Being singled out in the White House by President Trump was a real highlight... he repeatedly called out 'Where's Norman?' and I'd my hand up waving, but I'm 5ft 5ins tall and he couldn't see me... I've since written to Mr Trump, as I didn't want him to think I was being rude
Northern Ireland's face in DC, Norman Houston, on his life rubbing shoulders with US presidents. By Lindy McDowell
Newly honoured with an OBE by the Queen for his work promoting Northern Ireland, Norman Houston is our man in Washington. For over 11 years the Larne man has been director of the NI Bureau, the diplomatic mission of the Northern Ireland Executive in the United States and Canada, working to bolster economic, educational, cultural and community links between Northern Ireland and North America. Here, he talks about rubbing shoulders with presidents and the kids from the 'hood who call him Norm. And about why he's recently had to write a letter of apology to Donald Trump.
Q. You've just been awarded the OBE. You must be delighted?
A. Absolutely delighted. It was very hard to keep it a secret. I'd been bursting to tell someone before it was officially announced. But I was very good and kept it quiet. The night the honours list was released I phoned my Auntie Helen in Larne to tell her.
Q. The award is for your work promoting Northern Ireland abroad in your role as head of the Northern Ireland Bureau. You worked there from 1998 until 2002 as deputy director and then from 2007 until the present day as director. What made you choose a career in the Civil Service in the first place?
A. I grew up in Larne. It was a typically working class, council house background. I attended the local Greenland Secondary School (now Larne High School) and left after doing my O-levels there. I should have gone on to do A-levels but I decided for a variety of reasons, mostly financial to be frank, to leave. I applied to the Northern Ireland Civil Service, to the Foreign Office - as a clerk, not a diplomat - and to the Ulster Bank. I had interviews for all three but the Civil Service offered me the job first. I started in 1975 as clerical assistant, the first rung in the ladder, and worked my way up. But I'd always wanted to go to university and get a degree, so in the early years of my marriage I studied for six years with the Open University and got a First Class Honours in Modern History.
Q. Did you find that difficult?
A. I'm a big, big fan of the Open University and the way it's structured to allow you to work around your other commitments. Thousands of people all over the UK do it. Not everybody can take three years off, especially financially, to do a degree full-time. So I just think it's a brilliant thing and the quality of the teaching is excellent. I'm now divorced, but back when I was studying we had two very young children. They're grown up now. My daughter Chloe, who's 27, is about to graduate from Queen's University with a degree in psychiatric nursing, and my son Connor, who's 24, has a degree in scriptwriting from Aberystwyth. He now lives in Cardiff.
Q. Statistics show that Protestant working class boys from a background not unlike your own continue to underperform at school. Why do you think that is and what do you think can be done about it?
A. I don't know what lies at the back of it. But I think maybe there need to be more role models. People who have gone on but haven't left the recognition of their working class origins behind them. Nobody wants to bum about themselves, but 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.
Q. You first went to Washington in 1998 and you were there during the 9/11 attacks. What are your memories of that day?
A. Our family home then was in Virginia. It was the first day the kids at the British School in Washington had returned to class after their summer break and they were stuck in their yellow school bus on one side of Washington DC. The new school bus driver was from Central America and didn't know the area well. He was totally confused and couldn't work out how to get across the bridge. My daughter Chloe, who was then nine years old and had some elementary Spanish, talked to him in Spanish and basically navigated the school bus into Virginia. Obviously it was all very worrying and frightening. The government had put a federal lockdown on DC, then released everybody from their office blocks later in the evening. I remember going home on the Metro, the underground system. The Northern Ireland experience did keep me calm. But there were people on the floor of the train praying with their rosary beads and men banging their fists on the side of the train with anger. It was America's first experience of being hit at home and for them it was a mix of anger and incredulity. It opened their eyes to terrorism and, I think, brought home a lot of messages about it.
