Biggar, Joseph Gillis (1828–90), politician, was born 10 August 1828 in Belfast, eldest son of Joseph Biggar, prosperous merchant and subsequently chairman of the Ulster Bank, and his wife Isabella, daughter of William Houston of Ballyearl, Co. Antrim. After schooling at the Belfast Academy, Biggar joined the family provision business, which he managed from 1861 to 1880. In 1868 he became active in local politics, serving for several years on Belfast corporation (where he sided with the radical element) and as chairman of the Belfast water commission 1869–72. In 1870 he joined the fledgling Home Government Association, becoming president of the Belfast branch. He contested the Londonderry city by-election in 1872 but was badly defeated. A vigorous participant at the National Conference in Dublin (18–21 November 1873), Biggar found himself already differing from Isaac Butt (qv). At the general election in 1874 he stood successfully for Cavan, retaining this seat in 1880. From 1885 he sat for Cavan East.
A diminutive hunchback with a harsh Ulster accent, Biggar for much of his parliamentary career was the bête noire of British MPs, though latterly he became a favourite of the house of commons. His ideological position in Belfast corporation was reproduced in the house of commons, where he consistently opposed the railway and other financial interests and supported temperance measures. The years 1874–82 were the pinnacle of Biggar's prominence, and he was known as ‘the father of obstruction’. Henry Lucy (‘Toby MP' of Punch) contributed to his repute. Though he did not invent obstruction, he turned it into an art form. A poor speaker, he read official documents in a virtually inaudible voice in order to delay business. Biggar's methods soon alienated the chairman of the new home rule party, Butt. However, application of systematic obstruction only began in April 1875 when Biggar held up renewal of the peace preservation act for nearly four hours. Five nights later he broke with convention when he ‘espied strangers’ on noticing the arrival of the prince and princess of Wales in the Strangers’ Gallery. They were obliged to withdraw, but the prince seems to have borne little ill-feeling: he often visited the gallery during the turbulent years 1880–85, particularly to observe Biggar's interventions. In spite of Butt's condemnation of unwarranted incursions into parliamentary time, Biggar found himself a popular figure in Ireland and especially with the Fenian-dominated Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain. In late 1875 he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (as he stated to the special commission on ‘Parnellism and crime’ in 1889) for the purpose of converting it to constitutional methods, and sat on its supreme council until expelled (August 1877) for declining to withdraw from parliament. Born a presbyterian, Biggar converted to catholicism in 1877, probably more from ‘patriotic’ than religious motivations. In 1877 his activism was augmented by Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), and during the session they found themselves seriously at odds with Butt. During the summer, in debates on the mutiny bill and Transvaal annexation bill, they resorted to persistent delays of business. This year marked the substantial parting of ways between Butt and the obstructionists.
Biggar, though a supporter of tenant right during his electoral campaigns, was not identified with the land question to any great extent, but on the formation of the Irish National Land League (21 October 1879) he became one of its treasurers, though his role was largely nominal. After his reelection for Cavan in April 1880, the tempo of parliamentary and land warfare increased, with Biggar in the thick of the battle. He was present at several League demonstrations and at meetings of the central branch of the organisation in Dublin. In November 1880 he was among those indicted for conspiracy to prevent the payment of rent, but the trial collapsed. He then took a major part in the furious debates of late January and early February 1881, for which he was expelled briefly from the house of commons. Unlike some Irish parliamentarians, Biggar was financially independent and renowned as a tight-fisted controller of the various funds for which he was treasurer. He had been a member of the executive of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain and became treasurer of the Irish National Land League of Great Britain when it was founded in 1881. He was a shareholder in the Irish National Newspaper and Publication Company which published United Ireland from August 1881. In October 1881 a warrant was issued for his arrest under the protection of person and property act, but as it only applied in Ireland Biggar evaded incarceration. His assets were a bluntness of method rather than strategic insight, and his place in the national movement became less pivotal after mid-1882 when other qualities were required. In 1883 he became treasurer of the new Irish National League of Britain. The new rules of parliamentary procedure adopted in 1883 (and strengthened in 1887) curtailed his nuisance value, while W. E. Gladstone's adoption of home rule in 1886 necessitated a more measured approach by the Irish party. Never an intimate of Parnell, Biggar joined T. M. Healy (qv) in the attempt to scuttle the candidacy of Capt. W. H. O'Shea (qv) for the vacancy at Galway borough in February 1886. (Biggar and Healy were close friends: Biggar remonstrated with Parnell for his treatment of Healy over the special commission, and Healy in 1890 felt Biggar's death as ‘the greatest blow I have ever received’ (quoted in Callanan, Healy, 229).) During the special commission he gave evidence, conducting his own defence.
Nevertheless, Biggar remained intensely involved in the affairs of parliament: supposedly indifferent to its atmosphere and conventions of parliament, he was in reality an almost obsessive member. He was a habitué of the Palace of Westminster, including its refreshment rooms, and (as Lucy observed) in later years became a stickler for decorum and also a principal attraction for visitors to the house of commons. His private weakness for women, some of dubious character, was well known; he remained a bachelor. Feelings towards him among British MPs began to soften when he was obliged to answer a breach-of-promise suit in 1883. He was widely mourned on his death in Clapham, London, from heart disease on 21 February 1890. Fittingly, Biggar was a teller in a division on the very night he died. His funeral in Belfast was widely attended.
Portraits are reproduced in T. M. Healy, Letters and leaders of my day; and T. P. O'Connor, Memoirs of an old parliamentarian.