Death of Northern Ireland Bureau's Norman Houston

Set head: North diplomat Norman Houston, 62

Caption with Norman jpg: Norman Houston.

Caption with Greet jpg: Norman Houston with then vice president Joe Biden. Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.

By Ray O'Hanlon

The death has taken place of Norman Houston, for years the public face and persona of the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Houston died on Tuesday, January 12, in Belfast. He was 62.

Tributes have been paid to a man who was immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and who was a regular attendee at, and participant in, Irish Echo awards events and conferences.

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Said Irish Echo publisher Máirtín Ó Muilleoir: "Norman may have been small in stature but he was a giant of diplomacy both at home and in the U.S.

"Only someone with his smarts and sensibility could have ensured Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley presented a unified face to all the friends of Ireland in Congress in the crucial early days of the fragile partnership between former enemies.

"It’s often said that the brightest and most positive statements from unionist leaders in relation to peacemaking came in the U.S. and that in large part was due to the engaging, cajoling, encouraging approach of Norman.

"He never entered a room which wasn’t brighter for his presence, never encountered an obstacle to his mission of promoting the peace in his homeland that he couldn’t surmount. We are in his debt for this new dispensation we savor. Ar dheis láimh Dé go raibh sé.”

The Northern Ireland Bureau, which is the diplomatic arm of the Northern Ireland Executive in the U.S. capital, and is also accredited to Canada, posted on Twitter: "We are so heart-broken to hear of the sudden passing of our wonderful friend & colleague, Norman Houston. A dear friend & a wonderful ambassador for Northern Ireland. We join with his many friends here in North America to send our deepest condolences to Chloe, Connor and family."

In a statement, the Northern Ireland Office said Mr. Houston, who was awarded an OBE for his work in 2019, would be remembered as a “true diplomat who served Northern Ireland with distinction.”

“For over 15 years, Norman saw to it that Northern Ireland was at the centre of political and economic discussions in successive US administrations, bringing much-needed investment and opening many doors for our politicians and wider business leaders.”

According to an Irish Times report, representatives from across the political divide in Northern Ireland paid tribute to Mr. Houston, who retired as head of the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington in late 2019.

First Minister Arlene Foster said she was “shocked and deeply saddened” to hear the news of his death.

“Norman was a consummate professional and a true ambassador for Northern Ireland. Throughout his time as Director of the Washington Bureau he made an enormous contribution to promoting Northern Ireland on a global stage,” she said.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that Mr Houston’s contribution to “developing our relationship with the United States is immeasurable.”

“He was an excellent diplomat who did an outstanding job of leading our Washington Bureau for more than a decade. He had an unforgettable presence and his name was known far and wide throughout the city and beyond.”

Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, Dan Mulhall, said he was “deeply saddened” by Mr. Houston's death.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood recalled how Mr. Houston had always been “extremely kind and helpful” during his visits to Washington, describing him as a “top-class public servant.”

Mike Nesbitt of the UUP said he was “devastated” noting that Mr. Houston was “well known and well respected in Capitol Hill and the White House. ”

The Belfast Telegraph reported Sean Farren, Chair of the John and Pat Hume Foundation, as saying he "deeply regretted" Mr. Houston's passing.

"Many members of the Hume Foundation Board, including myself, would have been warmly welcomed to DC by Norman. He was a well-liked and generous person who served with great distinction in the NI Bureau for 15 years.

"On behalf of the John and Pat Hume Foundation, I wish to send our sincere condolences to his children, wider family and friends."

Originally from Larne, County Antrim, Mr. Houston joined the civil service in 1975, at the height of the Troubles. He served in Washington on two postings during his career.

Congressman Richard Neal, chair of the Friends of Ireland caucus on Capitol Hill, said he was “saddened to learn that my good friend Norman Houston passed away.

“For many years, Norman ran the Northern Ireland Bureau with decorum, professionalism and civility. He was a superb ambassador for Northern Ireland and will be greatly missed by his friends on both sides of the Atlantic,” Neal said.

Mr. Houston's tenure in Washington spanned four presidential administrations, Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump.