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Ambassador of Conscience

Are You With Me? Kevin Boyle and The Rise Of The Human Rights Movement, by Mike Chinoy, Lilliput Press, 416 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-1843517726

This chronicle of Kevin Boyle’s life is outstanding. Told by an accomplished writer, it is an engaging narrative of five interwoven strands; the political, the historical, the international legal, the academic and the deeply personal. The author, Mike Chinoy, deploys his comprehensive range of skills as diligent researcher, perceptive interviewer and seasoned reporter to provide a defining biography of this unsung frontline defender of human rights.

Chinoy is an award-winning former CNN foreign correspondent and in this book he draws from almost 150 interviews as well as Boyle’s letters and speeches. He can capture the feel of life on the streets of Newry in the 1950s in a paragraph. He can recount the mayhem of the Burntollet ambush with a vivid realism, as if he was there with a CNN camera on his shoulder filming it. He can weave his way through the factions that struggled for influence during the Civil Rights era of Northern Ireland and he has the analytical ability to recognise the landmark nature of international court decisions for the advancement of human rights. And all of this is set in a warm, at ease, human narrative.

In the poem “From the Republic of Conscience” written by Seamus Heaney to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Amnesty International there are these lines:

to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue

This is what Kevin Boyle did, and in so doing he enhanced, protected and undoubtedly helped to save the lives of many around the world.

Chinoy provides the background, personal and societal. Kevin Boyle was born in Newry in 1943, one of nine children, the son of a taxi driver. Such was the scale of injustice in the society into which he was born, from its foundation in 1921, that by the late 1960s frustration with it was beginning to express itself in street protest and the non-violent, non-sectarian Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed in early 1967. Boyle, a newly appointed law lecturer at Queen’s University, volunteered to provide legal advice to NICRA. Some Queen’s students, no longer prepared to accept second-class citizenship, were beginning to articulate demands for fundamental reform of the state and together with Boyle agitated for action and formed a loose alliance with NICRA.

People’s Democracy (PD) was a student movement established at Queen’s days after the NICRA march of October 5th, 1968 in Derry had been batoned off the streets by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). PD was similarly non-violent, non-sectarian and shared the aims of the Civil Rights movement. However it was more radical and more impatient in its advancement of the demands. Styling itself on the Civil Rights movement of the USA, it opted for a Selma-Montgomery-type long march over four days from Belfast to Derry seeking to force the British government’s pace of reform.

Boyle had authority within People’s Democracy. Of course, he was a little older than we undergraduates who had joined PD. Moreover, he was already a lecturer, a member of staff who was courageously putting his career on the line within a Unionist-dominated university. (Ironically, the latitude Boyle eked out for himself in academic freedom to express his political views would later be cited in 1973/74 to allow fellow law lecturer David Trimble to participate in the loyalist Vanguard movement led by Bill Craig.)

But Boyle’s authority essentially derived from his analytical, measured delivery. Chinoy quotes Paul Bew, now the distinguished historian Lord Bew, one of a number of Protestant students on the long march, stating that he sets Boyle apart from the other PD leaders, saying his speech was entirely rational, a critical analysis of the facts and a sharp contrast to the more ideological. “This guy had analysis,” said Bew.

The marchers, less than fifty in number, faced various confrontations from Paisleyite extremists along the way and were rerouted on several occasions over the first three days. Chinoy captures the trudge, blisters and all. Students who lived along the route, such as myself, were engaged in arranging hosting committees and local halls for the overnight rests. On evening three they arrived tired, and trudged to our village of Claudy, ten miles from their destination of Derry. Next morning, for the final leg, the marchers had grown to about 300. The RUC advised the leaders, including Boyle, that there might be a few stones thrown at us from a hillside up ahead at Burntollet but, staying close to the hedge for cover, we should manage to get through. No mention of the hordes about to ambush us.

Chinoy avails of several sources to encapsulate the frenzy of the ambush. At Burntollet the victims were mostly local people, factory girls from Claudy, who had joined the march that morning, and who were cudgelled into the nearby river by grown men wielding clubs studded with nails, crowbars, planks, paling post, and that after surviving repeated hails of stones thrown by loyalists from the embankment overhead. All the while the RUC stood by watching, idle, chatting to the assailants. No arrests were made and no prosecutions followed. We were carried off in ambulances to a hospital some miles further along the route. Stitched up, bandaged and some on crutches, we rejoined the march as it passed Altnagelvin hospital on the outskirts of Derry three hours later.

