It was with sadness that we learned of the death of Dr Roy H W Johnston who died aged 90 on 13 December last year. We knew Dr. Johnston as a long-time contributor to Books Ireland where his reviews were always thoughtful and insightful. However Dr. Johnston was also a well-respected physicist, political theorist and activist who was influential in the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Born in Dublin in 1929, he was a son of Professor Joseph Johnston, an economist, historian and member of Seanad Éireann who came from a small farming family in Co Tyrone. Dr. Johnston graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1951 with a BA in experimental science and mathematics, followed by a PhD. While at TCD he became involved in left wing politics through the Fabian Society.
Dr Johnston was proud of his northern Presbyterian ancestors’ role during the 18th century when “Catholic. Protestant and Dissenter came together to claim their country” under the banner of the United Irishmen, and he lived up to this legacy by bringing the most unlikely people together to achieve common aims. In the mid-1960s, for example, he met the leaders of the IRA to discuss “the way forward”. Dr Johnston proposed the “national liberation front” model of bringing people together from different backgrounds and traditions to demand social and political reform. This idea was ultimately to lead to the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. He was happy with the non-violent NICRA campaign for civil rights in the late 1960s but despaired when the heavy-handed reaction from the Stormont government resulted in the widespread violence and the Troubles. Dr Johnston was also involved in various human rights campaigns in the Republic.
Dr Johnston was also one of the first scientists and political activists in Ireland to publicly express concern about the future of the planet by raising green issues before it was popular to do so. At his memorial service in the Churchtown Quaker Hall in Dublin, one of the many contributors summed up his more recent endeavours by saying that “Roy spent his recent years trying to make the Greens more Red and the Reds more Green”.
As well as contributing to Books Ireland, Dr. Johnston wrote for various other publications over the years and he wrote an influential science column in The Irish Times. He is survived by his wife Janice and daughter Nessa, former wife Máirín, and children Una, Fergus and Aileen, and grandchildren. His body was donated to medical research in accordance with his wishes.