Fisher, Joseph Robert (1855–1939), journalist and unionist, was born in Raffrey, Co. Down, youngest among three sons and one daughter of the Rev. Ringland Fisher, presbyterian minister and his wife Sarah, née English. He was educated at the RBAI and QCB, graduating BA (1876). After spending time studying in Germany and France, he was called to the English bar. More interested in journalism and political history than law, Fisher soon became a well known journalist in London. In 1881 he was appointed foreign editor of the Daily Chronicle, and served as assistant editor of the Standard (1883–91). He also wrote numerous articles on foreign affairs for the Saturday Review and other periodicals. Elected one of the first fellows of the Institute of Journalists, he also published some highly regarded books, including Fisher and Strahan's law of the press (1898) (in conjunction with J. A. Strahan), and a historical overview, Finland and the czars (1901). In 1891 he was appointed editor of the Northern Whig in Belfast, a position he held till 1913.
A prominent member of the Ulster Unionist Council, Fisher immersed himself in Ulster politics, insisting on the need for unionist unity and criticising the MP for Tyrone South, T. W. Russell (qv), who had admonished the leaders of unionism and railed against Lord Salisbury's government, while advocating land purchase in Ireland. In 1911 Fisher wrote The end of the Irish parliament, which dealt with the shortcomings of Grattan's parliament (1782–1800); it was well received by most unionists. Owing to ill health, and the death of his sister who kept his bachelor home, he resigned from the Northern Whig in 1913 and moved to London, though he maintained his interest in Irish affairs and his close association with James Craig (qv). Holding strong views in favour of partition, Fisher, unlike Edward Carson (qv), recommended it as a policy commendable in itself. In a letter to Carson in March 1914, he wrote: ‘It will not do to allow the government to say – as they will – that the people of Ulster had been offered exclusion by popular vote and that you rejected it’ (Gwynn, 230).
During the first world war Fisher resumed his literary and journalistic work in London and represented the The Times in Ireland during the war of independence (1919–21). Although James Craig refused to recognise the boundary commission which was established to examine possible changes to the border in 1925, Fisher was appointed to the commission by the British government to represent the government of Northern Ireland; given that Fisher was an old friend and political ally of Craig, Craig was probably happy with the appointment. Fisher regarded the boundary commission as an opportunity to establish a firmer and clearer dividing border line; or, if he could not secure a consolidation of partition, he believed he would be in a position to produce a deadlock by vetoing any agreement. He was prepared to trade a largely nationalist area such as south Armagh in return for predominantly protestant parts of north Monaghan and east Donegal, and believed that nationalist areas in the north could be safely controlled behind ‘a solid ethnographic and strategic frontier to the south’ (Gwynn, 216). Fisher did not respect the strict secrecy obligation agreed by members of the commission; he wrote letters to political allies on its deliberations, which made him the main suspect in the ‘leaks’ that set in motion the events leading to the crisis of the commission and the ultimate burying of its report. His supporters believed that he had played an important role in preventing the commission from weakening the northern state. After the commission he resumed a quiet existence in London, writing an occasional article in London dailies or learned periodicals. He died 27 October 1939 in a London nursing home, survived by his brother John, a well-known building contractor.