Almost forty years later, Mary McAleese was president and with her husband, Martin, was implementing an outreach programme to unionists and loyalists, “Building Bridges”. Part of it was an annual July 12th reception in Áras an Uachtaráin. Atttending it, to my surprise, was a member of the family that had delivered the stones to the Burntollet hillside. In one way it was an indication of how far Martin and Mary’s outreach had succeeded, in another it was a small sign that sectarianism could be diminished. It would have brought a wry smile to Kevin Boyle’s face.

On the NICRA executive Boyle was a benign force. Chinoy relates how this was judged by more traditional and republican elements to be “excessively moderate” and how by 1972 they worked with Provisional Sinn Féin to undermine NICRA by establishing the Northern Resistance Movement. It is worth recalling that the Civil Rights movement was mocked by Sinn Féin for seeking British rights not civil rights. When in 2018, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Derry Civil Rights march, Sinn Féin tried to purloin the genesis of the Civil Rights movement, their claims were greeted with almost universal derision, not least by activists who were there at the time such as Eamonn McCann and Bernadette McAliskey (then Devlin).

The introduction of internment without trial in the summer of 1971 brought new energy to the Civil Rights movement. Street demonstrations had become muted by then as electoral reform granting one person one vote was being introduced and a fairer allocation of housing was proposed. However, internment brought fresh outrage and a return to civil disobedience and street demonstrations. Our core theme was to withdraw our consent to be governed. As Boyle put it “to show that we rejected the regime and that the regime would be resisted”.

At the outset of 1972 a programme of events, including marches, was drawn up by NICRA. It was Boyle’s idea to hold a march in Derry on the last Sunday of January 1972. North Derry Civil Rights, of which I was vice-chairman, would organise, one week before the Derry event, a march on the Magilligan internment camp. Since access by road was banned, the march went along Magilligan beach, where John Hume, who was to be our main speaker, confronted the British army commander on the beach near the camp. Those British soldiers were members of the infamous parachute regiment that would wreak such havoc in the Bogside eight days later ‑ Bloody Sunday.

Boyle readily accepted that the march in Derry was his idea and when the Bloody Sunday inquiry under Lord Saville was eventually established, he was one of the Civil Rights Movement witnesses called to give evidence and the key contributor to the NICRA document submitted to the inquiry. Boyle met with his fellow Civil Rights witnesses days before we appeared before Saville. He devoted his advice entirely to the demeanour we should adopt, low-key, not allowing ourselves to be riled by combative council for the British soldiers or government. The Civil Rights Association had engaged Sir Louis Blum Cooper, a renowned founder of Amnesty as our lawyer, but it was Boyle, a fellow witness, whom we heeded. That self-effacing approach was trademark Boyle. Chinoy reminds us that even at the European Court it was Boyle’s approach, as well as his arguments, that so effectively won through.

Lord Saville’s verdict could not have been starker: “The firing by Soldiers of 1 PARA on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of thirteen people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.” And, he was equally clear: “No blame was placed on the organisers of the march, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.”

Chinoy provides several fascinating insights throughout the book into Kevin Boyle’s personal life with his wife, Joan, and with friends, trustworthy and untrustworthy. He also supplies fascinating vignettes that say a lot about the accompanying life and times. During the 1981 hunger strike Boyle and his colleague Francis Keenan are en route to meet a hunger striker in the Maze when they are “under somewhat melodramatic circumstances” pulled in on the motorway by the late Pat Finucane in an overtaking car and summoned to meet Gerry Adams – a meeting  where they are treated dismissively, told they are naïve and out of their depth, and to get off the pitch. Why did this not surprise me?

Some time later the leadership of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP) tried to resolve the hunger strike, and as we approached a resolution acceptable to the prisoners and the majority of the parents and families of the hunger strikers, I, together with an ICJP colleague, was asked to meet Adams at a safe house. We were given the same “get off the pitch” treatment and, in addition, informed that a direct link had opened between Downing St and the IRA leadership. We now know from the papers published (Prime Minister’s Papers, Ireland:1981) that Thatcher, notwithstanding her obdurate approach, and despite having said that she would “not negotiate with terrorists”, had authorised a statement, delivered to Adams via the secret back channel, offering substantive movement on the prisoners’ five demands. We also know that she was waiting, well after midnight, on the night of July 7th/8th for a call confirming its acceptance. That call never came and six more hunger strikers died.

