Sunday 17 January 2021

Britain's Northern Ireland is a Province which says "Farewell" to its Giant among Diplomats and 'Wee Man of Larne', called Norman Houston

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Norman, who has died in Belfast at the age of 62, had just finished his first year of retirement after a 45 year career in the Civil Service, largely spent in the highest reaches of government in the USA. He was born in 1958 in the the seaport and industrial market town of Larne, on the east coast of County Antrim, Northern Ireland and said his : "was a typically working class, council house background". A single child, he was brought up by his mother Margaret, a laundry worker. In an interview with the 'Best of Belfast' last year, he said : "I'm an only child, my mother had never married. There was only ever the two of us". His was a close Presbyterian family consisting of his mother and grandparents who were all : “hardworking people, who always encouraged me to study at school”. He also had "very kind and supportive relatives" in the shape of Aunt Helen and Uncle Fergus. 

He recalled : “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". He had happy memories of  walks with his mother to the Town Park on Sunday afternoons, irrespective of the weather and fond memories of the promenade by the sea

He attended Larne and Inver Primary School, which he remembered with affection as "a small school with very good teachers”. He must have passed his 11+ examination, but instead of going to Larne Grammar School, he attended Greenland Secondary School which was a mixed 'intermediate' school with 500 pupils, corresponding to a secondary modern school in England and Wales. 

He joined the grammar stream in the school where pupils studied, in addition to the usual range of subjects,  French, physics and chemistry. He recalled that his teachers at Greenland did much to inspire him. In particular, he remembered  : “Betty Mitchell, who drummed English grammar into us. 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”. 

Although Norman recalled his school teachers, he said nothing about his fellow pupils and given his diminutive stature and the fact that he grew to a height of 5 feet 5 inches (1.65 m), it is possible that he was subject to bullying. When interviewed by the 'Best Of Belfast' and asked : "What would you say to your 16 year old self ?" He revealingly replied : "Like yourself a bit more. believe in yourself a bit more and don't let other people put you down and have a bit more confidence in you own ability". 

Existing with his mother on her pay from the laundry and to help out financially, he took a part-time job at the age of 14 at the same time thatb work increased at school, as he began his 'O' Level studies. After he had taken his final exams, he recalled : "I had a choice to do my a levels at 17 and then go on to university, but we didn't have a lot of money in my family and I just decided I would look for a job". He applied for jobs with the Ulster Bank and as a clerk at the Northern Ireland Civil Service's Foreign Office n the Stormont Building, Belfast and by the time the Bank made him an offer, he'd already joined the Civil Service. 

Norman recalled : "I started in 1975 as clerical assistant, the first rung in the ladder, and worked my way up". He said, with typical self-effacement : "I was very lucky in my career, in that I moved up quite quickly through the ranks and I've always been lucky and I've always been lucky to have very good bosses who mentored me". His bosses clearly recognised both his ability and future potential. "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."

He continued his education : "I didn't go on to Oxford or Cambridge or anything like that, which is what most of my diplomatic colleagues did do. I did my 'A' levels at Night Tech. and I did my degree through the Open University as well as working", He was in the early years of his marriage with two young children and it took 6 years of study before he got a First Class Honours degree in Modern History.

He recalled going to work in the Stormont Building in Belfast in 'The Troubles' : "It was a terrible time. You were home late from work because there was a bomb scare or a bomb had gone off when a building was bombed". Despite this, he recalled : "There was a sense of camaraderie in the Civil Service in those days, where everybody just worked together and the next morning you came in with a pair of thick gloves and took the glass out of your desk from an ornament. Looking back on it now, I think we were all a bit stoical".

Living with his mother in Larne he commuted to Belfast and remembered : "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”.

Norman said : “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". It was ability rather than luck which got him his first first 4 year posting to Washington when he was just 40 years old in 1998, where served as Deputy Director of the Northern Ireland Bureau, the most prestigious of the three bureaus registered abroad and then his second posting as Director, which ran from 2007 - 2019. 

He said of his role in Washington  : "Northern Ireland is a very small region and truthfully, in protocol terms, we are really not supposed to be in the Oval Office with the President. We are part of the United Kingdom, we are sort of strange in that way and we get a lot of 'profile', basically because, number one : various American Administrations have supported the 'Peace Process' and, in addition to that : there's a very large number of Irish Americans here who actually care about peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. So because of these reasons, we get a lot more profile than other regions do. In fact we get more profile sometimes than other sovereign states". It was largely Norman's skill as a diplomat, in articulating the issues around Northern Ireland which allowed the Province to punch well above its weight.

Norman was in his third year as Deputy Director when, on September 11th 2001, the twin towers in New York were attacked and destroyed by passenger planes hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists. He recalled : "I can remember the panic in my building after the second plane hit the Tower in New York and the streets had all been closed down. I remember going home on the underground, because I lived, at that stage in Virginia and people were very, very nervous and cried on the metro system and remember thinking : ' I'm not feeling like that. I'm upset. I'm worried about what's going to happen and I suddenly realised that if you'd been brought up with that background of 'The Troubles', you sort of deal with it differently and I suppose, in a very bizarre, sort of perverse way, it hadn't done me any harm. 

