By the early 1980s, Kevin Boyle was a professor of law at NUI Galway and becoming increasingly well-known for his work as a human rights lawyer. One particularly controversial case involved Nicky Kelly, a member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), convicted in 1978 with two other men of robbing a train and stealing £200,000. The Kelly case became one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in modern Irish history.
Although Kelly and his co-defendants repeatedly declared their innocence and claimed they had signed confessions after hours of violent police interrogation, they were convicted. Anticipating the verdict, he fled to the US three days before sentencing. Kelly and one other defendant were sentenced to 12 years in jail. A third got nine years.
Five months later, the Provisional IRA, to which Kelly did not belong, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the robbery. In May 1980, Kelly's co-defendants had their convictions overturned on appeal.
Kelly returned home - only to be arrested and jailed
Confident that his conviction would also be reversed, Kelly returned home - only to be arrested and jailed, with the Irish Supreme Court upholding his conviction. On May 1, 1983, Kelly began a hunger strike.
Concerned that Kelly's death would cause a political crisis, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald privately asked Boyle to file a case with the European Commission on Human Rights.
"The hunger strike was an incredible embarrassment to the government," Boyle's former Galway student, Gerard Quinn, who helped research the case, recalled. "The government was in a fix. Kelly was in a fix. And Kevin was reached out to as a way of trying to create some neutral space whereby Kelly could get off the hunger strike and the government could get off the hook."
Boyle, in collaboration with Mary Robinson, who would become Ireland's president in 1990, spent the next three weeks assembling a case for the commission, outlining how Kelly's treatment violated the European Convention of Human Rights.
On June 7, 1983, the 38th day of Kelly's hunger strike, the document was sent to Strasbourg. By this point, Kelly's physical condition was rapidly deteriorating. Doctors gave him a week to 10 days to live.
That night, shortly after the application had been sent to Strasbourg, Kelly agreed to end his hunger strike. In a letter to Kelly, Boyle expressed relief that the hunger strike was over and stressed that an avenue to justice now existed.
In their submission, Boyle and Robinson argued that "it is inhuman treatment under Article 3 to require him to continue to serve a sentence of 12 years penal servitude for a crime he did not commit, following a trial where false evidence forced from him was the sole basis of his conviction."
The document also singled out Article 52 of Ireland's Offences Against the State Act. This required anyone arrested under the Act "to give a full account of their movements if demanded". Refusal to co-operate could result in six months in jail. The article effectively eliminated the right of the accused to remain silent.
With Kelly's interrogators alone having the power to decide if his answers were acceptable, Boyle and Robinson argued that the sole purpose of a relentless interrogation over more than 60 hours "was to have him admit against his will to involvement in an offence he did not commit".
In Strasbourg, officials at the European Commission were impressed with the case. "They were extremely well researched and compelling," recalled Michel O'Boyle, a lawyer then working at the commission, who had also studied with Boyle. "They demonstrated quite clearly that Kelly's case had been treated in a different way from those of the co-accused."
Yet, when the commission issued its decision on May 17, 1984, the application was deemed inadmissible - on a technicality. Having been asked on such short notice by FitzGerald to bring the case, it had been submitted slightly later than the six months after the final decision by a local court that the Strasbourg regulations allowed.
In 1992, Mary Robinson, by now Ireland's president, issued Kelly a formal pardon
But Boyle and Robinson did not give up. Two weeks later, they submitted a confidential memorandum to the Irish government, stressing that "we consider that, if the case had not failed due to the six months' rule, these arguments, or some of them, would have been seriously examined by the European Commission of Human Rights" and strongly appealing for Kelly to be pardoned.
Two months later, Justice Minister Michael Noonan announced that Kelly was being released on "humanitarian grounds". After four years and two weeks in prison, Kelly was a free man. In 1992, Mary Robinson, by now Ireland's president, issued Kelly a formal pardon.
Two days after Kelly's release, Boyle joined him at a Press conference. Stressing that the Irish government would have found it very difficult to defend its stance in Strasbourg, he emphasised that the continued use of Article 52 would probably lead to more cases before the court.
On this point, he was right. It would take 24 more years, but, in 2000, the court, in a case brought by Kevin's old comrade from the civil rights movement, Michael Farrell, ruled that Section 52 "destroyed the very essence of (the) privilege against self-incrimination and (the) right to remain silent".
Not long after Nicky Kelly had walked free, Boyle received a letter from another prisoner, but one with a very different story.
It came from Billy Hutchinson, a leading figure in the extreme loyalist paramilitary group the UVF, who had been convicted of involvement in two sectarian murders of Catholics in Belfast in 1974 and was 10 years into a life sentence.
“Dear Mr Boyle,” the letter began. “I am a loyalist prisoner. I am serving a life sentence. The reason for writing is to find out if you would be interested in our case as life prisoners without a release scheme. We would be grateful if you could guide us in some direction that could get our case heard.”
Hutchinson was the ‘officer commanding’ all UVF prisoners in the Maze prison, a role he had taken over from Gusty Spence, a UVF leader whose murder of Catholic barman Peter Ward in 1966 had helped fuel the tensions that led to the Troubles.