Almost half of this book is devoted to Boyle’s Civil Rights days and to the Northern Ireland issue. John Hume, before Boyle, had sought to use UK law to redress injustice; Chinoy seems unaware of this. Following our arrest in 1971 by the British army at a peaceful protest in Derry and our subsequent conviction, our case, guided by Charlie Hill QC, was appealed to the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, which quashed our conviction and declared that the British army had acted illegally. (Regina [Hume and others] v Londonderry Justices, Queen’s Bench Division. 1972 NI 91). Our success was immediately reversed by the British government, in an all-night parliamentary sitting, passing all stages of legislation, “conferring retrospective legitimacy” upon all previous British army activity in Northern Ireland. UK law and the Courts had been availed of to the full in a successful appeal. But the government’s reaction was to change the law overnight permitting the British army to operate as before and for good measure making it retrospective. NICRA reaction, drafted by Boyle, was immediate, accusing Westminster of contempt for the courts, “introducing legislation to circumvent the”,’ conferring powers on Stormont “to use the British Army to operate the Special Powers Act without let or hindrance”.

Many years later, in 2008, at a “Then and Now” seminar in Queen’s University, Boyle, reflective, would elaborate more generally on the political/judicial interface confronting the 1970s Civil Rights movement. “The truth,” he said, “was that the courts and the legal profession, indeed the entire political structure of the UK at that time, was one in which the judicial system was marginalised and wholly unresponsive to the structural injustice which existed.”

In the wider pursuit of justice a broader framework would be needed: Europe would offer it and Kevin Boyle would lead the way. The recourse to European law had another advantage in that it could not be disavowed by a culpable government. And how Europe beckoned! In recent days, many in Ireland and further afield would have had a real sense of pride when European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen referenced in her 2020 State of the Union address John Hume’s words “difference is the essence of humanity”, recognising it as his philosophy. A philosophy Boyle would have been comfortable with, a philosophy for a modern Ireland, perhaps a theme for the new anthem that will accompany any new integrated Ireland.

The other half of Chinoy’s book focuses on Boyle’s transformative role in legal studies and his landmark cases taken to the European Court of Human Rights. Boyle’s view of law, “not to mystify and stifle people but rather to empower them”, was formed early in his career and remained with him throughout his life. It was reinforced by his own success, albeit with some setbacks, in the global advancement of human rights.

Chinoy is at his finest when chronicling Boyle’s approach to the teaching of law ‑ putting human rights at the centre of legal studies. It was a major achievement to establish human rights as an integral part of legal education. It was Boyle’s good fortune to be recruited in 1977 by newly appointed UCG president Colm Ó hEocha ‑ one of the truly enlightened university presidents in Ireland in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Ó hEocha wanted to establish a law school with a fresh feel about it. And with the recruitment of Boyle as its first head there was a meeting of minds. The newly established school in UCG of 1978 introduced itself with “law is not taught at UCG with the traditional purpose of preparing students for careers in legal practice as barristers and solicitors”. Boyle would further elaborate: “there is evidence of over-production for the private profession and underproduction of graduates who have legal training which would be of use in the public service”.

A recurring leitmotif is Boyle’s angst that the tiger of unspeakable sectarian violence unleashed in Northern Ireland was in some way the responsibility of the non-violent Civil Rights movement he had helped launch. Boyle is described by a professor at Queen’s as “pathologically opposed to violence”. He didn’t feel there was any incompatibility between his early civil rights activity and his later international human rights roles. He remained courageous and unwavering in his opposition to violence, faithful to the civil rights cause. The angst was not a Yeatsian one, as in the poet’s musing on the Easter Rising of 1916: “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” It was more an intellectual self-reproach that on the one hand, growing up in Newry, he was less aware of the underlying naked bigotry within Northern Ireland and on the other, that in the name of Ireland or Ulster or Britain such desecration of humanity, deeds which would be regarded anywhere else in the world as war crimes, could be committed in Northern Ireland. It’s not that he felt culpable, but he never quite reconciled himself to that bottomless pit of sectarianism and the horror it created. The angel water of amnesia, so liberally aspersed as amnesty, allowed the political inheritors of such crimes absolution and permits them to affront democracy as if their terror had never happened.

Perhaps it was Boyle’s nature, ruminative, introspective, that caused him to unduly unsettle himself about the slide from an exclusively peaceful protest movement into an abyss of sectarian massacre. All of us who participated in the non-violent Civil Rights movement faced the same problem. It is Seamus Heaney’s analysis that captures that dichotomy of “self-division, inner quarrel” as “the classic bind” in his essay “Frontiers of Writing”. He sets out how we are wrong-footed or are forced to wrong-foot ourselves because of a conflict between

commitment to cultural and political ideals which are fundamentally Ireland-centred ‑ a conflict between this on the one hand and on the other hand their disavowal of support for the violent means of the Irish Republican Army, an army which operates with pre-emptive and atrocious force in order to further similar cultural and political ideals. (The Redress of Poetry, 1995).

