'It is a major achievement getting a whole hour with the President, you can't just set that up a week beforehand'
It's the biggest week of the year for 'our man in Washington'. Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau, talks to Yvette Shapiro as St Patrick's Day looms large again
This is Norman Houston’s eighth St Patrick’s Day in Washington, but he’s leaving nothing to chance. “I’m just heading to the W Hotel for a walk-through of our famous breakfast event for 350 people,” said Norman, in a brief phone call ahead of this week’s visit to the United States of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness have a hectic schedule, which began when they landed in New York on Sunday night. Every detail has been overseen by Norman and his team at the Northern Ireland Bureau, and the 57-year-old Larne-born diplomat will be with them every step of the way.
“I’ve done this so many times now but it never gets any easier,” said Norman. “We start our planning well in advance and my prime concern is that it will all go like clockwork.”
Amidst the whirl of business breakfasts, investor seminars and company meetings in New York, Washington and Silicon Valley in California, the highlight of the trip is an hour-long private meeting in the White House with President Obama.
“St Patrick’s is our one moment in the sun here,” said Norman. “People can be cynical about it but the Irish are the only group who get their own day in the year. And a whole hour with the President is a major achievement. You can’t just set that up a week beforehand. We work with the White House all through the year and we value that relationship.
“There are 180 foreign missions in the US, all representing sovereign governments, and we are the only devolved mission with direct access to the White House because of the long relationship with administrations during the peace process.
“Northern Ireland is one of the success stories for US foreign policy. The interest didn’t drop off after Clinton. The amount of time and effort that they are still willing to put in is exceptional.”
Norman has been director of the Northern Ireland Bureau since 2007, having previously served as assistant director from 1998 to 2002. During his first posting, he experienced the horror of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
“It was surreal and frightening,” he recalled. “I saw it unfolding on the TV when I arrived in the office, close to the White House. Minutes later, the Pentagon was hit. My kids has just gone to school that morning for the first time on the school bus. Chloe was nine, Connor was six. There was chaos and Chloe actually had to direct the bus driver to go over the bridge. We couldn’t contact anyone because the lines were down.
“There were women saying the Rosary on their knees. We had to evacuate, there were police everywhere. I remember the look on people’s faces — it was anger and fear. On reflection I was quite calm. Growing up in Northern Ireland, you go into a default mode during emergencies like that.”
Norman doesn’t fit the mould of the typical diplomat. “I didn’t go to public school or Oxbridge. I grew up in a council estate in Larne, in the tin cottages at Craigyhill. My mother lived there ’til she died in 2011.”
Aged 17, Norman joined the Civil Service and later gained a first class honours degree in history through the Open University.
“I climbed the ranks quite rapidly, expecting to have a career in Northern Ireland, but I’ve spent a quarter of my career in Washington DC. It’s a great privilege.”
And does the Washington life bear any resemblance to the hit US drama series House of Cards?
“A lot of the show is actually close to reality,” said Norman. “I love the political intrigue here. You do meet genuine people, of course, but there are also a lot of people who are trying to work out if you can be useful to them, and that’s disappointing.
“House of Cards plays up the drama but Washington is dominated by politics. It really is an intense place, a city that never sleeps. If you want to do a job representing your country you have to put the hours in.”
Although Norman is a diplomat with responsibility for Northern Ireland’s political mission in the United States, the focus of his work is increasingly economic. The planned devolution of Corporation Tax in 2018, along with the strong focus on tourism in the Year of Food and Drink, has turned up the pressure on Invest NI, Tourism Ireland and on the Washington Bureau.
“Corporation Tax is the game-changer, as everyone says, and we have got just over a couple of years to get the message out to companies who are thinking of investing overseas. By 2033 we could have another 44,000 private sector jobs and an additional £4bn of GDP. The First and Deputy First Ministers have a particularly strong message about how the Executive has worked with a team spirit, along with the Treasury, to make this happen.