During his time in prison, however, Spence had concluded that traditional loyalist violence was futile and that a political solution was the only way to end the conflict. Influenced by the evolution in Spence’s thinking, Hutchinson too was moving in this direction — a transformation that would in the 1990s make him a key figure in ending UVF terrorism as the peace process gathered momentum.
In 1984, though, Hutchinson was involved in a simpler, but in some respects just as daunting, task: working with a group of life prisoners to persuade the Northern Irish authorities to offer at least the hope of a parole, or release, scheme for inmates whose views, Hutchinson contended, had modified behind bars.
In his letter, Hutchinson went out of his way to make sure that Boyle knew of his loyalist background and stressed that he was not speaking for republican prisoners.
Loyalist inmates initially objected to Hutchinson contacting Boyle
For his part, Boyle would undoubtedly have heard of Hutchinson and Boyle’s reputation had clearly penetrated the walls of the Maze.
Indeed, some of Hutchinson’s fellow loyalist inmates initially objected to Hutchinson contacting him because of Boyle’s history as a leading figure in the civil rights movement.
To Hutchinson, that did not matter. “The reason why we wrote to him,” Hutchinson recalled, “was we thought he was the one best placed. He was the one who seemed to be getting all the accolades — not just here, but for his work abroad.
“It made more sense for us to talk to him on the basis that he was the human rights lawyer with the best profile and the one with the understanding of international law and human rights.”
To the sceptics, Hutchinson said his response was “hold on a minute. This guy is a professional and what we have to assume is that he behaves in a professional way. He doesn’t work on some sort of sectarian kneejerk thing about who people are. And that means he comes without any preconceived notion about an individual, or a group.”
Hutchinson’s judgment was correct. Boyle quickly replied with a positive note, offering to help and expressing optimism that “there are some possibilities”.
A month later, Boyle received a three-page memo from Hutchinson, outlining the plight of the loyalist life-sentence prisoners. Although it would take another decade before the UVF declared a ceasefire, the document provided revealing insights into how the thinking of one-time-extremists like Hutchinson was changing.
It claimed many young Protestants who got involved in violence had been “led astray by the bellicose rhetoric of demagogic leaders”. This was a clear reference to Ian Paisley, who had acquired a reputation for making fiery speeches and then managing to disappear when the violence inevitably followed.
It said that Hutchinson and his fellow loyalist lifers were now “liberating themselves from the prejudices, fears and illusions which became instilled in their minds from the advent of the Troubles ... Peaceful co-existence achieves more than violent confrontation.”
The document expressed remorse, noting that life prisoners “are also human beings and recognise the suffering which resulted from their actions”. It stressed the fact that the prisoners were using their time behind bars to learn new skills, take classes and forge a commitment to reintegrate into society and lead productive, non-violent lives.
And, yet, it concluded that the prisoners felt “forgotten” by the outside world, except for their long-suffering families, because the authorities would not give them any idea when they might be considered for parole. It was on this question that Hutchinson had written to Boyle for advice.
In his response, Boyle, likely sensing the importance of the political evolution the document articulated, was predictably both practical and encouraging. He praised the memo and said that, if the Northern Ireland Office remained unresponsive, Hutchinson should consider making it public.
He also suggested that, in communicating with the authorities, Hutchinson should emphasise that lifers who were released understood they could be sent back to prison if they again became involved in illegal activities.
This, Boyle said, would be a “useful argument” that might help blunt official reluctance to consider a parole scheme, as would evidence from prisoners’s families of possible employment opportunities that might be available after their release.
Finally, he offered to encourage a non-sectarian group in Belfast called the Committee on the Administration of Justice in Northern Ireland, which was respected by the Northern Ireland Office and had good contacts in the bureaucracy, to work on the plight of those serving life sentences. “Keep up your spirits,” the letter ended. “I look forward to meeting with you.”
During 1985, public pressure in Northern Ireland from both communities for changes in procedures for life prisoners was growing.
As promised, Boyle lent his voice to the lobbying. “The stuff we were doing with Kevin was great,” Hutchinson recalled. “Some of the things he had been working on were the things that came to fruition.”
Later that year, the Northern Ireland Office issued a memo outlining a new policy. It stressed that life sentences were reviewed by prison officers every year and, at 10 years, the case would come before a Life Sentence Review Board, composed of civil servants, probation officers and a psychiatrist.
While both republican and loyalist prisoners complained about the lack of openness in the process, it was a start. And, by the end of the decade, it led to the release of a number of life-sentence prisoners, including Billy Hutchinson. He was freed in 1990 and became an important figure as loyalist extremists became involved in the peace process.
Years later, he remained grateful for Boyle’s help. “He wasn’t in it for people because of the colour of their skin, or their religion. He was in it for people who he felt were on the other end of an injustice that shouldn’t have happened.”
Mike Chinoy, a long-time foreign correspondent, covered the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. He is currently a Hong Kong-based non-resident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute. His new book, Are You With Me?: Kevin Boyle and the Rise of the Human Rights Movement, is published by The Lilliput Press, priced £18 (https://www.lilliputpress.ie)