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Desmond Boal: Political colossus whose star truly shone in the courtroom

Published 24/04/2015

Desmond Boal during his time as an MP for the Shankill constituency, which he represented from 1960 to 1971
Desmond Boal during his time as an MP for the Shankill constituency, which he represented from 1960 to 1971

Desmond Boal, one of Northern Ireland's leading barristers and a founder of the DUP, has died at the age of 85.

First and foremost a lawyer, he also played a significant role in politics, initially as a public representative and more latterly as a sounding board.

A native of Londonderry, he represented the Shankill constituency from 1960 to 1971 as a Unionist Party MP in the Stormont Parliament.

There, along with a number of other backbenchers, he was a constant thorn in the side of party leaders. His criticism reached a crescendo during the leadership of Captain Terence O'Neill, who attempted to foster positive cross-border relationships and reach out to the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland.

Even when O'Neill was ousted in April 1969, Boal and the other backbenchers kept up their attacks on his successors, James Chichester-Clark and Brian Faulkner.

In early 1971, he resigned from the Unionist Party and joined with the Rev Ian Paisley to form the DUP. His secular intellect complemented Paisley's religious charisma, and for a period they were a formidable team. While the DUP has always been to the right on law and order, Boal tried to steer it in a different direction on social and economic issues.

He was its first chairman and became one of its first public representatives, retaining his Stormont seat until the next year. However, after a number of disagreements with Paisley over the policies and direction of the party, Boal resigned from the DUP in 1974.

Despite this, he remained a friend of the Paisley family until the DUP entered into a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein in 2007.

Last year, Baroness Paisley recalled how Boal turned up at their east Belfast home with some books Paisley had given him and said: "This isn't a friendly visit."

She claimed Boal told her that he could not believe that her husband had entered government with Sinn Fein and added: "I don't want anything more to do with you."

She asked him if he would make her husband responsible for decades of more violence, but Boal "just walked away".

Baroness Paisley also admitted the loss of his old friend had been a very big blow to her husband, who died last year.

In 1976, Boal was involved in clandestine talks in a number of locations, including Paris, as loyalists and republicans explored whether any common ground could be found after the publication of Sinn Fein's Eire Nua plan for a federal Ireland.

Boal was chosen to represent the unionist and loyalist viewpoint, while Sean MacBride put the nationalist and republican case.

Boal suggested the establishment of a federal Irish parliament that would assume the powers formerly reserved at Westminster with a provincial parliament based on the present Northern Ireland and holding the powers previously exercised at Stormont.

But the talks came to nothing after Irish government minister Conor Cruise O'Brien condemned them on radio, blowing the cover of the loyalist participants who had insisted on confidentiality.

While Boal's political influence was often unseen, his star really shone in the courtroom.

There, he is remembered as one of the fiercest defenders, as well as one of the most articulate advocates at the Bar.

Indeed, the current Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory, named Boal as one of his professional heroes in an interview with the Irish Times. He reckoned Boal was the best advocate he had ever seen and revealed he kept in touch with him and heeded his counsel.

"He had a mesmerising command of the courtroom that was evident from his complete mastery of the evidence in the case and the clarity with which the arguments were presented," McGrory said.

Boal featured in many of the most high-profile criminal trials during the Troubles and was a much sought-after defence advocate.

Boal, who lived in Holywood, Co Down, is survived by his wife Annette and his wider family circle.

Belfast Telegraph

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