Subscriber OnlyBooks

Are You with Me?: How Kevin Boyle opened a path away from sectarianism

Mike Chinoy’s book shows how the civil rights activist went beyond Northern politics

Are You With Me? Kevin Boyle and the Rise of the Human Rights Movement
Are You With Me? Kevin Boyle and the Rise of the Human Rights Movement
Author: Mike Chinoy
ISBN-13: 978-1843517726
Publisher: The Lilliput Press
Guideline Price: €20

One of the more frustrating legacies of Northern Ireland’s divisions have been their apparently self-reinforcing durability. Anyone listening to some of the most popular shows on local radio – notwithstanding the current public health emergency – will be treated to a diet of regurgitated grievance from decades and centuries back.

Of course, many historical grievances are legitimate and many victims have received shockingly little justice after the loss of loved ones. And the settlement in the North is still not grounded in any real consensus on the past, which is why so much of the discourse remains stuck there, unable to meaningfully debate the future – constitutionally or otherwise.

All of which contributes to a sense in 2020 that Northern Ireland is ever more an island unto itself, disconnected from both the rest of the island of Ireland as well as the island of Britain. A new book about civil rights activist and human rights lawyer Kevin Boyle is, therefore, a timely reminder that some of the protagonists in Northern Ireland’s politics over the past half-century have had an important international impact. Boyle’s career, which began with him being a student leader in both the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and People’s Democracy, took him all over the world as an academic and advocate.

The civil rights movement of which Boyle became a leader was  more cross-community than is sometimes remembered

Though he remained engaged in the northern question up to and beyond the signing of the Belfast Agreement, his interest – and the passion which animated him – was less about the ancient orange-green quarrel and much more about the universal question of what rights a citizen should expect from the state in which they live.


Boyle grew up in the Newry of the 1950s and ’60s, then as now an overwhelmingly Catholic town but without the naked gerrymandering of local government power structures that marked Derry, another largely Catholic border city. Nor did Newry have the same intimate tribal tensions of more evenly divided parts of rural Ulster, or indeed of Belfast.


So, as the book details, on his arrival at Queen’s University, Boyle started meeting Protestants in significant numbers for the first time. At Queen’s, he was ecumenical in his friendships and decidedly non-nationalist in his outlook. “I was happy being part of both countries,” he once said. This was a family streak: his brother Louis was one of the few Catholic members of the Ulster Unionist Party, and attempted to run for office in Newry – until the ingrained bigotry of party activists convinced him otherwise.

The civil rights movement of which Boyle became a leader was in itself more cross-community than is sometimes remembered now. And a key part of its prospectus was a claim to “British rights” which would be expected as standard in Britain – not least the implementation of a universal mandate for local government elections.

The evolution of the movement, and what it revealed about the Northern Ireland state it was seeking to reform, highlighted a contradiction that has always existed, and seemed to exist within Boyle. If, in seeking to reform the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland, it proves itself immune to reform, what is the correct political response? The difficulty of answering that question, at least in the early 1970s, helps explain why Boyle moved away from street activism and towards academia and legal activism.

There are dark moments in this book, when Boyle finds himself staring at the face of the irredentist sectarian opposition to civil rights – literally so. After the notorious attack on mostly young, unarmed civil rights marchers at Burntollet Bridge in early 1969, the situation in the North rapidly descended into an abyss.

“I certainly... didn’t have a feeling for the depths of antagonism that existed in the sense of territory that existed in Northern Ireland.”

In the mid-1980s, he co-founded Article 19, which campaigned on press freedom

First with a year at Yale, and then subsequent moves to the expanded Law School (in 1978) at what was then University College Galway – where he helped establish the Irish Human Rights Centre – and then in 1989 onto the University of Essex, Boyle moved physically and intellectually beyond the confines of Northern Ireland without ever disengaging from the challenges there. His subsequent CV reads like a checklist of late 20th-century human rights and civil libertarian causes.

Press freedom

In the mid-1970s he was counsel to Jeffrey Dudgeon, the activist (and subsequently Ulster Unionist politician) who successfully challenged Northern Ireland’s regressive anti-sodomy laws at the European Court of Human Rights. In the mid-1980s, he co-founded Article 19 – a reference to the clause in the UN Declaration of Human Rights – which campaigned on press freedom.

He was also prominent in the campaign against the fatwa imposed on Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses. Boyle took the lead in drafting a letter objecting to the fatwa on the grounds of the universal value of freedom of expression – a letter that was subsequently signed by more than 1,000 prominent writers, including Doris Lessing, VS Pritchett, Graham Greene and an old friend from Belfast, Seamus Heaney.

It is perhaps understandable that a child of 1960s Northern Ireland should be outraged by religious intolerance constraining freedom – whether political or artistic. But the Rushdie campaign illustrates perfectly a dominant strain in Boyle’s life and career: a belief in the supremacy of universal rights over local prejudice.

Boyle can be linked into a thread in Irish left politics, which includes figures as diverse as Seán McBride, Mary Robinson and the current President, Michael D Higgins, all of whom were Boyle collaborators or friends at different points. But Boyle is also part of a specifically northern story, of a desire to reject narrowness in favour of a more generous relationship between the citizen and the state. That project goes on, threatened as always by the demons of narrow sectarianism that Boyle, a cosmopolitan universalist, despised – whether in Tehran, Johannesburg or Derry.

Matthew O’Toole is an SDLP MLA for Belfast South. He was chief press officer for Europe at 10 Downing Street from 2015 to 2017.