North's 'man in Washington' may have increasingly important role after Brexit

Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington
Frank Costello

IF there's been one constant over recent years for Northern Ireland in the US, it's been Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau and his team in Washington.

He has been an important figure behind the scenes and in the public arena in building an awareness of positive developments in Northern Ireland across the US and Canada.

Since 2007, when he took over the helm as head of the Bureau in Washington, each year he facilitates around 40 visits from Northern Ireland by approximately 200 men and women – mostly in public life.

The mild mannered native of Larne honed his diplomatic skills in Washington from 1998 to 2002 as deputy director of the Bureau. This experience and the contacts made has helped greatly in keeping the lines between the White House and the US Congress alike with Northern Ireland running smoothly while also enjoying a good working relationship with the Irish Embassy.

In recent weeks, Houston and the Bureau have been in involved in helping facilitate a visit to Washington by senior academics who plan to increase the number of US students studying here.

The office has also been heavily involved in supporting colleagues from the Department of Agriculture who are working with the US authorities to reintroduce Northern Ireland and beef to the lucrative US market. In New York, it has been supporting a new play “Niveli's War” by the Belfast-based Cahoots theatre company which is being performed in the heart of Broadway.

While the Bureau's main base is in Washington DC and New York, it has become increasing active in other cities in the US and Canada with its staff of six covering all of North America. This makes it all-important that it selects its activities outside the two main hubs to achieve the most positive impact for Northern Ireland.

In Canada, First Secretary Stewart Matthews has concentrated the Bureau's outreach efforts on Toronto, the “Belfast of Canada”, a city with very strong links to Northern Ireland and where many of the Irish diaspora trace their lineage back to Belfast.

The New York office was established in January 2008 to build links with the Irish-American business community, US media outlets and to help Invest NI build relationships with corporate America.

Lorraine Turner has been at the helm of the New York operation from the start and she is well-known in the city for her work in promoting Northern Ireland arts, education and business links.

One of the main PR vehicles for the Bureau in the Big Apple is the ‘First Irish Theatre Festival', which provides young Northern Ireland playwrights with the opportunity to have their work performed in major theatres across Manhattan.

The Bureau will continue to work promoting Northern Ireland under the current programme for government, against the backdrop of events surrounding Brexit, until a new one is agreed by any incoming Executive.

And Houston says he feels 'particularly blessed' to have worked in the US for the first devolved government since the Good Friday Agreement.

:: Based in Belfast, Dr Frank Costello works in business and academia between the US, Canada and Ireland with Costello Associates.


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