Merwyn Norrish CNZM: 28 October 1926-21 May 2021.

AuthorMcGibbon, Ian

As the fourth secretary of foreign affairs, and the first to spend his whole public service career in the ministry, Merwyn Norrish presided over changes in New Zealand's diplomatic service that amounted to almost a revolution.

Born in Ashburton, Merv, as he was universally known, was educated at Ashburton High School and Canterbury University, from which he graduated with an MA with first-class honours in 1948. He joined the Department of External Affairs in 1949, among the first recruited direct from university. In the same year he married Francoise Honore; they would have a son and a daughter. Throughout Merv's career, they were 'a truly formidable team'.

Merv's first posting was to Paris in 1954-58, where he replaced Paddy Costello. Back in Wellington he headed the Specialised Agencies Division, showing 'an apparently effortless versatility with technical subjects', before going to New York as deputy permanent representative to the United Nations. Assessing his performance at this time, department head Alister McIntosh thought his promotion prospects to be 'unlimited', and so it proved.

After a three-year stint in the department as head of the Economic Division, his next assignment, in 1967, was his first head of mission posting. As ambassador to the European Economic Community, based in Brussels, he played an influential role in New Zealand's battle to maintain access to the British market following its entry to the community. He spent 1972 as deputy, then acting high commissioner in London.

Back in Wellington as a deputy secretary, Merv had to contend with a number of tricky issues, including the fall of Saigon and a crisis in East Timor in 1975. He went to Washington as ambassador in 1978, but two years later he became the third in a row to step up from that post to the ministry's top job when he succeeded Frank Corner as secretary of foreign affairs.

Merv had to contend with two contrasting but equally difficult prime ministers--Robert Muldoon (not his minister but influential in foreign affairs nonetheless) and David Lange. It was no easy task. 'Tall, somewhat stooped, gaunt, [and] an impressive figure in his tailored suits and his shirts with monogram on the pocket', he had, Lange recalled in a telling recollection, been 'a model of rectitude' in the advice he had proffered, never letting his personal feelings intrude. 'I certainly trusted him to carry out my instructions faithfully, even when those instructions were at odds with...

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