Archive of human rights activist to be unveiled at NUI Galway

A visit to Detroit reminded Kevin Boyle ‘of the ghettos of Belfast’

When a young Co Down student visited Detroit at the height of the US civil rights movement in the early 1970s, he was struck by the treatment of black communities and close comparisons with home.

"These very streets remind me of the ghettos of Belfast . . ." wrote Kevin Boyle, then a post-doctoral student and visiting fellow at Yale University's law school and one of the founders of the North's civil rights movement.

His US impressions are among extensive records in the archive of the late human rights lawyer, scholar and activist, due to be unveiled by Attorney General Máire Whelan at NUI Galway (NUIG) this Friday. Prof Boyle died after an illness on Christmas Day, 2010.

A childhood photograph of him as a young altar boy in Newry cathedral, People's Democracy stickers reading "Right on Viet Cong" , and key correspondence relating to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) are among the early items in the collection donated by his wife Joan.


Over 100 boxes of material record his career from his days as a lecturer at Queen's University Belfast (QUB) and NUIG to his groundbreaking legal cases before the European Court of Human Rights, his work in defence of writer Salman Rushdie and his time with the United Nations – starting with a letter offering him his first temporary lecturer post at QUB on a salary of £1,470 .

A handwritten envelope from Bernadette Devlin (McAliskey) addressed to "Kevin Boyle, Political Agitator at Revolution HQ" is one of many items kept from his period with People's Democracy, the socialist civil rights group formed with Queen's students including Devlin, Eamonn McCann and Michael Farrell, after an October 1968 civil rights march in Derry was broken up by the RUC.

Boyle took part in the People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry on January 1st, 1969, which came under attack by loyalists, and a photograph of the participants before they came under ambush at Burntollet bridge is also in the collection.

Letters between Boyle and others involved in civil rights offers a "new insight" into the tensions in the North from the late 1960s, according to NUIG James Hardiman library archivist Barry Houlihan, who has catalogued the material.

One such insight is a letter from a QUB colleague immediately after Bloody Sunday in 1972 in which he appealed to Boyle not to take part in a march the following weekend in Newry, warning that “anyone who participates in such events and who has any influence on reasons affecting them bears responsibility. . .”

A manuscript copy in Boyle’s handwriting, entitled “Co-ordination of Civil Disobedience – New Proposals” is, Houlihan says, a “powerful account” of directions that he felt that the civil rights movement could take.

“His activism abhorred violence, and this is reflected in the correspondence,”Houlihan says.

Correspondence dating from his time at US includes a warning from a colleague about his personal safety when he returned to QUB.

In a response letter to a Yale colleague, Boyle writes that few barristers want to be “associated with anti-government, pro-IRA cases” as”it’s physically dangerous for one thing”,

Following his return from the US, he left QUB to become chair and dean of law at NUIG – then University College, Galway – and was instrumental in establishing the Irish Centre for the Study of Human Rights. In 1984 he and fellow academic Tom Hadden advised the New Ireland Forum which was chaired by UCG president Colm Ó hEocha.

The papers also record his involvement with Amnesty International, which took him to the Gambia and Somalia, and include a copy of his work on the "pass law" system and the wider apartheid regime in South Africa.

His many cases before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg focused on alleged assaults and killings by the security forces in the North, and he challenged bans on media access for IRA leaders. He also later represented Danish journalist Jens Olaf Jersild in a case dealing with dissemination of hate propaganda on television. He developed an interest in freedom of religion, and was chair of Minority Rights Group International.

Among correspondence is a tribute from the New York-based Board of Mediation for Community Disputes on his skill as a mediator, stating that “anyone who can talk to the Provisionals and the IRA deserves an accolade”.

Boyle moved to London in 1986, where he became founding director of the international non-governmental organisation Article 19, committed to freedom of expression; with UCG colleague Marie McGonagle, he had recommended reform of defamation legislation and both wrote a report on press freedom and libel published in 1988. He served as chair of the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie, after the writer was placed under threat of "fatwa", and the archive has a photo of him with writers supporting that campaign, including Kazuo Ishiguro.

The last two decades of his life were spent as director of the human rights centre at the University of Essex, and on September 11th, 2001, he took up the position of special adviser and speechwriter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, based in Geneva. There is a brief entry in his desk diary for that day, and much of that week is blank. One of his first acts, along with Mrs Robinson, was to declare the attacks on the New York World Trade Centre as a war crime.

UN Human Rights Committee chair Prof Sir Nigel Rodley will speak at "The Human Rights Scholar –Activist or Activist-Scholar?" , a symposium to celebrate Prof Boyle's career, hosted by NUIG's School of Law, the Irish Centre for Human Rights and the James Hardiman Library before the archive is unveiled on Friday.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times