When the guards came out on the streets the army came out on the streets (in New York), it reminded me of Belfast in the 1970s early 80s and it was just impossible for many Americans, particularly in the capital city, to envisage that their capital would have to have soldiers out on the streets. I suppose I was an outsider observing this and the anger and the frustration and the complete lack of understanding as to how this could have happened. It was the polar opposite to the way I looked at it and it probably got me through it quiet a bit". 

In 2019, Norman's lecture at the University of North Carolina about the end of 'The Troubles' and the signing of the 'Good Friday Agreement' demonstrated his consummate skill as a communicator. 

In 2007 at the beginning of his term as Director he was responsible for organising a meeting between the First Minister, Dr Ian Paisley and the Second Minister, Martin McGuinness of Northern Ireland's new power sharing executive and President George Bush.

Norman recalled : "I was in the job only about 8 weeks at that stage and I was really really nervous about getting this right. We were getting 15 minutes, that's all we were allowed. But what happened was that President Bush and Dr Paisley immediately hit it off, to the point that they were roaring and laughing. Mr McGuinness was joining in and the 15 minutes, of course, went by. 20 minutes went by. We got to 25 minutes and one of the Chiefs of Staff to the President kept looking at me and glaring. Doing a sort of 'guillotine thing' with his neck, you know : 'you need to break this up'. But I didn't feel personally strong enough to interrupt the President. So the meeting went on for almost an hour and it was just a brilliant meeting and the President was really engaged with Mr McGuinness and Dr Paisley and Mrs Paisley was there too. It was just one of those surreal moments when the china teacups are shaking in your hand because your so nervous. The conversation was so good President Bush was so warm and welcoming and of all things I've done here since, that's probably the one that I will remember with the most affection".  

Norman had been nervous because it was 'his visit'. He remembered : "when they were coming down steps at the White House, Mr McGuinness holding Dr Paisley's elbow to help him. As a Northern Ireland person who'd grown up in the Troubles, the best way I could describe it was 'surreal'. Surreal, but fantastic." He also had great respect for them and said : "When both of them got off the plane they'd one objective and that was to sell Northern Ireland and they did it. They were very easy people to work with. They weren't prima donnas or anything like that". By the same token, they had great respect for him which was evidenced by the fact that he said that : "they were very gracious to me at the end of the visit". 

After officially attending the Presidential Inauguration of three Presidents in his time in Washington, Norman said that he found Barack Obama’s First Inauguration in 2009, the most memorable. He recalled : "I was on a course at Harvard when Mr Obama was elected. The students just went berserk. The kids were out with their marching bands going up and down. I felt I was part of history. I always remember seeing an old man standing in the cold in a T-shirt that read 'My President looks like me'. I just found it all overwhelming".

In 2011 Norman found that his mother, Margaret, back home in Larne, was suffering from terminal cancer. He recalled : "I had a period where I had my Aunt and Uncle in Larne looking after her. Uncle Fergus phoning me every day. I remember phoning one day and spoke to the doctor and he said : "She's not going to last to Christmas and I said, like an idiot : "Which Christmas ?" and he said : "This Christmas". So I got really upset". 

Norman returned to Larne and spent her last month with her which he described as his "most difficult time". He said : "I remember at the funeral and I'm a Presbyterian the minister phoned me up and said Mr McGuiness and Mr Robinson wanted to come". Peter Robinson had succeeded Ian Paisley as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party as the First Minister in the devolved Northern Ireland Government. Norman hesitated and then decided to give the eulogy at her funeral because : "She was a very quiet, wee woman who went about her business and she never had a voice and I thought : 'I'm going to give her a voice and I just spoke about her very ordinary life. I didn't make her out to be some sort of saint or anything, but I decided I wanted to do it and afterwards I was glad I did".

In 2016 Norman met Joe Biden, who was Vice-President and gave an insight into how he, Norman,  'read' character. He said : "He's a very warm person. I think he has an avuncular character. He's very tactile and he'll put his arm on your shoulder. He'll make you feel welcome and he isn't in any way stand offish or aloof or patrician". He put this approachability down to the new President's Irish roots. "He's got all those skills that a politician, who needs to pump flesh, has, and if he comes to Northern Ireland, which I hope he will, when he's President, I think those skills will help him a great deal". 

On working with the Trump White House after 2016, ever the diplomat, Norman said : "Certainly the hands-on attention that we got back in the Clinton days, when I was in the junior post, has gone. If you look now at the broad band of what the Administration is currently dealing with - Syria, North Korea, the trade issue - there is obviously much less time in that for Northern Ireland. And obviously the expectation would be that, 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, we wouldn't need as much. But it's not gone totally. There are quite a lot of people in Washington who are very well-informed about Northern Ireland, so they keep the flame lit. A lot of people in the Trump Administration have been very helpful, even though they wouldn't have been involved before. We're very focused on key people who are going to keep the Northern Ireland message up there. There are some very good stories. Investment figures are good. Tourism figures are good. We get an awful lot of help here. We are basically an annex to the British Embassy". 

