Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Kevin Boyle and the Good Friday Agreement - The Legal and Human Rights Perspective

Kevin Boyle.
University of
Galway Library Archives

The archive of activist, human rights academic, and barrister, Kevin Boyle, offers a decades-long insight into the long journey towards peace in Northern Ireland. Born in Newry, Co. Down, in 1943, Boyle attended Queen’s University Belfast in the mid-1960s and became active in the political and activist campaigns of the time. A central member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, as well as an active member of other similar groups, such as People’s Democracy, Boyle had a front-line role in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland from the 1960s. Thoughout subsequent years Boyle worked as an academic and barrister advocating for human rights-based perspectives and protections to help move communities and society beyond the use violence in Northern Ireland, by both Loyalist and Republican organisations.

From the late 1970s Boyle was Professor of Law at then University College Galway, before becoming the founding director of the international NGO, Article 19, a decade later, advocating for freedom of expression and anti-censorship around the world. By the time of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Boyle was working as Professor of Human Rights at University of Essex, U.K. 

In the years leading up the Good Friday Agreement and in its immediate aftermath, Boyle closely monitored how the legal frameworks and various strands of the Good Friday Agreement would affect the experience human rights for those in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. Boyle researched and analysed the text of the agreement in his typical methodical style, and was heavily invested in how the new proposed bodies to be established under the agreement, including a Human Rights Commission for Northern Ireland, and its southern counterpoint in the Republic, would function, co-operate, communicate, and be a positive force for human rights protection on the island. Often working with his long-time academic collaborator, Professor Tom Hadden, Boyle’s archive at University of Galway Library, contains Boyle’s detailed research files on the legal and human rights perspective on the Good Friday Agreement.

Notes by Kevin Boyle on the Good Friday Agreement.
University of Galway Library Archives.

Within the files are numerous documents in Boyle’s manuscript hand, with notes and thoughts written directly at the time of the Agreement. One such set of notes, headed “Negotiating Northern Ireland” document Boyle’s thinking and reactions of the time. Phrases like “The fight for peace”, “George Mitchell – Making Peace”, followed by a chronology of political flashpoints in Northern Ireland from the mid-1980s, show the process of Boyle's thinking in building the picture of future directions in the North in the fall out of the multi-party talks in April 1998. Ever the rational thinker on such matters, while writing a list of key areas to focus on, from decommissioning of weapons to the new Executive that would be set up, Boyle writes and underlines in pen the reminder/warning: “Avoid Group Think”. 

Also within the Boyle archive is a typescript copy of “General Scheme of Human Rights Commission Bill”, extensively annotated by Boyle. Other files also address “A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland”. The talks resulting in the Good Friday Agreement was the culmination of years of complex and often fragile dialogue between various political parties from across bitter sectarian divides, which often threatened to irrevocably break down. The Good Friday Agreement was not the finish line for human rights-based interests by Boyle on the future of peace in Northern Ireland, or indeed on the island of Ireland. Rather, it was a starting point from which to include and build a better and new future, inclusive and reflective of a human rights perspective.

Notes by Kevin Boyle on the role of the British-Irish Council.
University of Galway Library Archives.

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