Ferguson, Richard ('Dick') (1935–2009), barrister and politician, was born in Derrygonnelly, Co. Fermanagh, on 22 August 1935, only child of Wesley Ferguson, RUC sergeant, and his wife Edith. The Fergusons, who were methodists, had farmed in south-western Fermanagh since at least 1740, and were a prominent local professional and political dynasty. Harry West (qv) married one of Richard's aunts; a paternal uncle, Erne Cecil Ferguson (1911–68), was Stormont MP for Enniskillen (1938–49) and crown solicitor for Fermanagh (1949–68). Richard Ferguson joined the Orange order in his early twenties and later described himself as a fourth-generation Orangeman. He inherited 100 acres at Sandhill near Derrygonnelly from another uncle, where he spent two months every year 'replenishing my Irishness … drinking Guinness and playing at farming' (Sunday Independent, 18 November 1990), but privately expressed guilt that parts of the farm were known locally as 'Maguire's fields' after pre-plantation owners.
Youth and early career
Ferguson spent most of his childhood in Magherafelt, Co. Londonderry, where his father was stationed (later transferred to Belfast). He was educated locally at primary school and at Rainey Endowed School (at both, he mixed with catholic fellow-pupils), at Methodist College, Belfast (he later became a governor), at QUB (he studied law, graduating with honours in 1954 at age 19), and at TCD (BA, 1955), where he greatly enjoyed himself and reviewed books for the Irish Times. Ferguson initially intended to become a journalist, but abandoned the idea after school English results failed to meet expectations; his decision to study law was influenced by Terence Rattigan's play The Winslow boy (1946), based on the successful representation by Sir Edward Carson (qv) of a naval cadet accused of theft. Ferguson cited the play in speeches to juries, and presented his career as a defence counsel as standing up for unpopular individuals against the power of the state and showing the flaws in official accounts of events. As a young barrister in the early 1960s, he socialised with journalists and liberal intellectuals such as Samuel Thompson (qv).
Called to the Northern Ireland bar in 1956, Ferguson began with insurance cases in Fermanagh, moved into criminal law, and rapidly established a reputation as one of the province's ablest young advocates. He worked closely with his uncle Cecil, and his connections (as well as his abilities) assisted him in securing such positions as registrar to an assize judge in Fermanagh (1964), junior crown counsel for Fermanagh (1965), and crown counsel for Down (1968). He was greatly influenced by Basil Kelly (qv), and borrowed significant elements of Kelly's style.
Ferguson married (1961) Janet Magowan, a solicitor; they had three sons and one daughter. Janet's father, Irvine Magowan, was a prominent Co. Armagh farmer, former head of the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, and later prominent in the Alliance party.
Ferguson appeared as junior counsel in a number of murder trials. In 1966 he acted as defence counsel to some defendants accused of murdering catholics in connection with the nascent loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force; his conduct of the case provides an early example of his willingness to complain that the prosecution was being conducted in a prejudicial manner (e.g., by trying simultaneously defendants against whom there were varying amounts of evidence) and to accuse police of coercing detainees and fabricating evidence.
Into politics: O'Neillite liberal MP
Membership of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was useful for ambitious young lawyers, and Ferguson appears to have joined in his early twenties. Identifying with its liberal wing, in 1959 he publicly endorsed the view that catholics should be accepted as party members. He was considered for a vacant 'Fermanagh seat' in the Senate of Northern Ireland in July 1967, and in October 1968 secured the UUP nomination for a Stormont by-election in Antrim South. He offered the selection convention a fiery defence of the liberal reformism of Terence O'Neill (qv), but delegates were influenced by the perception that, as a border unionist (and relation of Harry West), Ferguson would be 'sound'. The runner-up, Basil McIvor (qv), a non-Orangeman, recalled that Ferguson was assisted by his Orange connections. The tensions within this support coalition first appeared during the by-election campaign, when Ferguson openly advocated 'one man, one vote' in local elections.
On 6 November 1968, Ferguson was elected with a majority of 13,440 over a Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) candidate. He immediately flung himself into the struggle over O'Neill's leadership, endorsing the premier's call for cross-community support and accusing the hardliner William Craig and his supporters of a 'knife in the back policy', of complaining that the party was split when they themselves had split it. Ferguson proclaimed that catholics were entitled to 'British rights' but must accept 'British responsibilities', including recognition of the monarchy and the union flag (Ir. Times, 30 January 1969). He appealed to 'fireside unionists' (politically inactive, middle-class moderates) to rally to O'Neill and to moderate reform.
