"Spirit of WIP" Awards presented to exceptional individuals at thanksgiving ball


Spirit of WIP Awards

Since 1994 the Washington Ireland Program (WIP) has supported emerging leaders from all communities in Northern Ireland and Ireland.  In late November each year, our Thanksgiving Ball brings together our WIP Alums, friends and distinguished guests to connect and celebrate the US tradition of Thanksgiving.  

This is a moment for WIP to give thanks for the support we receive on both sides of the Atlantic, to celebrate the links between the USA, Northern Ireland and Ireland and to highlight the achievements each year of one Alum and community member.  The awardees are presented with an original painting from Adrian Margey, a WIP Alumnus from the Class of 2005 and award winning painter.

In 2017, WIP honoured Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister (WIP Class of 2010) and Norman Houston, Director of the Northern Ireland Bureau.

Previous honourees included:

  • Lisa Dietrich, Director of Community Relations in Schools (CRIS-NI) and Claire Sugden MLA, then Minister of Justice (WIP Class of 2010).
  • Leading social entrepreneur Eva Grosman and WIP Alumna and human rights lawyer Grainne Mellon (WIP Class of 2005) for their contributions to society and to their respective fields.

You can read a full report on this year’s awards here

Spirit of WIP Award WInner 2017 – Nuala McAllister

Nuala, a councillor for the Castle area in North Belfast, was elected Belfast’s first citizen in June 2017, at the age of 28.  She was a member of the WIP Class of 2010, interning with Congressman Joe Crowley.  

Accepting the award, presented by fellow Alumna of the Class of 2010, Ciara Fitzpatrick; Nuala reflected on her time in office as Lord Mayor of Belfast, and  spoke to the values of WIP as an examplar of what it takes to be a public representative.  

Excerpts of Nuala’s Spirit of WIP Award remarks

“C.S. Lewis said, ‘Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.’ It can be very easy for some to be caught up in a political game, to always want to win votes no matter the cost. But should that define how we lead? Should the potential of power be the driving force of leadership? Or should it be the potential to effect positive change in the daily lives of others, to create a positive agenda throughout political discourse? Humility is not the absence of confidence, it is the ability to use that confidence for others.”

“When judging the character of a good leader, the single most important value, I believe, is integrity. Stay true to yourself. Honesty is a word not often used to describe politicians — it’s easy to simply say what people want to hear, be all things to all people, not stick to your principles. But the legacy of any leader will be judged on how they made people feel. Be true to yourself when making positive change in society.”

“We need to grab our future — not only put our stamp on it, but completely rewrite it!”

Spirit of WIP Award WInner 2017 – Norman Houston

Norman is the Director/Counsellor at the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington, D.C.  He has over 38 years experience as a senior official in the Northern Ireand Civil Service, including 13 years working in a deplimatic role.  Norman was the first Northern Irish diplomat to escort the First Minister and deputy First Minister into the Oval Office to meet President George W. Bush in December 2007, and since then facilitated similar meetings with President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodam Clinton.  


Accepting the award, presented by Bronagh Finnegan (WIP Class of 2011), Norman shared the journey of his time as Northern Ireland’s longest serving diplomat, highlighting the influence of, and his gratitude of the support of his family throughout his tenure.  Norman is a very popular figure amongst WIP alumni, host families and supporters, with guests travelling from far and wide to acknowledge his contribution as a public servant, and to the WIP community as a whole. 

Excerpts of Norman’s Spirit of WIP Award remarks

“It’s all about empowering and helping the younger generation to take Northern Ireland forward…WIP takes highly intelligent and educated young people and turns them into leaders, and agents for change.  That can only be a good thing.”

He closed by challenging the WIP Community with a quote from Rita Mae Brown: “I think the reward for conformity is that everyone like you but yourself.  So go out there, be yourselves, and make a difference.”

Previous recipients of Spirit of WIP Awards

Spirit of WIP Award WInner 2015 – Grainne Mellon

Gráinne was a member of the WIP Class of 2005, and is now a prominent human rights lawyer and led a career shaped by her own belief in social justice. She has worked on some of the major global human rights issues of our day including with the Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York on high-profile Guantanamo Bay cases and also with the UN Human Rights Committee and the International Criminal Court.

