Development & Alumni Relations Office 



MEET ANDREW ELLIOTT – OUR MAN IN WASHINGTON DC  Andrew Elliott, standing with left hand on railing, with White House and Washington Monument in background, overlaid onto US flag

21 June 2021

Leading a small team operating out of offices in Washington DC and New York, Northern Ireland Bureau Director Andrew Elliott’s role is to help cultivate and strengthen links between North America and Northern Ireland.

The Bureau acts as the diplomatic mission of the NI Executive in the US and Canada, spearheading the Stormont Executive’s international strategy and working to bolster mutually beneficial economic, educational, cultural, and community links on both sides of the Atlantic. In short, Andrew and his team are custodians of the reputation of Northern Ireland in North America.

As Director, his primary role is to promote a positive picture of Northern Ireland among US policy-makers and opinion-formers by ensuring that the policies of the NI Administration and its associated institutions are known and understood.

“This job is incredibly diverse, interesting and rewarding and I very much value the opportunity to work with decision-makers from the US Administration, Congress and other groups,” said Andrew.

“It’s an absolute privilege to represent the Northern Ireland Executive abroad and to promote the best of Northern Ireland. There is so much good will for our region in the United States and so many people who want to connect and to support us.

“The economic, social, educational and political links are strong and I enjoy working closely with NI Civil Service colleagues, the US Consulate, our universities, Invest NI, Councils, arts organisations, community groups and many others to strengthen those connections further.”

Andrew Elliott grew up in a rural area of County Fermanagh, close to the border. He lived on a farm between the villages of Pettigo and Kesh with his sister – who now works for Derry and Strabane Council – and his parents, who were both originally from County Donegal, and attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen.

Time at Queen’s

“I chose to study Agriculture at Queen’s because, at that time, the course provided a unique combination of science, economics and management. Studying close to home also enabled me to continue to help on the family farm in Fermanagh at weekends,” said Andrew, who graduated with a BAgr (Honours) in 1986.

“I thoroughly enjoyed everything about my time in Queen’s and have fond memories of studying in Newforge Lane and in the David Keir Building. Aside from the rich diversity of my course, I was an active member of the Agrarian Society and made some incredible friends, including many international students. I recall some fantastic debates and discussions about global issues, things that really expanded my understanding of the world and excited my passion for travel and exploration.”

It was while he was still at Queen’s that the possibility of Andrew becoming a career diplomat was first forecast. 

“My future was predicted, believe it or not, by a newly installed computer programme in the careers department which, after I had completed a long questionnaire, unexpectedly told me that I would be suited to being a diplomat!” said Andrew.

“So I set about finding out more and whilst the diplomacy didn’t start immediately, I have been fortunate enough to have twice worked as a diplomat – in Belgium and now in the United States – during my career.” 

Early career

Andrew joined the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) in 1988 and, progressing up the ranks, the Senior Civil Service 12 years later. From an early stage, he was interested in encouraging more outward-looking activity which aligned closely with his belief that there is much to learn from other places and much to be shared.

“Working in the Civil Service provides an opportunity to make a difference for the better and I’ve always tried to do that,” said Andrew, whose was called upon to do just that when he was appointed Secretary of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission in July 2000, a post he held until 2004.

“That was my first role in the Senior Civil Service. I was the fourth Secretary in about a year, following the organisation’s establishment. It wasn’t a job without its challenges, but I learned a lot about community relations, human rights and the power of relationship building.

“It was also very encouraging to get to know many people who were working hard to make a difference.”

As Secretary to a very public body that often attracted critical attention given the nature of its work, Andrew was responsible for providing senior advice to the Commission on the discharge of its duties and powers in relation to issues concerning human rights and the promotion of mediation and peace-building.

From 2005 until 2010 as Director of Population Health in the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, Andrew directed the development of population health policy, including the introduction of legislation to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces and the preparations for pandemic influenza.

It was a role that would bring Andrew into contact with another eminent Queen’s graduate and, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, to the challenges of Covid-19.

“It was fascinating and hugely developmental having the chance to work with the Chief Medical Officer, then Michael – soon to be Sir Michael – McBride, and other colleagues. Swine flu featured during my time in the department, so I developed a good understanding of the challenges of managing pandemics.

“I’ve always enjoyed taking complicated situations and finding ways to communicate simple science-based messages to a population – and that was a crucial part of the success of public health work in Northern Ireland.”

That role was followed by a spell in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development at Stormont, when as Director of EU Area-based Schemes he was introduced to the workings and intrigues of life in Brussels, and which led, directly or otherwise to his first diplomatic posting.

