Alumni engagement and philanthropy

REMEMBERING NORMAN HOUSTON – AMBASSADOR FOR NORTHERN IRELAND  Sunset over Washington Monument with, inset, picture of Norman Houston OBE

A Queen’s University Belfast tribute to Norman Houston, published on 13 January, can be found here. Inset image courtesy of the NI Bureau.

09 February 2021

For over 12 years he was Northern Ireland’s main representative in Washington DC as Director of the NI Bureau but more than that Norman Houston was a universally respected and admired diplomat, advocate, mentor and father.

Originally from Craigy Hill in Larne, County Antrim, Norman James Houston died suddenly on Tuesday 12 January in Belfast at the age of 62.

Born on 28 March 1958, he was a former pupil of Greenland Secondary School (1969 – 1975), now Larne High School, and had a BA in Modern European History (2007) from The Open University.

Career in the US

Norman Houston joined the Northern Ireland Civil Service in 1975 directly from school, at the height of ‘The Troubles’. He had a distinguished diplomatic career serving in Washington DC over two postings spanning 16 years. His tenure bridged four US presidential administrations – those of William J Clinton, George W Bush, Barack H Obama, and Donald J Trump – including attendance at three inaugurations.

He was the longest serving Director of the Washington Bureau, holding the position from October 2007 until his retirement in July 2019, having previously served as Deputy Director from 1998 to 2002.

The Bureau acts as the diplomatic mission of the NI Executive in the US and Canada, spearheading the Executive’s international strategy and working to bolster mutually beneficial economic, educational, cultural, and community links between Northern Ireland and North America.

In his roles, Norman developed and promoted a positive profile of Northern Ireland among US policy-makers and opinion-formers by ensuring that the policies of the NI Administration and its associated institutions were known and understood.

Present at some of the most significant moments in US-NI relations, he accompanied the then Northern Ireland First Minister, the late Dr Ian Paisley, and the then deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness, to the Oval Office in the White House to meet President Bush in December 2007. It is said that the trio got on so well the scheduled 15 minute meeting lasted well over an hour, much to the exasperation of the President’s diary secretary.

Norman facilitated similar meetings with President Obama and the then Vice President Joe Biden, recently sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now Chancellor of Queen’s. He was also instrumental in arranging for the first official visit to Brazil by the then First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, in 2013.

Officer of the Order of the British Empire

Named in the Birthday Honours in June 2018, Norman received an OBE from HRH Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace in February 2019 ‘in recognition of his outstanding service in promoting Northern Ireland overseas’.

Speaking at the time Alastair Hamilton, CEO of Invest Northern Ireland said:

“Today’s recognition of Norman's achievements reflects the tremendous efforts he has made to build positive relationships between the US and Northern Ireland and in particular to support closer economic, social and political ties which have made a substantial contribution to our society.”

Connections with Queen’s

Norman was a strong supporter and advocate of Queen’s. He hosted many alumni and student receptions and also assisted the University in building key contacts in Washington and further afield.

Reflecting on Norman’s tireless support for his homeland, John O'Donoghue (BSc Econ, 1981 and Queen’s Foundation Board member) said:

“I spent a lot of time with Norman over the years, both in my capacity as a Queen's graduate and as an alumni representative but also as part of the Northern Ireland diaspora with whom he was always connected. At all times Norman made sure that Queen's was very well represented at any events where we had visiting politicians, and that was always appreciated."

Over many years he also leant his support to the Washington Ireland Program (WIP), which each year welcomes young people – including many students from Queen’s – to the US who ‘want to write a better future for Northern Ireland and Ireland’ as part of WIP’s legendary service and leadership development programme.

He was renowned for giving inspirational and often humorous addresses to WIP groups, and supported many individual participants destined to become Northern Ireland’s business and community leaders of tomorrow.

Norman was also an important source of advice and guidance for University colleagues, particularly around building key political relationships in the US. He hosted a reception in his Washington DC residence for a visiting delegation of senior staff from Queen’s in May 2019 who in DC for a global education conference, an event that was also attended by many graduates of the University living and working in the area.