Heaney identified it and found redress in poetry. Moreover, and it is not mentioned by Chinoy, Eamonn McCann, a lifelong civil rights activist and a radical colleague of Boyle from the earliest days made clear in John Hume in America that he believed that it (the Provo campaign) was a waste of time, most of all a waste of life and a waste of energy. He went further, saying that John Hume and Seamus Mallon were entitled to look back on the Sunningdale Agreement and say “why did 3,000 die after this, to give us the Good Friday Agreement?”

There is no greater act of redress than a lifetime spent defending human rights, but Boyle, it would seem from Chinoy, never quite reached that peace of mind.

Chinoy’s book has many strengths and the detailing of Boyle’s global range and command of cases is one of them. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he tells us, was the guiding light for everything Boyle did. For him it was a “moral vision” ‑ the simple but radical idea of the equal worth of all human beings, but the equally radical idea that all human persons, all peoples and the states which represent them had responsibility to act to promote and secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.

Boyle’s persuading of the activists of the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association (NIGRA) to initiate a European Court of Human Rights case on behalf of gay rights in Northern Ireland was fundamental and his success in securing a positive finding was transformative in decriminalising homosexuality in Ireland, North and South. The rejection of his subsequent efforts and the dismissal of Francis Keenan and himself as their council by NIGRA, and the manner of it, left Boyle with a hurt that is palpable in Chinoy’s account. They wanted the limelight for themselves, Chinoy says, not realising they would need a lawyer to remain directly involved.

In the mid-1980s Boyle became the founding director of Article 19, the freedom of expression advocacy, set up by Amnesty International and taking its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His vision of Article 19 was simultaneously comprehensive, universal and simple: building a database to document censorship, conducting research on conditions in specific countries and campaigning for those being silenced. Boyle became a singular influence on the global stage of international human rights, not least by co-ordinating the letter signed by over 1,000 writers worldwide in support of Salman Rushdie. And through it all, he remained the unassuming Kevin. There is an illustrative little anecdote told by Joan, his wife, of a visit to Oslo to a freedom of expression conference, where they spotted a booth for Article 19. Kevin talked to them and moved on, never mentioning his own founding role. As Joan said: “But this was quite typical. I was left to do the bragging.”

His human rights reach was immense and it was what he brought to Essex University. He won a landmark case on behalf of the Kurdish minority in Turkey. He undertook Amnesty missions to Africa. At Essex, as well as being professor of law, he was head of the Human Rights Centre. There he attracted key people to build an influential international team which steadily established the centre’s reputation as Europe’s powerhouse for a new generation of human rights activists .

Despite being based at Essex, his connection to Ireland never waned. Ireland’s last three presidents were all long-term close friends and admirers. He taught Mary McAleese, he worked for Mary Robinson, and Michael D Higgins was a very supportive faculty colleague at UCG. With all he remained engaged.

Folded into the narratives is the human tale of love and life with Joan. An Omagh girl, of Protestant parents, Joan Smyth had come south to Trinity College in 1967 and was without involvement in politics, preferring to follow her love of French. Their meetings in the early seventies are chronicled, as are the difficulties posed by the difference of religions. They married in North London in late 1976.

As Kevin Boyle was modest, tending to understate his role, Mike Chinoy can sometimes overstate it. It is the book’s only shortcoming. Perhaps, in a biography of someone you greatly admire and where there is a legitimate belief that the subject has gone unrecognised for his many achievements, overstatement is understandable. The determination to secure Boyle’s place in the historical narrative of Northern Ireland is valid but perhaps not to the degree where it ignores the huge contribution of some, and the achievements of others. The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was underpinned by the deliberation of many thinkers, politicians, civil servants and academics. Chinoy’s claims that the Boyle-Hadden publication Ireland A Positive Proposal in September 1985 was the basis of the agreement signed by the British and Irish governments in November 1985 is stretching matters. It ignores the Michael Lillis-David Goodall axis, and the Nally-Armstrong accord, both cabinet secretaries respectively, established in 1983 between the Irish and British governments with a view to securing an Anglo-Irish Agreement. This is fully documented in Negotiating a Settlement in Northern Ireland 1969-2019 (Coakley and Todd 2020) and in Inside Accounts Volume 1 (Spencer 2020). Chinoy also ignores the defining analysis by John Hume of the need to address the three sets of relationships. And as we know, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was, as David Goodall put it, agreed “over the heads of the unionists”, something anathema to the Boyle-Hadden approach and justified by both governments as “an agreement between two governments”.

