From Larne to the White House, Norman’s ‘Our man in Washington’

Norman Houston and his son Connor pictured at a function in Washington.
Norman Houston and his son Connor pictured at a function in Washington.

One of Northern Ireland’s most senior diplomats can quite literally be seen as “our man in Washington”!

For Norman Houston, the head of the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington DC, is a native of Larne and grew up in Craigyhill.

The Northern Ireland Bureau represents the Northern Ireland Executive in North America and is the nearest thing that Northern Ireland has to an embassy.

There are only three such bureau in the world, one in Washington, one in Brussels and one in Beijing.

Mr. Houston, who is originally from the Head of the Town area, keeps in regular contact with family in the town and visits when he is on this side of the Atlantic.

From a working-class family background, the father of two has come a long way from his days at the old Greenland Secondary School (now Larne High). That journey has brought some amazing experiences.

Speaking exclusively to the Larne Times, he said “I still pinch myself about escorting the late Dr. Paisley and the late Martin McGuinness into the Oval Office to see George W Bush. I had been allocated a fifteen-minute window but Dr. Paisley and the President took to one another immediately and no one could break them apart as they were laughing and chatting so much. I was getting daggers from the chief of staff but there was absolutely nothing I could do. We were there for an hour, foreign heads of state are lucky to get half of that time”.

Following that 2007 meeting he has facilitated similar meetings with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Norman was also responsible for the first official visit to Brazil of the First and Deputy First Minister in 2013.

But behind all of this is a quiet modesty; the senior civil servant of almost 40 years’ experience is concerned not to be seen to be trumpeting his own success story.

He is, however, intensely proud to be from Larne.

And whenever Larne people end up in Washington, they find no more dedicated host.

Looking back on his career this week, Norman said he believed that his teachers at Greenland did much to inspire him.

He grew up in the 1960s and attended Larne and Inver Primary School, which he remembers with great affection; “It was a small school with very good teachers” he says.

The senior civil servant says that his family – consisting of his mother and grandparents – were “hardworking people who always encouraged me to study at school”.

“I was also lucky to have very kind and supportive relatives, my aunt Helen and uncle Fergus still live in Larne and I keep in touch with them on a weekly basis” he adds.

“I seem to remember Larne as being a bustling little town with the Woolworths store and the Regal and Savoy cinemas. My mother would give me money to go the matinee on a Saturday afternoon. Friday was pocket money day and my grandfather would give me half-a-crown; it seemed like a fortune at the time. My children would laugh out loud if I were to give them that now, but it kept me going for a week,” he reflects.

His happy memories of growing up in Larne include walks with his mother to the Town Park on Sunday afternoons, irrespective of the weather.

Leaving Larne and Inver, he went to Greenland Secondary School, which had a grammar stream allowing pupils to study French, physics and chemistry as well as the usual range of subjects.

“There were three wonderful teachers then; one was Betty Mitchell who drummed English grammar into us,” he said.

“There was also a truly wonderful history teacher called Archie Reid. He used to show us cine reels from his exotic trips to Egypt and the Holy Land. He would regale us with stories of the people he had met in those far away locations. It was Archie Reid who inspired my love of history; I ended up doing it for my degree. My son shares my passion for history and it is a subject we like to discuss when we are together” he says.

His favourite teacher was Nina Lamont, who taught French: “She was great fun and I remember one day reciting something in French with my very broad Larne accent and she collapsed laughing in front of the whole class. I think I sounded like the policeman from Allo Allo. Even now, despite one lesson a week and many trips to visit friends in Montreal, I still haven’t mastered the pronunciation” says Norman.

At the age of 17, Norman completed his education and elected to seek out employment, “I really should have gone on to do A Levels at the Grammar but I just wanted to work, I wanted a job with a career,”

“I suppose I did not see my entire life being spent in Larne and I saw myself as escaping to Belfast at the age of 17, even though I was coming back to Larne each day on the bus!” he jokes.

Norman joined the Civil Service in July 1975, when the Troubles were at their height.

“I remember my grandmother wanted me to get a job in Larne but I wanted to work in Belfast and I travelled everyday on the bus. The weekly ticket cost £3.75 but it seemed exorbitant at the time. In those days we were paid weekly or very “weakly” as I used to quip. But by Christmas I was able to pay for my first holiday to Spain, take driving lessons and get us a colour TV”

“I feel very privileged to be in the Civil Service, it’s provided me with a very interesting career. I’ve had some wonderful mentors and I’ve made lifelong friends” he says.

But he is not engaged in a nine to five job.

“In this job, a sixty-hour week isn’t unusual and, as you are representing your country, you are always on duty. Luckily, I had plenty of training before I came out here. One of my first senior bosses was Doreen Irwin, who still lives in Larne. Although I was on the bottom rung of the career ladder, she always looked out for me and gave me sound advice about the importance of public service” Norman says.

“I suppose when I joined the NICS my ambitions didn’t extend much beyond the dizzy heights of Stormont. But life has lots of twists and turns and the occasional letdown but, on the whole, I have been very lucky,” he adds.

He has been on two separate postings to Washington and attended three inaugurations, the most memorable being Barack Obama’s first inauguration which his son Connor came over for.

“I distinctly remember seeing members of the black community crying in the street and one old gentleman was wearing a T-shirt stating: ‘My President looks like me.’ When I saw that man, who must have been freezing in the cold of a Washington winter, it touched a raw nerve” he reflects.

Norman has spent close to a third of his career in the United States and events can take him typically to Boston, New York, the Carolinas and also to Canada, which is also part of the Bureau responsibility.

He sees plenty of connections with Northern Ireland in Toronto, where there are strong links to this part of the world with people who are in business and academics, important elements which he feels are significant in developing worthwhile links.

In the USA, the Ulster Scots community, which is very strong numerically, is sometimes seen as not very vocal and Norman believes this is because that community is not as political as Irish-Americans; “If you go to the Carolinas or Georgia or Tennessee, people are very specific about being Ulster Scots. But that group of people is not political, whereas Irish Americans are – that is a big difference” he says.

His career carries with it a certain pressure but he says he would not change that: “I love the buzz of Washington and I love being Northern Ireland’s diplomat, representing the country,” he says.

“I suppose at the end of the day I still see myself as a wee Larne man who had a solid upbringing based on a very strong moral code. I have had a wonderful career but the main lesson I’ve learned is never forget your roots” Norman adds.