Professor Michael Alcorn, Dean of Internationalisation in the Faculty of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, who was part of the delegation, said:

“I had not met Norman before this, but his generosity, hospitality, and support of all things Northern Ireland was legendary.

“On the evening of our event, his house was brimming with people who were connected to and passionate about Queen’s. Norman’s ability to connect people and organisations was on full display along with his wit and charm as a gracious host, which enabled him to do so much for Northern Ireland during his time in Washington.”

Later that same year, Senate, the University’s governing body, resolved to award an honorary degree to Norman for distinction in public service in recognition of his significant achievements and personal efforts in building relationships between the US and Northern Ireland.

Norman had accepted the Honorary Degree and had been looking forward to receiving it when graduation ceremonies resumed post the COVID-19 pandemic.

After 44 years in the Civil Service Norman retired in October 2019 at the rank of Assistant Secretary. The following month he took on the role of Chief Executive Officer North America in Co-operation Ireland based in the Washington DC Metro Area.

Returning to Northern Ireland in April 2020, he became a director of Houston Solutions, a senior leadership consultancy found in 2010 by Conor Houston (no relation).

Condolences and appreciations

Countless organisations and many public, political and private individuals have paid their respects online to someone who is fondly remembered as one of Northern Ireland’s greatest ambassadors.

The Northern Ireland Bureau posted on Twitter:

“We are so heart-broken to hear of the sudden passing of our wonderful friend and 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.”

As Director of the Northern Ireland Bureau, Norman Houston represented the Northern Ireland Executive in the USA and Canada.

In a statement from First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, the First Minister said:

“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 and I was privileged to work with him over many years.

“Norman’s hard work, dedication and infectious personality helped to build many important relationships, which have benefitted countless people. We will miss him greatly.”

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill added:

“Norman’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.”

The US Consulate in Belfast conveyed its condolences to Norman’s son Connor and daughter Chloe.

In its online message entitled On the Passing of Norman Houston, the Consulate said Norman had:

“…gained the respect of countless Americans at the highest levels of the White House, the Department of State and on Capitol Hill.

“As a tireless advocate for Northern Ireland, many of the mutually beneficial connections that we enjoy today are a direct legacy of Norman’s efforts.’

“The team at the US Consulate and his legions of friends in the United States remember Norman’s dedication as a public servant an also for the humour, integrity and passion that surrounded him in everything he did.”

The Washington Ireland Program, of which Norman was a long-term supporter, said:

“We are just heartbroken to hear of the death of Norman Houston, former director of the Northern Ireland Bureau, a great friend to WIP and mentor to so many of our alums.”

Writing on Twitter, former WIP Director of Engagement Andrew McCullough said:  

“Norman is amazing isn’t he” – I have lost count of the number of WIP students over the years who have said that to me. You never left his company without a story, a laugh or a memory. A truly special presence who will be missed by the many, many people whose lives he touched.”


Norman Houston was an exemplary diplomat who used his many talents – and his scholarly knowledge of history – to build relationships for peace, prosperity and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Humble and down to earth, he was a perfect host especially to visitors from his beloved homeland to his adopted second home in Washington DC, always welcoming and unashamedly proud of his roots.

He was trusted and hugely respected in the highest of circles at home and around the world and left a lasting and invariably positive impression on the many lives he touched.

A dearly-loved father to Chloe and Connor, who accompanied him to many events – including presidential inaugurations – Norman will be missed not just by those fortunate to have spent time even a short amount of time in his company but most especially by his family and close friends, and by former work colleagues.

The Houston family has asked for any condolence cards or letters from Norman’s friends in North America to be sent to the Northern Ireland Bureau (13th Street NW #570, Washington DC, 20005) and these will be forwarded on.

The NI Bureau has created a virtual book of condolences to record tributes from Norman’s friends and former colleagues.

For general enquiries about this story, or to submit graduate news items, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast.

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