Tom Hadden is a distinguished law professor at Queen’s University and Kevin Boyle’s co-analyst and co-author of all their political interventions right back to the New Ireland Forum of 1983. Much is made of one being Protestant, the other Catholic. Boyle and Hadden credited themselves with realism and they had a talent for identifying “a landing space” as well as articulating their ideas in a coherent form. Their seminal publication Ireland A Positive Proposal had the benefit of the New Ireland Forum analysis and the complexities identified therein. I recall the freshness of their presentation to us at the New Ireland Forum. Analyis sometimes faltered. For instance when Boyle addressed the SDLP central council in 1984 he was advocating an internal Northern Ireland solution. (The SDLP, Sean Farren, 2010).The SDLP could never abandon “an Irish Dimension”. It was in its political DNA. Boyle did not fully appreciate that.

Strong claims are made of influence on Margaret Thatcher and on Garret FitzGerald in establishing the 1985 agreement. The claim is made by Chinoy that following Thatcher’s infamous “out, out, out” response to the New Ireland Forum report, FitzGerald “perhaps in part because of his awareness of Thatcher’s interest in Boyle and Hadden’s idea, kept his cool”. Yet in FitzGerald’s 1991 autobiography, All in a Life, not a single mention is made of Boyle, nor in the earlier-mentioned Negotiating a Settlement text, where FitzGerald provides a direct first-hand testimony of his thinking. Equally in Thatcher’s autobiography (1993) and more importantly in the first volume of Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography (2013), where the Anglo-Irish Agreement is dealt with at some length and there are copious footnotes, none of this Boyle influence surfaces at all. It is not that Hadden and Boyle’s influence was non-existent. It is just overstated here. Hadden’s contribution to the comprehension of Northern Ireland is immense. Through the magazine Fortnight, which he founded and edited, he created an island of sanity that allowed a rare articulation of rational views in Northern Ireland.

Of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement it is fair to say that Hadden and Boyle were the first to introduce the concept of “parity of esteem” between the communities, but does this warrant the claim that they “provided much of the intellectual underpinning to the agreement that ended the troubles”? The Patten report which emanated from the Independent Commission for Policing in Northern Ireland made it clear that future policing would be, it stated, founded on “an approach based on upholding human rights and respecting human dignity”. That invocation of human rights was due, in part, to the influence of Boyle and Hadden.

The most exhilarating part of Kevin Boyle’s career was yet to come ‑ working as special adviser in her final year for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. Boyle began in the week of 9/11. The Boyle/Robinson/UN advocacy was to respond to that atrocity within the international legal framework. “Boyle’s paper also proposed that the Security Council consider establishing an international tribunal to prosecute and try those responsible.” George W Bush would have none of it: the Americans were gung-ho. The “War on Terror” was launched by the US government. Human rights were set aside, Kofi Annan eqivocated and several detention centres, which cared nothing for human rights, Guantánamo Bay and other secret Afghanistan centres were established by the US. They also made it clear they wanted Robinson, and with her Boyle, dispatched from the UN. Chinoy offers an insight into the tensions within the UN and between the UN and the US that led to Robinson’s term concluding. Perhaps Kevin’s wife, Joan, best sums it up: Mary was sidelined by her friend Kofi to placate the Americans.” The job was, however, still the most visible global voice on human rights and Boyle concentrated on speechwriting for Robinson. Mind you with formulations like “The words were Kevin’s. The articulation was Mary’s.” you sense once again the possible whiff of Chinoy overstatement.

The overriding message from Boyle as his career closed was that despite considerable achievements, human rights can never be taken for granted. He would be incandescent today at the British government’s declared intention to resile from its human rights obligations.

Mary McAleese, in her endorsement of the book, states that while Boyle’s name and legacy have slipped into obscurity Chinoy “has deservedly rescued him”. Rescue is often by a friend, and what a friend Boyle had in Chinoy. At his funeral, the first prayer was “for those whose freedom has been taken from them … and in whose heart the lamp of hope burns low”. That lamp of hope burns stronger for millions thanks to his dedication. Kevin Boyle was, in truth, an ambassador of conscience.


Hugh Logue is a founder member of the SDLP and was elected to Stormont on three occasions from 1973 to 1981. From 1970 to 1972 he was an executive member of NICRA. He was economist at the National Board for Science and Technology from 1981 to 1984 before joining the European Commission in Brussels. He was EU president Jacques Delors’s envoy to Northern Ireland to prepare the EU Peace Package in 1994. Following the GFA in 1998 he was seconded from the European Commission to Stormont as special adviser to the newly formed Office of First and Deputy First Minister. On retirement from the EU, he was engaged in the renewable energy sector and is a writer on political and economic issues. He was a member of the New Ireland Forum.



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