In 2018 Norman was present at the Annual St. Patrick’s Day Shamrock Bowl Presentation in Washington attended the Prime Minister of Ireland, LeoVaradkar on March 15. President Trump was present and in his speech, he specifically welcomed Norman when he said : "Norman Houston has been a great friend to the United States in his 11 years here. But he'll like this year the best." Then he repeatedly called out : "Where's Norman? Where's Norman?" Norman explained afterwards : "I'm only 5ft 5ins tall and I was standing in a crowd of 200 people. I did have my hand up waving, but he just couldn't see me. People were slapping me on the back. I have since written to Mr Trump to explain. I didn't want him to think I was being rude and didn't acknowledge it".

In the Spring of 2019 Norman was responsible for the arrangements behind the visit to Northern Ireland of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. He said : "The Congressional delegation to Northern Ireland, led by Speaker Pelosi, which was a fantastic opportunity for us, of course. The very sad thing about that is that we had the murder of the young journalist Lyra Mckee, which was very upsetting and I think they saw they saw the very best and the very worst of Northern Ireland in the space of 48 hours". 

The itinerary for the delegation's two-day visit to the Province bore testimony to Norman's understated brilliance as an organiser and and marked a suitable finale to his exceptional career as a diplomat. He had arranged for the delegation to : visit to the Northern Ireland-Ireland open border, which had once had been militarized with barbed wire and checkpoints; attend a meeting with Mayor John Boyle and religious, business leaders in the Derry-Londonderry Guildhall and a walk, arm in arm over the Peace Bridge with Pat, the widow of John Hume, a major protagonist of the Good Friday Agreement; attend a welcome to the Stormont Parliament buildings by the Speaker, Robin Newton and a meeting with young people of both traditions. It was a measure of Norman's success that in Nancy Pelosi's Press Statement said that her delegation had 'seen first hand the transformation and challenges in Northern Ireland'.

Approaching the end of his diplomatic career, none could say like Norman : "I've met Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, all of them. I'm sort of unique in that sense, that I've known all of them and known a lot of people on the Hill for a very long time. I have a lot of contacts with both Democrats and Republicans".

Much of Norman's work went unseen : "It isn't all meetings in the White House and so on, the swanky stuff. One of the things I've been most impressed with is people coming out here from what I'd call the grassroots, the likes of the Falls and the Shankill, people who are working in some very difficult areas. I've been able to set up meetings for them. For example there's a great woman called Debbie Watters who does fantastic work in restorative justice up the Shankill. She brought out people to work with groups in the African-American community in Washington and Baltimore. I do quite a lot of under-the-radar stuff like that, that people don't see. I don't want this to come across as too goody-goody, but I really get the most satisfaction out of working with those sorts of groups". 

There was also a side to Norman which few people knew about : "I do a lot of volunteer work with the African-American community here and I enjoy that. There's a homeless shelter and I also work with a charity which takes young boys from the age of four, from the 'hood as we would call it, and make sure they have an after-school programme. The people I work with, they're very warm people. They call me "Norm". They're very like people at home. They'll tell you to your face what they think of you". 

He believed in the importance of positive role models, in particular for underachieving young men and had himself in mind when he stressed the importance of : "People who have gone on, but haven't left the recognition of their working class origins behind them. It's saying to young people : "I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth either. And you can go on and do it too". It's showing them that getting on in life isn't just the preserve of the middle class". To this end he mentored young men in the black community and assisted with job applications. 

Norman left the USA and started his retirement in Belfast at the start of 2020. He had said : "Northern Ireland has always been home to me. I've always pined to get back and I will. And I'll get the free bus pass that everybody raves about". It must have taken some getting used to after being at the centre of American power and interacting with so many people for so many years. Relaxing must have also been difficult. He had also said In this job, a sixty-hour week isn’t unusual and, as you are representing your country, you are always on duty".

Of the many tributes made to Norman, on his passing, one of the most apposite came from Ian Paisley Jnr, MP for North Antrim, the son of the late Dr Ian Paisley said : "I have known Norman more than 20 years. In fact as Junior Minister I appointed him to his role as Northern Ireland Representative in Washington DC. This was a role that was made for him. He served Northern Ireland with distinction for 15 years in that position. In reality he had access to the Whitehouse and the Hill that many national representative offices were jealous of. He was our man in America and he did more to promote Northern Ireland there than anyone else. His like will not be seen again".

Norman said : 

 “I love the buzz of Washington and I love being Northern Ireland’s diplomat, representing the country. 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”. 

1 comment:

  1. Would it be at all possible now, without a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, to rise up to the higher levels of the Civil Service?