OBITUARY: Desmond Boal, DUP founder and colossus of the bar

Desmond Boal, MP, Ulster Unionist, on arrival at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, September 1966
Desmond Boal, MP, Ulster Unionist, on arrival at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, September 1966

Desmond Boal was a hardline unionist figure who left behind a political career to concentrate on his work an eminent barrister.

Born in Londonderry on August 8, 1928. to James and Kathleen Boal (nee Walker) he attended Foyle College then Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, before reading law at Trinity College Dublin.

His political career began in the early 1960s when he was elected MP for Shankill with the Ulster Unionists.

However, he found himself opposed to the direction of the party and repeatedly clashed with its leadership – particularly that of moderate Prime Minister Terence O’Neill.

He left in 1971 and went on to become the first chairman of the DUP, led by Ian Paisley.

He remained in his seat until the imposition of direct rule in 1972.

As the 1970s wore on he devoted himself more to the law and less to politics.

During the mid-1970s, he represented a loyalist delegation in a secret set of talks with republicans.

The encounters are referred to in a biography of ex-Sinn Fein president Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, in which author Robert White wrote that the negotiations were about the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland’s six counties, but that the initiative collapsed once it became public.

As the Troubles progressed he defended both loyalists and republicans in court, and fellow barrister and friend Jim Allister said his clients had ranged from Gusty Spence to Danny Morrison.

“You’ll never see the like of him again,” he told the News Letter. “Within a courtroom, to watch Desmond Boal with a jury was a sight to behold.

“He held them in the palm of his hand, and he had a remarkable ability to connect with people.”

Mr Allister also recalled he had a “wicked sense of humour”. Once, moments before the opening of a high-profile supergrass trial, Mr Boal convinced his junior counsel that he had lost his voice – only to “regain” it just as the nervous junior barrister rose to speak in his place.

Mr Allister also recalled him accepting a challenge to weave a series of deliberately-obscure words into a closing address – and succeeding.

Mr Boal also defended his own hard-won reputation through the courts; on one occasion during the late 1980s he sued a newspaper for falsely claiming that he had an argument with another barrister about chocolate eclairs.

He reportedly won damages of £50,000 (estimated to amount to more than £120,000 today).

Retired barrister Ronnie Appleton said: “He was a remarkable character. We were very close friends, through we were on opposite sides for the last 25 to 30 years while I was prosecuting and he was defending.

“He was very bright; he had a very good mind. He was a good politician, and a good lawyer.

Current Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory called him “one of the greatest Irish trial lawyers since Edward Carson”.

In a tribute published in the Irish Times, Mr McGrory described him as “a man of deep intellect with a thirst for knowledge of other cultures that took him to remote parts of the world, from the Amazon jungle to Tibetan monasteries where he spent many weeks in contemplation”.

Despite leaving his public political persona behind, he had remained friendly with the Paisleys – until the late reverend entered power-sharing government with Sinn Fein.

Baroness Paisley recalled that Mr Boal returned the books he had been given by her husband, and told her: “I just don’t want anything more to do with you.”

Journalist Eamonn Mallie also recalls that in an encounter he had with Mr Boal, the barrister “erupted” at the mention of Rev Paisley, and said: “I could never accept what he did going into government with so many of those guys I defended in court.”

He died suddenly at home on April 23, aged 86.

He had been unwell for the previous year or two.

He was for years a resident of St John’s Point in Co Down, and latterly of Holywood (although he spent much of the year in the Caribbean during the latter part of his life) and his funeral was in the town’s Anglican church St Philip and St James on April 25.

He was a regular attendee at its 8am services, and Canon Jim Sims, who led the funeral, said he had a “deep faith”.

“He was a very straight man,” he said. “There were no back doors with Desmond – he told you just what he thought about things. He had a sharp, clinical mind – a very brilliant mind.”

He had requested that no eulogy be said at his funeral, and there was no reception afterwards. He was cremated.

He is survived by a son, his widow Annette (his second wife), her son and daughter, and four sisters.