James Kingston obituary: Radical who influenced the Department of Foreign Affairs

Kingston worked hard to make the department a more inclusive, better place to work

Born: April 20th, 1968
Died: April 18th, 2022

James Kingston, the highly regarded legal adviser to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has died suddenly. A qualified barrister, Kingston joined the DFA in 1995 and became its legal adviser in 2009. He advised on EU and human rights law and provided legal counsel to the department on matters ranging from Brexit and the Lisbon Treaty to the European Stability Mechanism and the International Criminal Court. He also taught international law at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

Renowned for his brilliant legal mind and his irreverent sense of humour, Kingston was a widely appreciated public servant who drove the transformation of the legal division of the DFA – making it a centre of excellence on EU Law, Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law.

He worked closely with successive ministers for foreign affairs, the department’s secretary general and other officials on domestic and international matters through his work with the European Union, the Council of Europe, the United Nations (UN) and other international bodies.


“James didn’t just know the law, he understood what laws could do for a person, a community, a state and the international order,” said Maeve Collins, a diplomat, colleague and friend.

“We are a different country as a result of his contribution. He was instrumental in so many structural improvements in the rule of international law,” said Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and friend of Kingston.

As the longest serving member of the DFA management board, Kingston also challenged the status quo and worked tenaciously to make the department a more inclusive and better place to work.

The International Law Week at the UN General Assembly in New York was a highlight of his year, giving him the opportunity to connect with legal advisers from foreign ministries throughout the world. “He had an insatiable appetite for every breakfast meeting, lunchtime working session and evening reception and was often the last man standing at the end of the night,” said one colleague who attended these international gatherings with him.

Kingston also had a huge gift for friendship as colleagues from the DFA and friends from his college days at TCD and at the London School of Economics (LSE) recalled in a memorial service in the Edmund Burke lecture theatre in Trinity College in late April.

Labour Party leader Ivana Bacik was his friend since their student days at TCD and the LSE and later as colleagues at the TCD Law School.

“We shared the same political philosophy and sense of humour and of course we also both loved a good argument and were both involved in many student protests.

“James always had a strong sense of ethics and of fairness and an innate instinct to stand up against inequalities and injustices. He was so unafraid in his quiet radicalism,” said Bacik.

Speaking about his role as a lecturer and tutor at TCD, she added: “He wore his intelligence so lightly and was so kind and considerate with students. He was always available to support and mentor graduates at the early stages of their legal careers.”

With Anthony Whelan, Bacik and Kingston wrote the academic book, Abortion and the Law: An Irish Perspective in 1997. Kingston was also president of the International Law Association for a time and latterly was a regular attendee at the Burren Law School in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare.

James Kingston grew up in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, the eldest of three children of Jim and Anne Kingston. He attended the co-educational secondary school, Ashton School in Cork after which he moved to Dublin to study law at Trinity College Dublin. He graduated with a Bachelor of Law in 1989 and went to London to study international law at the London School of Economics. He worked in London for a few years before returning to Dublin where he qualified at the Bar and worked at the Law Reform Commission before beginning work at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

In the last two years of his life, Kingston suffered from severe depression and anxiety. And although he showed great determination to recover, his strong life force was greatly curtailed by his mental illness. In spite of loyal and unstinting love and support from family and friends, he couldn’t overcome the torment the illness visited on him and he ended his own life. Many people recover from mental illness but this would not be the case for James.

Following his death, the DFA issued a statement, lamenting the loss of “such a brilliant, principled and compassionate individual and public servant . . . We have lost a colleague of great conviction, intellect and courage. We have also lost a thoroughly decent and thoughtful person.”

  • James Kingston is survived by Freddie, his partner of 25 years, his parents, Jim and Anne, his brothers, Marc and David, nieces, nephews, god-children and a wide circle of friends.