Human Rights lawyer Kevin Boyle, who passed away on Christmas Day, is perhaps the most significant national figure to emerge from Newry in several generations.
I was fortunate to make his acquaintance in my early life, first, as Abbey Senior boy when I was in a junior class there with his brother Louis: and later at Queens, when he was the voice of moderation and wisdom in the early People’s Democracy when other more raucous and immoderate voices prevailed.
He argued against the early Civil Rights March to Derry that – predictably – was ambushed by loyalists, notably at Burntollet. But, with the courage of his convictions, he went and suffered with the rest. I instead, retired to home and family in Newry for the Christmas break fearful of the impending calamity.
Kevin was born in Castle Street – in a house facing McCanns Bakery, to Louis and Elizabeth Boyle in 1943, the fourth child in a family of nine. Ann, a retired teacher, is to my knowledge the only sibling still living in town.
After his law degree, Kevin took a postgraduate certificate in criminology at Cambridge. He spent a year as research fellow at Yale. In 1966 in was appointed a law lecturer at QUB and was called to the Northern Ireland bar. In 1975 he published Law and State: The Case of Northern Ireland together with Tom Hadden and Paddy Hillyard. This traced a possible peace path for the province.
After the initial years in Belfast (and Newry) he was not a political activist, in the traditional sense. By the early 70s he was more at home in the emerging world of international human rights.
In 1978 he was appointed professor of law at UCG. His wife Joan recalls that he was then the youngest law professor in Ireland. She also recalled the eight years they spent there as ‘the magical years’ of their lives. Mark and Stephen, their sons were born there. While there Kevin set up the Irish Centre for Human Rights within his university.
In 1987 he helped found Article 19, a London-based non-governmental organisation that took its name from the free speech provision in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He left Galway to become its director. He prepared recommendationsto the Irish Government for reform of defamation legislation. He challenged bans on media access for Sinn Fein leaders before the European Commission of Human Rights. He developed an interest in freedom of religion, publishing a ground-breaking study. He was chair of Minority Rights group International.
In 1989 Kevin was appointed to the School of Law at the University of Essex. In 1990 at his initiative the University launched its MA in the theory and practice of human rights.
In 2001 Mary Robinson, Ireland’s most popular ever President retired and was appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She immediately appointed Kevin Boyle as her senior advisor.
He remained an active barrister and was a member both of the Northern Irish and the Irish bars, and of Gray’s Inn in London. He filed many of the early applications to the European Commission of Human Rights concerning the conflict in the North. Later he directed his efforts, among others, in support of the Kurds in Turkey.
The world would have benefited from another 20 years of his efforts but, after battling with cancer for several months Newry’s Kevin Boyle passed away a few weeks ago.
May he rest in peace. Our prayers are with his extended family.