Northern Ireland

James Winston: Brave, brilliant champion of Irish peace in British politics

THROUGHOUT his brave, bold and brilliant life, James Winston was so many things.

A son and brother, a soldier, a student and a teacher, a politician and a campaigner, a businessman and champion of the underdog and, above all, a kind, generous, wild, hilarious, occasionally perplexing and always loyal friend.

Born Winston Nicholl at Legananny, near Banbridge in Co Down, as a young man he served proudly with the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards in Germany.

His commanding officer wrote that he was an exemplary soldier with strong leadership qualities, who was always prepared to help others and was a loss to the army.

He settled in England where he was a loyal, active and committed Labour Party member of over 40 years' standing, including serving as a councillor in Islington in London.

James was an ardent monarchist, a committed unionist and proudly British.

But he was Irish too, and he saw no contradiction in acknowledging - and celebrating - every aspect of his identity.

That was at the core of his mission in trying, in his inimitable way, to bring people together and allow them to understand each other and, actually, themselves.

In Champ, the non-profit organisation founded in 1996 to promote peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, he found his vocation and has left his legacy.

Determined to make it comfortable for unionists to attend and celebrate St Patrick’s Day, he hosted a reception in the Houses of Parliament each year to which members of all parties were invited.

Champ’s Ulster Fry Breakfast also brings people together at the party conferences each autumn, and its lecture series has featured political leaders in Ireland, England and the US.

Its mission states: "By generating a positive image of Northern Ireland, we encourage investment and economic growth. By promoting understanding and co-operation, we build trust and create opportunities. By strengthening dialogue and relationships, we strengthen the peace process.’

More recently, James - as a proudly gay Ulsterman - worked with me to ensure that same-sex marriage legislation was introduced for Northern Ireland.

He was the voice in my ear before many if not most of the speeches I've ever made.

I can hear him now saying: "Try and liven it up a bit, and fix your tie and try and look a bit more Protestant... and most importantly don't forget to thank the sponsors".

James in full flight was a marvel to behold - get on board or get out of the way - and in his wake he left charm, flair, laughter and no small measure of chaos and bewilderment.

He was extravagant and flamboyant, mischievous and witty, and could always bring fun and irreverence to the dullest of days.

But he was also, in quieter moments, a deeply thoughtful, wise and sincere soul who was a purveyor of sage advice and a provider of strong support for many of us.

He possessed that rare ability of being able to truly talk to anyone, and never feel out of place anywhere.

James lived life on his own terms right to the end, having revelled in it for his all too short 62 years.

He died on April 1 after a long illness.

He was loved by so many and will be missed so much.

Conor McGinn MP