“The ministers have always had investment as their priority. They are very good at keeping relationships going with existing US investors, visiting them and telling them that really appreciate their investment and seeing what else we can do for them.”
According to Norman, Stormont’s party wrangling and terrorist incidents like those in Belfast and Londonderry last week no longer cloud Washington’s view of Northern Ireland, nor does it seem to impact on investment decisions by US firms.
“People seem to accept that there are bumps along the road,” he said. “Despite upsets, we have had nine years of continuous government. My message is that what we have now is a million miles from what we had in the past. People do ask questions but there is no negativity. There’s no concern that the process will collapse.”
This week is Arlene Foster’s first visit to the United States as First Minister, but along with Martin McGuinness, she’s no stranger to making a sales pitch for investment.
“She’s walking into her new role with her eyes wide open,” said Norman. “She was a very frequent visitor here during her time as Enterprise Minister and she knows the US investment scene and the companies very well.
“The fact that Executive ministers are always ready to come out do what they can is really important. Strange as it may see, our ‘smallness’ helps. We can produce the First and Deputy First Ministers, and other ministers, to meet business people quite quickly and that has a big impact.”
The major focus for the bureau, and for Invest NI, is the financial sector in New York and the tech sector in Silicon Valley. Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness will end their trip in California, following a lunch on Thursday hosted by the Irish Technology Leadership Group.
“It’s an intense few days and it’s taken a huge amount of organisation,” said Norman.
“The team is running around in the background to make sure that every goes according to plan for the First and Deputy First Ministers.
“Only when they are on the plane and heading back home will I be able to relax.”
This time it's personal
Q. What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
A. The late Ambassador Joe Beaman told me that Washington was all about turning up, and in Washington you are your job. It’s not 9 to 5 and you are always on duty. Best advice I ever had.
Q. What advice would you pass on to someone planning a career in public service?
A. Don’t listen to those that knock it. It’s a great career and there is a great sense of collegiality and people actually want to make a difference.
Q. What was your best decision?
A. Having the courage to move to Washington with my family in 1998. My daughter and son lived here for four years in a multi-cultural society. It’s made them very open minded and non-judgmental.
Q. What was your worst?
A Using all my savings when I was a 19-year-old clerk to buy a third-hand Vauxhall Viva. Big mistake.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your career?
A. I would have liked to have been a history and politics teacher.
Q. Favourite place in the USA?
A. Annapolis, Maryland — it’s 20 miles north of here and my friends live on Chesapeake Bay. It’s my weekend bolthole from the pressure cooker lifestyle of DC.
Q. Favourite place at home in NI?
A. Portrush, I’ve been going there since Sunday School days. The walk to Portstewart along the coast road always makes me feel glad to be alive.
Q. Where was your last holiday and where is the next one?
A. I walked 120 miles of the Camino in Galicia last June, it was the most amazing experience both spiritually and physically. In May I’m planning a long weekend in Duck, North Carolina.
Q. What are your hobbies and interests?
A. I have taken up speed walking and I do at least five miles a day. I also spend a lot of time in the gym and I swim. I volunteer with a group that helps African Americans who have been in prison and need to find jobs. It makes you realise how lucky you are.
Q. What is your favourite type of music?
A. I like 1970s Motown when I’m exercising and like to listen to opera before I go to sleep.
Q. Do you follow any sport?
A. To my son’s shame I am not a sports person. He’s Liverpool mad and I rely on one of my colleagues to tell me the Liverpool scores so I can pretend I know what I’m talking about. He’s not fooled. I was useless at sport at school.
Q. Last book read and any recommendations?
A. I’ve just finished reading ‘Agent Zigzag’ by Ben McIntyre about Eddie Chapman, a triple agent during the Second World War. I have also read his book, ‘A Spy Among Friends’. It’s about Kim Philby and it’s very well-written. Much of the story is set in Washington so that makes it more intriguing.