During the February 1969 Stormont general election, Ferguson campaigned vigorously for O'Neill, and later recalled an election visit to the working-class catholic Andersonstown district, where crowds tried to shake O'Neill's hand, as a startling contrast with its later reputation as an IRA stronghold. Ferguson himself was re-elected with a majority of 5,399 (in a redrawn constituency) over a Protestant Unionist (i.e., Paisleyite) candidate, Revd William Beattie. (The NILP did not stand, and local catholics voted for Ferguson.) O'Neill, however, failed to achieve the overall political realignment he sought. Ferguson was visibly upset by his leader's subsequent resignation, and always called O'Neill 'the best chance the North had. When the unionist majority rejected O'Neill in 1969, they rejected the only possible, peaceful solution' (Sunday Independent, 18 November 1990). O'Neill in his autobiography praised Ferguson as 'the most liberal supporter I had'.
Ferguson was seen as the most outspoken liberal in the Unionist parliamentary party, and one of the few personally respected by nationalist MPs. In March 1969 he was the only Unionist MP to oppose the closure of debate on a clause of the public order bill. After he addressed a GAA club in Warrenpoint, Co. Down, at the end of April 1969, some constituency organisations passed votes of no confidence and he received death threats. As unrest intensified, Ferguson denounced loyalist and republican rioters, while warning that Jack Lynch (qv) in his television speech of 13 August 1969, seen as threatening intervention, risked all-out sectarian civil war.
In October 1969 Ferguson publicly resigned from the Orange order, stating that, in order to unite the community, it was necessary to separate political parties from religious divisions, but reiterated that some of the worthiest members of the community were Orangemen, and always maintained that any new Ireland must allow traditional Orange marches.
A unanimous vote of no confidence in Ferguson by his constituency executive was overwhelmingly endorsed by South Antrim Unionist Association, while he received little support from the UUP leadership and activists. After phone threats and abusive mail, he announced on 7 October that he would resign his seat and not contest the by-election. He formally resigned on 27 January 1970, citing medical advice that it would no longer be possible for him to combine his legal work with a political career. In the subsequent by-election, the UUP nominated the relatively hardline former cabinet minister William James Morgan (qv). Liberal and catholic voters defected to the NILP or an independent backed by what later became the Alliance party, and Beattie, once again the Paisleyite candidate, was elected on a minority vote. On the night of 28 April 1970, a blast bomb was thrown at Ferguson's home in Lisburn while he was being interviewed by the southern journalist Vincent Browne; Ferguson's pregnant wife and three small children had to be evacuated. At the same time, Ferguson was legal representative for the loyalist John McKeague (qv) before the Scarman tribunal. No one was ever brought to justice for the attack; in later life Ferguson liked to emphasise, as proof of his political impartiality, the possibility that it might have been perpetrated by either side.
Ferguson proclaimed it useless to work for reform within the UUP: 'the whole structure of the party is sectarian', and the more determined and ruthless hardliners would inevitably win. He joined the liberal Alliance party on its foundation in March 1971, and uttered a rousing denunciation of IRA violence at its 1972 conference, but rapidly went far beyond Alliance policy (which remained pro-union). Throughout 1970–72, he repeatedly called (at public seminars and in newspaper articles, such as his 'Open message for St Patrick's Day to the South from a Northern protestant (1972)) for the creation of a 'new Ireland' by mutual consent through mutual understanding. Ferguson urged Ulster protestants to realise that Irish unity was inevitable since Britain no longer wanted them, and it was better to be 'first-class Irishmen than second-class Englishmen'. He called on southern nationalists to shake off ambivalence towards gunmen past and present, and denounced the delusional mentality, revealed in the 1970 arms trial, whereby senior Dublin policy makers prepared a 'doomsday situation' without consulting any of the Ulster unionists they called their fellow countrymen, and suggested that instead of sending rifles to Dundalk the southern government should build a television transmitter there.
Describing the dominance of the catholic church in the Republic of Ireland as being as unacceptable as the form of protestant ascendancy that had prevailed in Northern Ireland, Ferguson asked southerners to recognise divorce and contraception as civil rights desirable for their own sake irrespective of partition. According to one report (Sunday Independent, 12 March 1972), he briefly acted as a contact between the British government and republicans. His suggestion that matters might be improved if Ian Paisley (qv) became prime minister, since he would have to restrain his extremist followers, was dismissed as bar library persiflage by the northern labourist Paddy Devlin (qv) (who generally respected Ferguson).
