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Sunday 2 January 2011

Kevin Boyle

An inspirational, truly good man who lived and breathed human rights, writes Ruth Dudley Edward

'VERY sad news about Kevin Boyle -- a good man, as you know', emailed a journalist friend, usually better known for his acerbic tongue. And that is how Kevin should first and foremost be remembered. He was a good man who spent his life trying to make the world a kinder place. But though he was passionate about human rights, his heart was in tandem with his fine brain.

Paul (now Lord) Bew, was an idealistic 19-year-old student in January 1969 who joined the small march from Belfast to Derry that he would later describe as the "spark that lit the prairie fire" -- that is, started the Northern Ireland Troubles. He recalls his admiration for the leadership of Kevin Boyle, then a young law lecturer at Queen's campaigning against anti-Catholic discrimination. In the tiny Derry village of Gulladuff, Kevin made a speech explaining that the purpose of the march was to exploit the differences between the cabinet in London and the cabinet in Stormont: the strategy was to bring the unfairnesses of Northern Ireland to the attention of the British state.

There were others on the march, however, whose aim was the destruction by any means of Northern Ireland, and it was their cause that was served by the ensuing loyalist violence at Burntollet Bridge, the failure of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to protect the marchers, the consequent fall of the reforming Prime Minister Terence O'Neill and the opening of the door to the paramilitaries. Like some other participants, Paul Bew came bitterly to regret his involvement in that march: Kevin Boyle would describe it to the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday as a "foolhardy affair".

As a reformer, Kevin was a democrat through and through: he had no more time for terrorism than for state abuses. With his equally committed colleague, Tom Hadden, and although he left Queen's in 1977, he produced articles, essays and conference papers about Northern Ireland which show something of their intellectual and emotional preoccupations: Northern Ireland: dismantling the Protestant State (1971); Who are the terrorists? (1976); The communal roots of violence (1980); Troops out is no answer (1980); Filling in the Anglo-Irish gaps, taking out the hate (1988).

I met Kevin at conferences where most people were partisan, but he seemed exclusively to live and breathe human rights. "Give the man a break," I remember urging him at 1am, as he made his case remorselessly to a polite but exhausted British cabinet minister. I invited him once to a highly convivial breakfast in Dublin in the 1990s, where he was told that he would have to pay a fine every time he mentioned banned words like 'human', 'rights', 'democracy' and 'dialogue'. Kevin was no puritan, nor was he vain, so he entered into the spirit of the event, paid a few fines and threw himself into the decidedly unserious general conversation.

There was nothing petty or provincial about Kevin. Though Northern Irish born and bred, his interests became increasingly international.

From 1978-86, he was dean of the Faculty of Law in Galway University; in 1989, he was the founding director of the London-based Article 19, a human rights organisation dedicated to defending and promoting freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide; and from 1990, director of the University of Essex Human Rights Centre. His canvas became ever bigger. His 1994 book with Tom Hadden, Northern Ireland: The Choice, was followed two years later by Freedom of Religion and Belief: a World Report; and, in 1996, Human Rights and democracy: the role of the supreme constitutional court of Egypt.

A practising barrister, he took up the cause of Kurdish villagers savagely treated by the Turkish state, bringing hundreds of cases before the European Court of Human Rights. In 1998, he was named UK Human Rights Lawyer of the Year.

Pausing briefly to set up the Irish Centre for Human Rights in Galway, he spent 2001-2 in Geneva as senior adviser to Mary Robinson, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Kevin was never starry-eyed about the UN. He wrote in 2009 that 20 years after the fatwa against Salman Rusdie, "the threat to freedom of expression and artistic freedom remains. The abolition of the crime of blasphemy last year in the UK was one positive development. But the current campaign at the UN over defamation of religion is in essence an effort to legislate an international blasphemy law. It must be resisted."

Kevin's last major work was A Vision for Human Rights, an edition of speeches and other material relating to Mary Robinson's time at the UN. "Despite the often scattershot coverage by global media of human rights issues," he wrote grimly, "the wretched conditions and suffering of millions are for the most part ignored."

Those millions had no finer champion than Kevin Boyle. Truly, a good man.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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