sheffield, representing Finland’s interests in the South Yorkshire region.

Based at the little known but internationally successful manufacturer Outukumpu in Tinsley – near Greenland, appropriately – he is one of around 20 Finnish consulars stationed across the country.

With typical Scandanavian politeness, an embassy staff member in London perks up when I mention his name. “Oh, its Philip you’re after?”, she asks excitedly. “He’s great.”

With around 50 Fins thought to be living in Sheffield, a handful of whom go to the universities, Philip’s role is – by his own admission – not particularly taxing and purely voluntary.

This December, though, Finland is celebrating the centenary of its independence from Sweden and Philip is putting on an event for various dignitaries and the city’s ex-pats at his own house.

It’s not the first quirky event the honorary consular has run, either.

“Two years ago we brought the official, Finnish Santa Claus here – who people take a flight out to see. Don’t tell this to young kids but there are three of them up there, we took one of them down here and brought them to the children’s hospital, with the mayor. We brought the kids a whole load of presents and these kids from foster homes got to meet the real Santa Claus.”

Philip says they will do the same again this year, adding with a grin that it’s a “nice way to promote Finland, without promoting Finland.”

As a Londoner who only speaks some basic Finnish, he seems – at first glance – a bizarre choice for a slightly bizarre role. Yet having visited the country over 250 times, there is some “method in the madness”, Philip argues, recalling the moment when the Finnish ambassador asked him to take up the position.

Following David’s Stone’s retirement after nearly 20 years in the role, the offer in 2014 was unexpected.

“I was down at this dinner for someone being given an MBE, representing the company (Outukumpu), and then the ambassador pulled me to one side, and said ‘look, we’d like to see if you’d be interested in this,’ I said ‘what does it involve? You know I’m not your typical person that people describe as being a Finnish counsel!’”

Noting his extensive travel and the importance of consulars – most of whom are British – being embedded in their communities, he adds: “I have never asked (why I was chosen) and nor would I.” Anyone would think Outukumpu’s business interests in the Nordic nation also had something to do with it.

The role only takes up two or three days worth of his time each year, but oozing the warmth you suspect he shows in the role, he claims he “really enjoys it”, as he reels off his duties:

“Looking after the welfare of Fins, promoting Finnish commerce here and promoting Finland; organising a party; hosting Santa Claus; dealing with three to five cases a year with somebody having some identification… There aren’t many more things beyond that,” he smiles – before joking that it all sounds quite boring.

His calm, professional demeanour turns from thoughtfulness to passion as he discusses Finland’s positives, he waxes lyrical about the country’s societal model, scenery, sauna culture and their love of ice hockey – a sport he represented Great Britain at as a junior and still coaches now.

“A Brit through and through”, who spent time with the army in Germany and worked in Sweden, he endearingly jokes he was “thrust upon” the welcoming community of Sheffield Fins, but thinks they are now “a bit worried” about their status, following Brexit. Despite the uncertainty, he believes the result of the referendum is unlikely to effect his day-to-day work, or Fins in Britain.

With perhaps the most famous Sheffield Fin being Shefki Kuqi, the former Wednesday striker with a (small) cult following, Philip is unsurprisingly keen to answer what the point of having a consular here is.

“The embassy becomes very London-centric. The whole circus around it becomes very much around the Palace of Westminster and the monarchy. Having consuls allows them to have some reach and doesn’t cost them anything.”

Indeed, in the midst of much anti-European feeling, you suspect that the reassuring presence of consulars like Philip might do more to help community integration than the steel Theresa May is currently showing.