James Winston obituary: Champion of Northern Irish peace process
The British Labour Party councillor and former soldier forged cross-community ties
James Winston will be remembered by many for his wit and ebullient personality
Born: September 8th, 1958
Died: April 1st, 2021
James Winston, who has died aged 62, was a bon vivant with a knack for bringing together people from diverse and sometimes mutually hostile backgrounds, thereby helping facilitate a degree of engagement that might otherwise have seemed unlikely, if not impossible.
He was a soldier and a royalist, a Northern Ireland unionist and a British Labour Party councillor, and his death was mourned by Irish diplomats and politicians in the Republic, and by cross-party and cross-community people in Northern Ireland.
At a personal level he will probably be remembered by many for his wit, his ebullient personality and his close personal relationship with gin and tonic – “so many memories of him making us all howl with laughter” was one typical tweeted response to his death.
A more profound legacy was articulated by Ireland’s ambassador to the UK, Adrian O’Neill, who tweeted: “Very sad news. In the final days of his life, James remained active promoting dialogue and friendship across these islands. He leaves a proud legacy.”
He was born Winston Nicholl and grew up in Legananny, near Banbridge in Co Down, but travelled through life under the name James Winston. His mother was Eileen and he was one of eight brothers.
He left school aged 16 and worked for a spell as a waiter in the Downshire Arms Hotel. An encounter with Enoch Powell, the British Tory and unionist politician who reputedly advised him, in somewhat characteristic fashion, “If you want to make something of yourself, join the army!”, appears to have influenced him.
He signed up to the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, a cavalry regiment of the British army nicknamed “the Skins”, and saw service in pre-reunification West Germany. In later years he regaled friends with stories of his tank-driving skills, which included, in his words, “careering into wooden barns with a bowler-hatted man from the ministry running behind me with a chequebook”.
Despite such alleged carry-on, friends say that Maj Gen Patrick Cordingley, himself late of the Skins, saw Winston as “an exemplary soldier with great leadership qualities [and] always willing to help others out”.
After the army, Winston decamped to home county England, living initially in Hampshire. There his impish sense of humour, combined with a tendency to sympathise with the underdog, saw him invite striking miners from the north of England into the local Conservative Club. The obligatory portrait of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, hanging prominently, was a not-to-be-missed opportunity for robust expressions of feelings.
Having left school with an incomplete education, in the early 1990s Winston went to college and studied English literature at the University of West London and the University of Greenwich. He was awarded an honours degree in English and history, and a Jean Monet certificate in European integration.
After college he was elected to Islington Council in north London for the Labour Party in 1994. But it was his next initiative that was to be his life’s defining role.
Winston was deeply anti-sectarian and a strong supporter of efforts to broker a peace agreement in Northern Ireland and improve relations between Britain and the Republic. In 1996, as those efforts gathered pace, he founded Champ, an organisation dedicated to strengthening the peace process through organising events, social and otherwise, that enabled cross-community engagement.
With characteristic wit, he called it Champ, reasoning that no one could take issue with what is also the word for one of Northern Ireland’s favourite dishes – mashed potato, scallions, butter and milk.
Champ’s first major event was a social gathering marking St Patrick’s Day in 1998 and held at the House of Commons terrace in Westminster to which members of all Northern Irish parties, including Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Party, came, along with others from the Republic and Britain.
“He was determined to make it comfortable for Ulster unionists to attend and celebrate St Patrick’s Day,” says long-time political associate and friend Conor McGinn, Labour MP for St Helens North. “He had colleagues there from his old regiment and also an equerry to the Prince of Wales.”
In 2019, Winston worked with McGinn to secure the support of the then Northern Ireland secretary of state, Julian Smith, to sign into law same-sex marriage legislation for Northern Ireland – “perhaps motivated by his own experience as a young gay in rural Northern Ireland”, says McGinn.
Winston’s social skills were critical to the success of Champ.
“He could really break the ice in any situation,” says Claire Tighe, vice-chairwoman of the British Labour Party’s Irish Society, who worked with him in Champ. “Everyone was equally welcome. He saw the many ways in which people were alike. He saw people equally and treated them equally. He strongly believed in equality.
“It really is rare to come across someone so universally liked across the political spectrum.”
While running Champ, Winston was simultaneously advising the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, whose members were coming to terms with the Patten reforms, which saw the end of the RUC and its replacement by the PSNI. Former federation chairman Terry Spence says Winston’s connections with the SDLP and, through that party, to the Irish government, helped the federation get its views heard in Dublin.
The result, the federation believes, was support for police reform but at a pace that allowed serving personnel to come to terms with the changes being implemented and thereby retain their backing.
“He had this vision about Ireland,” says Spence. “He believed we’re not going to get agreement between unionists and republicans on all issues but we could understand each other and have meetings between people who otherwise would not meet.”
Like many Northern Irish people of a similar background, Winston saw himself as Irish, Northern Irish and British all at the same time and was comfortable with these multiple and overlapping identities.