logoNigel Williams With thanks to Niall Crozier and the The Portadown Times for permission to use.



A former Portadown College pupil who went on to become Northern Ireland's first Children's Commissioner has died. Nigel Williams, who was 51, died following a two-year battle with cancer. During his time at Portadown College the Williams family lived at Gilford Road close to the school at which he was to make a name for himself in a variety of ways. He played No.8 in the John Douglas-captained College side which won the 1973 Subsidiary Shield by beating Belfast Boys' Model, the previous year's Schools' Cup winners, in the Ravenhill final, the locals' first ever triumph at the IRFU's Ulster Branch headquarters. He was a very good athlete, too, starring annually in the green of Seale House. And he was an excellent Shylock in the school's 1972 Celia Lewis-produced Merchant of Venice. He was also a prefect and much involved in the College's Scripture Union.

Significantly, at the age of 16, he was a member of the eight-strong - four teachers and four boys - party which drove to India in 1971 to deliver two ambulances, each crammed with medical supplies. The leader of that expedition, now-retired PE teacher, Jack Mulligan, recalls, "India and Pakistan were at war when we were making that trip, which meant we couldn't use the Khyber Pass. We had to find another way, much longer and across deserts where the temperature got up to 125 degrees-plus. "It was a real test, both physically and mentally, for we found ourselves in some very difficult and extremely dangerous situations. At times like that you need to know you can rely on those around you. Nigel was a boy of whom you had no doubts. "He never did anything other than to the very best of his ability. That was true of his academic work, he was a very clever boy and in his approach to rugby and athletics, too. Indeed, to everything. "Nobody worked harder to get things right and, as a result, he succeeded in everything he undertook. "I hold him in the very highest regard. He was a boy you could treat as a friend, totally safe in the knowledge that he knew exactly where the line between teacher and pupil was and could be relied on never to cross it. He was very special.

Indeed, such was the esteem in which he was held that, two years ago, he returned to the College as the Prize Day guest of honour. He did not begin his secondary-level education at PC, however, for it was mid-way through first year - in the pre-Dickson Plan days of an ll-plus intake - that he enrolled into Killicomain Secondary School. Prior to that he attended Coleraine Academical Institution, his family home having been in Limavady. Academically he excelled in English, Maths, Science and Geography. And when he left school after passing his A-Levels with flying colours in 1973, he went to Cambridge. Having graduated, he joined the Civil Service in 1976. Eight years later he launched his own business in the then-new field of computer training. Then, in 1988, Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) appointed him to the important post of head of its Westminster-based public policy team.

Amicable, eloquent and committed to helping others, in the mid-1990s he found time to serve as a Liberal Democrat member of Southwark Council in London. That was a particularly busy and significant period of his life, for 1995 also saw him founding Childnet International, a charity with the rights and protection of children at its core. It championed the fight against internet abuse and exploitation, for example. His appointment, by the Home Secretary, to a taskforce on child protection on the internet followed in 2001. And in view of his qualifications, track record and proven commitment, it came as no surprise when he was named as Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People in October, 2003. In that it entailed championing youngsters' rights, that was a position tailor-made for him. From the outset, he impressed in the new role, as the tributes from those with whom he worked confirm. Barney McNeany, the commission's Chief Executive, said, "Ireland's children have lost a champion and we have lost a friend and colleague." In its editorial column, Wednesday's News Letter highlighted Nigel's work and described his death as being 'a tragic loss not just to his family but Northern Ireland as a whole'.

It concluded, 'His cause crossed all boundaries and tributes and condolences have poured in from all quarters. He will be sadly missed by all'. In addition to having earned that accolade in print, he drew this verbal endorsement from the SDLP's Armagh City and District Council member, Councillor Sharon Haughey. "I brought Nigel to our party's offices in Armagh some months ago for a meeting on funding for pre-school children," she said. "He gave his support to Clady Tiny Tots and Tandragee's Button Moon. I first met him in Washington DC in 2003, prior to him officially taking up his post as Northern Ireland's first Children's Commissioner. "He was a man of courage. For two years he battled against cancer with great dignity and bravery. He didn't let his illness stop him making a real difference to the lives of young people in Northern Ireland. "He was committed to his role and achieved a lot. Anyone who has ever known Nigel will remember his great spirit, a source of hope and enthusiasm which will stay with us, even though he, sadly, has gone. "We have lost a true champion for young people." Despite his failing health, he continued his campaign for children and young people pressing the Government for additional funding for those with special needs.

On seeing a north Belfast street shrine to young people who had taken their own lives he was moved to apply himself to address the problem of teenage suicides too. And as recently as January 2006, he met Education Minister, Angela Smith, to express his concern that three convicted sex offenders were working in Ulster schools. A Remembrance Board has been opened on the website of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People to pay tribute to the life and work of Nigel Williams.

Acting Commissioner at NICCY, Ban McNeany, said, "With Nigel's passion for technology and the positives benefits it brings to children and young people, it is appropriate to use the NICCY website to mark his death. "We will also be considering lasting ways we can mark Nigel's contribution to children and young people and their rights in Northern Ireland and further afield." A service of thanksgiving for Nigel's life was held at Cairncastle Presbyterian Church, followed by internment at Glenarm Cemetery. He is survived by his wife Heather, daughters Kathryn, Lynda and Elizabeth and son Simon.