“I am delighted and honoured to be the first recipient of the Alumni Spirit of WIP award. The Washington Ireland Programme has, for me, made so many things possible. I am proud to be involved with a programme that is committed to building the next generation of leaders in Ireland, North and South.” (Gráinne Mellon).

Excerpts of Gráinne’s Spirit of WIP Award remarks

“I want first of all to pay tribute to the Washington Ireland Program- a program that for me has made so many things possible. I was just 21 years old when I first boarded the plane to DC and what I learned that summer, and in the years since from the program, is more than I can really say.

One of the things I remember saying in my valedictorian speech is that I hoped we would come back from the US and take a stand on things mattered.  That we would use the power given to us by our education, our experience, our time.  That we would try to forge ahead and build a better and a more just Ireland and Northern Ireland.  When I was in DC, I remember learning lots, as we all did, about leadership and in particular about different leadership styles.

I saw, for the first time, that a leader is not always the person who is up front, striding forward on their own- but, more often than not, the person who is at the centre, connected to and working with others: often quietly, modestly and determinedly, to achieve something that really matters to them- that is personal.”

Spirit of WIP Award WInner 2015 – Eva Grosman

Eva has been at the forefront of political life in Northern Ireland in recent years, founding the award winning Unite against Hate campaign and TEDxStormont.   She is the Executive Director of the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building, where she has led innovative projects like ‘Music Unite – An Unexpected Journey’.  Music Unite joined musicians from a Loyalist flute band and musicians from the Muslim community to celebrate diversity and consider what it means to share one place as many different people.

“I’m absolutely honoured to be the first recipient of the Spirit of WIP Award. Almost every day of my working week I interact with MLAs, business and civic leaders and other remarkable individuals, who took part in the Washington Ireland Program. I recognise the contribution the WIP alumni make to the wider society and I’m delighted to be working among them in the shared project of building a better future for all” (Eva Grosman).

Excerpts of Eva’s Spirit of WIP Award remarks

“WIP’s values are very much aligned with what I aspire to: humility, empathy, respect and integrity.

Being a change agent, working among people like you, often feels like being part of an invisible tribe.

When Seamus Heaney passed away, Gary Lightbody wrote a wonderful piece to honour his hero.

He talked about Heaney as a Chieftain of an “invisible tribe” – a tribe of people that touch others on a level that beds deeper into our souls and hearts.  People of profound light, love and kindness that simply and maybe even without their knowledge make us and the world around them better. People that make us feel safer, happier, stronger, more centred and less confused.

The Washington Ireland Program is like of a boot camp for the members of the “invisible tribe” – a school of better living for the warriors of good.”

Spirit of WIP Award WInner 2016 – Claire Sugden MLA

Claire has had a meteoric rise in politics – being appointed as Minister for Justice for Northern Ireland at the age of 29.  She has had a long-standing connection with WIP, firstly as a student in 2010 and then as a manager and mentor in 2012.

Accepting the award, Claire thanked all at WIP for the recognition – equating the award as on a par with being elected and being nominated as Minister.  Claire described herself as a reluctant Minister – attracted not by the status of the role for herself, but for the impact it could have on her constituents and for the people of Northern Ireland.  She challenged all WIP Alums to consider what they could achieve by focusing on delivering change for others.

Spirit of WIP Award WInner 2016 – Lisa Dietrich

Lisa is passionate and committed to the development of local community voice and action in order to contribute to genuine peace building in Northern Ireland.  She serves as Director of Community Relations in Schools, a multi-disciplinary, education charity specifically established to support and promote greater sharing, understanding and reconciliation for all.

Accepting the award, Lisa spoke of the practical experience of peace building; bringing students, parents and teachers together to listen, to share and to understand.  She spoke of the risks for all involved to bring about real change – to truly try to challenge your preconceptions, to forgive and to create new bonds.  Their innovative Buddy System has created new relationships and understanding between students, families, schools and communities.

Grainne Mellon – Spirit of WIP Remarks 2015 (Full)

Eva Grosman – Spirit of WIP Remarks 2015 (Full)