Brussels

In February 2015, he started what would become a five-year stint as Director of European Division and Head of Office of NI Executive in Brussels, and where all his experience of public sector policy making and service delivery at a senior level – including in relation to public diplomacy, European and American affairs, health, agriculture, human rights and economic development issues – was put to the test.

Then along came Brexit and much of Andrew’s time was subsequently taken up with the challenges for Northern Ireland of the UK’s exit from the EU, and where his skills as a diplomat were, it can safely be assumed, regularly tested.

“Brussels is a wonderful place to work and live; it’s a hub for the world and provides fantastic opportunities to build relationships with people from many different backgrounds and experiences and to promote the best of Northern Ireland.

“It was clear from the moment that the referendum result came through that EU exit would create significant issues for Northern Ireland and the fine balance of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”

Andrew also spent considerable time engaging with EU officials and diplomats from other countries who were keen to understand more about Northern Ireland.

“I worked closely with countries that were not part of the EU to learn more about how the relationship with the EU would be after we left. It was a busy and challenging time, but the expertise and understanding I gained continues to be valuable in my current post.”

Washington DC calling

Andrew’s second diplomatic posting came when he was appointed as Director of the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington DC in November 2019, when he succeeded Norman Houston. Sadly, Norman died suddenly just two years later on 12 January 2021, at the age of 62.

“We were all devastated when Norman passed away,” said Andrew. “He had been in post for 12 years and was much loved and respected by so many people here in the US and Washington DC in particular.

“When I arrived in post, he still lived just around the corner and we were in close contact. I organised an event to celebrate Norman’s life, online, which was attended by about 500 people. It’s still possible to see it on the Bureau’s YouTube channel and it demonstrates the sheer scale of Norman’s impact on people here and the degree to which he is missed.

The Bureau works to cultivate and strengthen links between various political, economic, educational, and cultural interests in Northern Ireland and North America. It also serves as a resource for individuals and organisations looking to learn and understand more about Northern Ireland, and about its relationship with the US and Canada.

“My day usually starts with catching up on the news from home via Twitter, and various news apps,” explains Andrew. “Now that things have opened up again in DC, I’m spending less time on virtual meetings and more meeting contacts face to face, which is wonderful.

“Meetings today, for example, included officials from the State Department, the British and Irish Embassies, the Ireland Funds and others. Next week I have a series of meetings in New York on cultural, social and economic issues and I’m co-hosting a whiskey promotion event.

“In addition to Washington DC and New York, the Bureau is particularly active in Philadelphia, Boston and Nashville and in Canada, in Ottawa and Toronto.”

Did the January 2021 regime change from Trump to Biden, significantly alter things for the NI Bureau?

“With the Biden administration, there is a degree of expertise on Northern Ireland issues and an interest in learning more about the place that is remarkable for a region of its size. This includes senior advisers to the President who have lived in Northern Ireland or spent significant time there.

“This makes it much easier to engage with the administration and is a huge opportunity for us,” said Andrew.  

With Queen’s highly active in the United States – and a valued partner of the Northern Ireland Bureau – Andrew is in regular contact with the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Greer and with senior academic colleagues such as Professor Richard English and others. And he remains in touch with a number of people he met in his early days in Queen’s who are now also doing ‘really interesting things in different parts of the world’.

Pre-Covid, Andrew could expect to have returned to Northern Ireland on a regular basis to meet with key stakeholders but he hasn’t been back – or seen his wider family – since late 2019. However, now that he and others have been vaccinated, he hopes to make the journey home to Lisburn soon. 

The future

What is it about his job that Andrew likes most and can he see any further changes – for the NI Bureau – on the horizon?

“I enjoy the diversity of the role but especially of the people that I meet. Washington DC – like Brussels and Beijing, where the Executive has its other overseas offices –is a global hub and my work brings me in contact with people from very diverse backgrounds. The American and Canadian people I engage with are incredibly friendly and helpful and it’s a bonus having access to so many members of the Northern Ireland diaspora.

“I can see North America being of growing significance to Executive Ministers, businesses and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland and the Bureau has a key role in ensuring good access to benefit the region. We will continue to expand our range of contacts and create opportunities for valuable new connections to be made.”

Given the return of the US to the international stage thanks primarily to the new Biden administration, the slow but steady emergence of the UK and the US from the worst grips of Covid-19, and the likelihood of a changing role for Northern Ireland in a post-Brexit UK, it is clear that Andrew is going to be kept increasingly busy for the foreseeable future.

For more on the work of the Northern Ireland Bureau please visit the website. For further details of Queen's University Belfast's links with the US, visit the University's website

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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