Professor Kevin Boyle, who died this week, was a well-known civil rights activist at Queen’s University during the early days of the Troubles who later made his name internationally as a leading human rights lawyer.
In 1998 he was named Human Rights Lawyer of the Year for his defence of the rights of Turkish Kurds.
Kevin Boyle was born and brought up in Newry and took a law degree at Queen’s, where his confidence and eloquence marked him out as one of the leading forces in the short-lived but influential People’s Democracy movement.
He took part in the People’s Democracy march from Belfast |to Derry which was attacked |by loyalists at Burntollet, Co Derry, and became one of the pivotal moments of the civil rights campaign.
After graduating from Queen’s he took a diploma in criminology at Cambridge and spent a year at Yale before returning to his alma mater as a lecturer in the Department of Law.
He remained at Queen’s until 1977 when he was appointed Professor of Law at University College Galway, where he founded the Irish Centre for Human Rights.
As a practising barrister he represented many of those who took civil rights cases to the European court and, in 1984, he acted as a legal consultant to the New Ireland Forum.
He also worked closely with former Irish President Mary Robinson as an adviser and speech-writer when she was European High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Professor Boyle served as director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex from 1990 to 2001 and again from 2006 to 2007.
In July this year he received an honorary MA from Essex University in the theory and practice of human rights — the first time that the university had awarded such a degree to a member of staff.
This was a tribute to Boyle’s vision and work in association with the Human Rights Centre.
The citation underlined that “what students seem to remember most about Kevin was his enthusiasm and commitment, both to them and the subject”.
Professor Boyle also had “the skills of a journalist and the antennae of a politician”, according to one contemporary, and was a familiar figure in the media.
He also had clear views about the possibilities and limitations of politics and one of of his early works, with Queen’s colleague Tom Hadden, was a Penguin Special entitled Ireland — A Positive Proposal, published in 1985.
Though a leading academic lawyer, Kevin Boyle was street-wise and a man of great presence and charm.
In one of many tributes, the president of the Labour Party in the Republic, Michael D Higgins, said: “Kevin Boyle was one of the inspirational figures behind the original civil rights movement, which sought progress and democratic reform in Northern Ireland through peaceful means.
“Those who knew him personally will feel the loss of a warm friend.”