Nationalism, Human Rights & Democracy – a life

Gerard Quinn has read Are You With Me – Kevin Boyle and the Rise of the Human Rights Movement by Mike Chinoy (Lilliput Press, 339 pp. 2020). In this blog post Quinn portrays Boyle’s fight for human rights for all.


This book tells a riveting story about one of the most impactful human rights advocates of the 20th century – Kevin Boyle. It is told by an extremely accomplished storyteller – Mike Chinoy. The book pulsates with messages that speak directly to our current challenges in human rights – how to deal with hyper-nationalism and how to respond to the many critiques of rights including specifically the argument that they are somehow un-democratic.


The mirror images: Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State

Boyle was born in 1943 in the small town of Newry in Co Down, Northern Ireland. Barely twenty years earlier, Ireland was partitioned into two separate jurisdictions – Northern Ireland (which remained attached to the UK) and the Irish Free State which was a newly independent State (later declared a Republic in 1949). The two Statelets were in fact mirror images of each other in many respects – inwardly-looking, identity-driven and utterly convinced of their own self-righteousness. It is hard now to fathom the thinking of the early post-Versailles period – that States ought to congeal around homogeneous and self-excluding nations and that national self-determination meant just this.

In the late nineteenth century Lord Action argued that the most successful polity was built on diversity. He was opposed by John Stuart Mill who argued that homogeneous States fared best. Mill won the argument, at least temporarily.

Irish republican thought was early influenced by the English Levellers and Thomas Jefferson with an emphasis on tolerance and diversity. The 19th century and the rise of the nation-state changed everything. Henceforth the state was supposed to congeal around the nation and if you didn’t belong to the nation then your loyalties presumably rested elsewhere.

In 1922 Northern State was built around the dominant identity of Protestant Unionists (so-called to maintain the union with the UK) and the Irish Free State was built around a Catholic nationalist mentality. In the North, power was maintained by ensuring that the minority had no access to political power (through the gerrymandering of constituencies). With no other outlet such as litigation and lacking a constitution the minority were, in classic US Constitutional terms a ‘discrete and insular minority.’

It was the mirror opposite in the South. The Irish Free State professed tolerance but in effect mandated compliance. Core institutions including education, social serves and health were outsourced to the Churches (mostly the Catholic Church). If the North became a sectarian State, the South became a confessional State. They both suffered the same fundamental defect – an unwillingness to tolerate difference and an insularity bordering on outright suffocation.


Taking a stance against the nation-state

Boyle was born into this time-warp at an interesting inflection point. The British State was developing a modern welfare state. People like Boyle who was born into a modest (but extremely hard working) family could now dream to go to high school and then on to university. This he did. In the 1960s when he was in university the world was in ferment and old arrangements were being challenged – from Paris, to Chicago, to Selma and Belfast. Boyle, ever conscious of Selma, took a leadership position in the movement for civil rights in Northern Ireland. His operational philosophy from the very beginning transcended the idea of the nation-state. To his horror, the civil rights movement was hijacked by militant extremists – the IRA. Boyle observed with acuity how arguments for justice were appropriated by one side or the other. In the result, human rights were only seen as a sectarian tool to be weaponised by the Catholic minority – not universal norms that applied to all.

Boyle got caught up in the maelstrom that followed the initial failure of the civil rights movement and the slide toward political violence and murder. He began to litigate several celebrated cases before the European Commission and Court of Human Rights dealing with police and other excesses (on both sides of the border). In this he was dealing with a symptom of the underlying malaise. Chinoy shows how he did so with great sensitivity especially toward young people on all sides who found themselves embroiled in ‘the troubles.’

But, with colleagues such as Tom Hadden, he began to re-think his way through the underlying causes of the violence and the suffocating nationalisms of the Orange and Green States. Boyle and Haden put forward the radical notion that each side should stop laying claim to the other (the Southern Constitution then claimed jurisdiction over the North), that equality of treatment and esteem would be assured to all, that the rule of law would obtain (with effective legal guarantees) and that a basis be provided for new kind of post-nationalist politics on all sides. Slowly but surely the political establishment on all sides came round to this formula which is now famously embedded in the Good Friday Agreement of 1997. It is no exaggeration to say, as Chinoy does, that Boyle and Hadden were the handmaidens for new kind of politics that did not rest on revanchist nationalist notions that belonged in the dustbin of the 19th century.

In the process, Boyle re-invented the notion of the nation-state and implicitly sided with Lord Acton. Human rights were expressions of a theory of justice as well as tools to rectify wrongs. What Boyle really wanted to do was lay the groundwork for a different kind of democratic politics – one that did not cede power to identity groups who happened to be in the majority and one that was not based on ‘winner takes all.’ A deliberative democracy, to Boyle, transcended identity, class or even nation. Justice was possible no matter the political configuration.


Two hands holding each other


Rights belong to all

Given this predisposition, it was no accident to see Boyle take a leading role in the fight or freedom of expression throughout the world as he did with his pioneering leadership of Article 19. Similarly, it was no accident that he championed the cause of racial equality in South Africa since, to him, the very idea that one group of identity would abuse their power to dominate another was sheer anathema. And it was no accident that he led litigation on behalf of Kurds and others. An academic – he was a scholar-activist who believed in putting ideas into action.

It is said that Boyle was one of the 20th century pioneers on human rights. That is plainly true. But there was a deeper truth at play in his life – which is well borne out by Chinoy’s masterful work. Boyle was interested in rights not just in themselves but as instruments to foster a broader conception of political authority (not bound by identity or nation-state politics). He saw rights as underpinning and not undermining a broad conception of the democratic space. That is why he placed so much emphasis on freedom of expression and the protection of minorities. He instinctively knew that the appropriation of rights by one sectarian group over another was wrong (and led to further violence which he abhorred) and he lived his life proving that rights belong to all regardless of the nation-state one happens to live in.

Sadly, his example is much needed today. A lot of human rights literature today simply assumes a congruity of purpose between human rights and democracy. The charge is too easily laid that human rights are somehow un-democratic– if as bald majoritarian theories of democracy are the only ones at play. Chinoy’s account of Boyle’s life brings to the surface a much deeper connection between democracy and human rights. Those who knew, respected and loved Boyle can see this easily. Those who constantly struggle in hostile political environments can take courage from Boyle’s life and example. Chinoy’s book does a great service to memory and also serves as a platform to inspire a younger generation who need to connect again the struggle for human rights with the struggle for an open society that lies at the heart of democracy.



Share with your friends
Scroll to top