Desmond Norman Orr Boal was born in Derry on August 8, 1929 and as a barrister during the worst of the Troubles defended republicans and loyalists implicated in many of the era’s most heinous atrocities.
By political inclination, Boal was a staunch unionist and indeed, with the Rev Ian Paisley, a founding member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The son of James Boal, a baker’s cashier and Kathleen Walker, Dessie was regarded as an academic star during his early education at Foyle College in his native city and also attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen. He later took a law degree at Trinity College, Dublin and qualified as a barrister in 1973.
It was as a solicitor that he firstly encountered Ian Paisley when defended him in 1959.
Rev Paisley had shouted down Methodist minister Donald Soper in Ballymena because he said he did not believe in the Virgin birth. In customary fashion the young firebrand Paisley then threw a Bible at the Methodist minister, but Desmond Boal got him off with a £5 fine at court. The relationship was sealed.
In addition to his legal career, Dessie Boal was elected as Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MP at Stormont for the Shankhill constituency in 1960, a position he held for over a decade.
He was highly critical of the UUP leadership under the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Captain Terence O’Neill and his attempts to improve relations with the Irish Government and the Catholic-Nationalist minority in the North.
In February, 1969 Desmond Boal and 11 of his party colleagues demanded a change of leadership and as a result an election was triggered in which moderate factions of the UUP lost ground. O’Neill narrowly survived a challenge from Ian Paisley-who at the time was being represented by Boal as he contested unlawful assembly charges.
Boal’s disaffection with the UUP however continued well beyond O’Neill’s tenure as premier and into the leadership periods of both Major James Chichester-Clark and Brian Faulkner.
Within weeks of the leadership challenge, Captain O’Neill had resigned as premier and Chichester-Clark was installed as Prime Minister after he defeated Faulkner by a single vote. Boal had backed Faulkner, but still seconded the motion that saw Chichester-Clark elevated.
In 1963, Lord Brookeborough’s two-decade long reign as Northern Ireland Prime Minister had also ended after a verbal broadside from Boal who cited that the UUP leader was acting complacently over the North’s economic problems.
In the summer of 1969, as rioting engulfed Derry and Belfast and the British Army arrived on the streets, Boal demanded an inquiry into the army’s use of CS gas against a Protestant mob who had tried to break through onto the Falls Road.
The following year, 1970 Boal again had the party whip withdrawn after he abstained in a vote of confidence against Chichester-Clark. In April that year, when Paisley took his seat as Stormont, Boal sponsored him.
In September 1971, Dessie Boal resigned from the UUP and joined his client Ian Paisley in founding the DUP. As he departed his former party, Boal’s parting shot to Brian Faulkner, now Prime Minister, was to warn him that he was “adding a new dimension to the dishonesty of politics” by meeting British and Irish ministers at Chequers.
He became the new unionist party’s first Chairman and one of its first political representatives as he continued to sit in Stormont until it became clear it was to be dissolved. He promptly resigned his seat rather than be linked to the parliament’s disappearance when direct rule was imposed in March 1972.
Boal continued his close relationship with Ian Paisley as a Labour government came to power in London in 1974 and through the loyalist led Ulster Worker’s Council strike of the same year that consigned the North’s power sharing experiment to the historical rubbish dump.
Politically, Dessie Boal’s inclinations had a strong left-wing tinge perhaps as the result of his upbringing and may have also been a factor in his input to the original incarnation of the fledgling DUP far removed as it was from the middle-class leanings of the ‘establishment’ UUP.
This made him a ‘good fit’ to represent the people of the Shankill for more than a decade.
Boal’s political analysis in the early stages of the Troubles led him to conclude that the British Army could never defeat the IRA because it did not understand its rationale nor its historical roots.
As a result, Boal opposed the introduction of internment from its implementation on August 9, 1971. In fact, in a show of contempt for the tribunals set up to see whether internees could be released he regularly showed up to represent people in sweaters and Wellington boots.
Boal also persuaded a very reluctant Paisley to put his name to a joint press statement condemning internment-move that saw the late First Minister furiously back pedal away from for many months afterwards.
As the idea of Ulster Independence gained traction within loyalism in the mid-1970s, Boal opted to propose a ‘Federal Ireland’, provided the Republic dropped its territorial claim to Northern Ireland contained in Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution. And, another part of his proposal was that the Republic provided a social security system akin to that of Britain’s.