Q. You've enjoyed much more positive experiences in Washington through your work with the NI Bureau, including being singled out for praise by the current President, Donald Trump, on St Patrick's Day. In his speech Mr Trump specifically welcomed you, saying: 'Norman Houston has been a great friend to the United States in his 11 years here.' ('But he'll like this year the best,' he added.) Then he repeatedly called out; 'Where's Norman? Where's Norman?' Why couldn't he see you?
A. 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.
Q. You obviously enjoy your work?
A. I think I've got one of the best jobs in the Civil Service. We have what's really a mini-embassy for Northern Ireland. We're based in Washington and New York but we do a lot of work in Boston and other major cities. We also work in Canada, especially in Toronto. There are actually quite a lot of Northern Ireland ex-pats living there. A lot of people we deal with in America are third, fourth generation Irish/Northern Irish. But in Toronto many of the people we work with were actually born back at home and have lived in Canada for a number of years.
Q. It must be challenging work too?
A. It's challenging without the Executive because ministers coming in are our key to access the administration - including the current Trump administration. However, we do manage to keep the access up. We're constantly speaking to the Hill, we're constantly speaking to the Trump administration and to wider Irish America. As we've reached the 20th anniversary of the Agreement there have been constant seminars, symposia and all sort of events. I've been invited to speak on various panels with George Mitchell and various people have been out from home to speak as well. But on the 20th anniversary of the Agreement the elephant in the room is that we don't have an Executive. The anniversary has given us a sort of lifeline in keeping our role up. It would be better though if it was a politician or a minister sitting at the other side of the table. But by the same token we're making sure we're not left out.
Q. Do you worry that our moment in the sun in terms of American interest is now fading a bit?
A. 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 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.
Q. And what is that message?
A. 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. And both the British and Irish ambassadors have been very good to me, letting me do the Northern Ireland job. If I need help they will support me. David O'Sullivan, who's from Dublin, is the current EU ambassador. He's due to retire soon but he's been very helpful as well.
Q. You've met a few presidents in your time...
A. 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.
Q. In 2007, you organised the memorable meeting between George W Bush and the late Lord Bannside, Dr Ian Paisley, and the late Martin McGuinness. What are your memories of that day?
A. It was a fantastic visit. I'd never met either of them before they got off the plane. Dr Paisley was very relaxed. Baroness Paisley came with him, which probably helped. We rang the bell at the Stock Exchange, we opened the NASDAQ. There was a major speech to Wall Street. The meeting with the President was supposed to last 15 minutes. We were in almost an hour. Dr Paisley and Mr Bush seemed to do a lot of giggling. They really got on. I was extremely nervous about that visit, because it was "my" visit. But it went really, really well. I remember things like 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.
Q. What would you describe as highlights of your time in Washington?
A. Well, to be called out in the White House by the president, Mr Trump, in front of all the crowd there ... that was pretty up there. The event was actually about welcoming the Taoiseach, Mr Varadkar, so it was a surprise to be mentioned. At the end of the day the job's not about me, it's about Northern Ireland, but that really was a highlight. Another was the Obama election. 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.
Q. And low points?
A. On a personal level it would be the death of my mother, Margaret, who I was very, very close to. She died in 2011 and being so far away I had to rely a lot on my aunts and uncles in Larne, who were very good caring for her. When she died both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness very kindly came to the funeral. I was very touched by that. My mother saw herself as just a wee ordinary woman and I think she'd have been very touched by it too.
On a professional level I think a low point is how America is becoming more and more divided. Because of my job I work with both sides and I can see that people are becoming more polarised. That said, there really have not been a lot of downsides to my job. And 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.
Q. What do you do to relax?
A. I love walking, I love cooking, I'm a very social person. 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. I know I'm lucky because I love my job. There's weeks where I work over 60 hours but I believe if you're going to do a job you totally put your heart and soul into it. I just think Northern Ireland has come through so much. I'm extremely proud to represent Northern Ireland. I really do love it.
Q. What do you miss?
A. I miss Veda. I miss our great humour. That great laugh we have. I'm turning 60 soon, so I'm looking to getting back home next year. 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.