DUP politician and gifted criminal barrister with a maverick side

Desmond Boal: August 6th, 1928 - April 23rd, 2015

Desmond Boal: a devastating cross-examiner who rarely took a note, being gifted with total recall. Photograph:  Victor Patterson

Desmond Boal: a devastating cross-examiner who rarely took a note, being gifted with total recall. Photograph: Victor Patterson


Des Boal, who has died aged 86, was the greatest criminal defence barrister in of his generation in Northern Ireland. He was a devastating cross-examiner who rarely took a note, being gifted with total recall.

At one stage the North’s criminal court system almost ground to a halt because every defence team wanted Boal to act for it.

He was also a significant figure in Northern politics. From the 1960s he had been an adviser to the young Ian Paisley. He had the ability to analyse a complex piece of legislation in minutes.

He was one of the founders of the Democratic Unionist Party, and one of its first group of MPs. Even after leaving active politics he continued to advise Paisley. He also had no problem in publicly dressing down Paisley, being capable of silencing the “Big Man”.

Boal was complex, well explained by his reason for breaking with Paisley. “I could never accept what he did going into government with so many of those guys I defended in court,” he said. However, in the 1970s he was involved in secret talks with Republicans. At one stage, he came out in support of a federal Ireland.

Supergrass system

Criminal law was not his only legal expertise: he was also expert in planning law.

Boal was a member of the old Stormont parliament. In 1960 he was elected as MP for the Shankill, holding the seat until Stormont was prorogued in 1972. In the 1960s he was the most effective unionist critic of Terence O’Neill, whom he saw as representing “Big House” unionism.

While to the right of unionism, he always showed independence. The Unionist Party suspended him for voting for a Labour motion of censure on the unionist government for its social and economic policies. He gathered signatures of MPs calling for the elderly Lord Brookeborough to resign as prime minister.

He opposed the decision in the mid-1960s to site a new university in Coleraine rather than Derry, and spoke strongly for Derry in Stormont. He was against the death penalty, and opposed internment in 1971. He wanted the DUP to have radical social and economic policies to appeal to Catholics.

His personality too was complex. He was fiercely opposed to alcohol and tobacco. However, he was an enthusiastic gambler, running legendary poker schools in his house. He had a box at Fairyhouse Racecourse. Refusing to use it on Sundays, he often lent it to less Sabbatarian colleagues.

Boal revelled in flouting convention. During a dispute about legal aid payments, he went on a deputation of Northern lawyers to the British lord chancellor – wearing a large pair of rough brown boots.

Walled city

Desmond Norman Orr Boal

He was educated at First Derry Primary School, the Cathedral Primary School, and Foyle College (all in Derry); Portora Royal School in Enniskillen: then proceeding to Trinity College Dublin and London’s Inner Temple for his law studies.

As a student and young man he travelled widely in Africa and Asia, visiting Afghanistan at one stage. For many years he took an interest in Buddhism, and used visit Nepal to practise meditation. An anecdote illustrates Boal’s complexity. A fellow barrister was dining with his daughter in a restaurant where Boal was at another table. Boal spoke to his colleague, and left before them. When the colleague went to pay, he found Boal had paid for the meal, but not the bottle of wine.

Desmond Boal is survived by wife, Annette, and sisters Maureen, Kathleen, Una and Deirdre