Whilst Westminster continued to push for a political power-sharing solution to the North’s Troubles, Boal conducted ‘peace talks’ with former Irish Foreign Minister Sean McBride, a fellow lawyer but also a former Chief of Staff of the IRA.
However, far from ‘getting into bed’ politically with republicans and sidelining Westminster, Boal’s proposals were aimed at guaranteeing Protestant control in Ulster and not handing it over to Dublin.
But, as the 1970s progressed the Derry native began to concentrate more on his legal career instead of his political one.
Despite his hardline political stance, in the courts Dessie Boal represented both loyalists and republicans with the equal vigour.
In the very early 70s for example, he managed to secure a hung jury in the first prosecution under Northern Ireland’s Prevention of Incitement to Hatred Act.
The case had come about after three loyalists published a song called ‘I Was Born Under the Union Jack.’
The tune referred to the killing of ‘Popeheads’ and ‘Taigs’. It was a tribute to Boal’s oratorical abilities that he managed to persuade half the jury there was no intention to stir up hatred and fear.
Also, amongst his clients were Michael Stone who he defended in the wake of the Milltown Cemetery attack on IRA funerals in 1988. He also represented the INLA members who had carried out the Droppin’ Well bombing at Ballykelly in 1982.
As a lawyer, Boal was also instrumental in ending the use of so-called ‘supergrasses’ in terrorism cases. In 1984, during his defence of 39 republicans his submissions to the Diplock court caused the collapse of the entire trial.
Then, in 1992 in his defence of Brian Nelson, the British Army and Ulster Defence Association double agent who had been charged with conspiring to murder five republicans but who had also provided the names of more than 200 targeted by loyalists for assassination, Boal told the court: “He helped save the lives of people who ironically, are now screaming about his activities.
“He was under no illusion he would get a bullet in the back of the head. He continued for three years living with the threat of death ever present, every minute of the day and night.”
Boal’s apparent contradictory political and legal eccentricities also saw him described at one point by a legal colleague as “quite mad, but the most brilliant man in the province.”
In 1988, Boal and his fellow barrister Robert McCartney QC successfully sued a Dublin newspaper for claiming they had words in a cake shop because there weren’t enough chocolate eclairs for them both.
The paper admitted that the story wasn’t true. But, whilst Boal said the article had made him look like a ‘bit of an ass’, he and Mr McCartney received £50,000 each in damages.
Desmond Boal was a lot more secular in his viewpoints by comparison to Ian Paisley. However, the duo formed a formidable political partnership with the Derry born barrister without doubt providing the bulwark of the intellectual weight behind the party.
It was a relationship that however would end up fractured as both men entered their twilight years. Boal could not contemplate the fact that Rev Paisley had entered into a power sharing administration at Stormont with Sinn Fein in 2007.
In a BBC documentary on the life of Ian Paisley, journalist Eamonn Mallie asked Eileen Paisley what happened.
Mrs Paisley said Dessie Boal had called at her Belfast home to return the books that her husband had given him over the years and said: “This isn’t a friendly visit. I just can’t believe he’s done what he’s done and I just don’t want anything more to do with you.”
The late Dr Paisley’s wife said in response: “Desmond, I am very sorry it has come to that but what could he do? Would you have him responsible for another 30 or 40 years of warfare and devastation and killing and murdering, or do what he did?”
Reportedly, Desmond Boal walked away without response, but Mrs Paisley recalled the collapse of the decades long friendship was “a very big blow to her husband.”
Upon the death of Desmond Boal, the leader of the TUV Jim Allister also a barrister and who also ended his relationship with Ian Paisley over power sharing with Sinn Fein said: “Desmond’s talent at the criminal bar was unsurpassed. Brilliant in cross examination and unrivalled in the skills of advocacy I as a young barrister learned much from watching him in action. It was a privilege to have known him for these last several decades.”
Desmond Boal died aged 86 on April 23, 2015. He and his wife Annette had had two sons and a daughter together. He was buried in Derry City Cemetery in the same plot as his father James and his mother Kathleen.
CAPTION: Desmond Boal Q.C. was a founding member of the DUP but later split from his close personal association with Dr Ian Paisley.
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