Ferguson's calls for a 'new Ireland' enthused some southern commentators, notably Douglas Gageby (qv), but even moderate Ulster unionists, including Alliance supporters and the future gay rights activist Jeffrey Dudgeon, pointed out that 'ritual bleats or nervous optimism about Richard Ferguson' (Ir. Times, 16 May 1972) ignored the fact that he only represented a tiny minority of protestants, and that the developing IRA campaign was consolidating protestant determination not to unite with the republic. Ferguson himself came to share this assessment; while remaining active in such discussion groups as the Irish Association for Cultural, Economic and Social Relations and the New Ireland movement led by John Robb, after the early 1970s he largely ceased to make political interventions. In 1990, while welcoming the election in the south of the liberal Mary Robinson as president of Ireland, he lamented that the IRA campaign had postponed Irish unity for a hundred years. Although Ferguson still believed in eventual Irish unity, he called himself 'unionist with a small u', based on non-sectarian cultural and economic factors, while describing himself as both British and Irish. He described his political involvement as his biggest mistake: 'My face never fitted … my vocation was as an advocate' (Belfast Telegraph, 19 November 1990).
Star lawyer: from Belfast to London
In July 1972 Ferguson was called to the English bar at Gray's Inn in London. He became a Northern Ireland queen's counsel on 26 January 1973, and was called to the bar of the Republic of Ireland on 27 November 1975 (after EEC regulations led to abolition of the requirement that one must pass an Irish-language examination to qualify for admission to the republic's bar). On 10 March 1983 he became the first Northern Ireland barrister to become a senior counsel in the Republic of Ireland, and by this time was vice-chairman of the Bar Council of Northern Ireland. In 1982 his criticism of a proposal to hold a private inquiry into sexual abuse scandals at the Kincora Boys' Home in Belfast (rumoured to have involved a male prostitution ring known to British intelligence and implicating socially prominent individuals) contributed to the convening of a public inquiry.
By the early 1980s Ferguson was one of the leaders of the Northern Ireland bar and widely expected to become a judge (though in 2005 he told the BBC that he could never have been a judge: 'I don't have it in me to sit in judgment on other people … I would be uncomfortable with sending someone to prison'). In March 1984, however, Ferguson suddenly withdrew from the Robert Quigley supergrass trial, in which he was representing four of eighteen defendants (subsequently granted a separate trial), and left Northern Ireland. He produced certificates that he was under treatment for stress and had been medically advised not to resume practice in Northern Ireland. He had been increasingly affected by the claustrophobic nature of the Northern Ireland legal scene, where the relatively small number of barristers and judges exacerbated personal tensions. Ferguson later recalled that, after successfully defending an admitted IRA member accused of the 1978 La Mon hotel bombing (in which twelve people were burned to death), and accusing the RUC during the trial of mistreating prisoners and fabricating confessions, he was regularly reviled to his face at dinner parties. At the same time, Ferguson represented loyalists, British soldiers, and police whenever called upon, and in retrospect expressed amazement that he had not been shot. He also felt frustrated as an advocate by the experience of non-jury trials due to the troubles. Ferguson's collapse also reflected the break-up of his first marriage (he married secondly Roma Whelan, a barrister, whose parents came from Co. Kerry; they had one son (b. 1987)).
Within a few months Ferguson bounced back; in his first year of London practice he appeared in ten jury trials, securing eight acquittals. His breakthrough case was the successful defence of a 21-year-old RAF signalman accused of leaking secrets to a 'Mata Hari' while stationed in Cyprus. Ferguson joined and led Carmelite Chambers at the Temple; loss-making when he joined it in 1984, it became one of the most successful chambers in London, and by his death in 2009 had seventy members. In 2003 he was the top-earning defence barrister, appearing before courts as far-flung as Hong Kong, Singapore and Bermuda, and was regularly compared both to Carson and to Serjeant Alexander Martin Sullivan (qv) as an Irish barrister who became a star of the London bar.
Ferguson settled in fashionable north London, where he frequented an Irish pub in Hackney and acquired season tickets for Arsenal soccer and London Irish rugby clubs. Always a keen sportsman, he had been a mountain climber in his youth and then a hill walker. He served on the Ulster Sports Council in the 1970s (chairing its training council), and in 1978 was nominated to the equivalent body in the republic. (Ferguson later liked to point out that he had been nominated by a Fianna Fáil government, while a supposedly more conciliatory Fine Gael–Labour coalition failed to reappoint him.) He was also an aficionado of Irish music.
Applying in 1985 to become a QC at the English bar, Ferguson was turned down by the lord chancellor. Several unionist politicians called this an insult to the Northern Ireland bar; Ferguson, however, decided it was simply a matter of waiting his turn. He received silk in 1986, thus becoming the first person admitted to the inner bars of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and England. In 1995 he was chairman of the Criminal Bar Association of England and Wales.
Ferguson alternated lucrative commercial cases with high-profile criminal law work. He represented a number of high-profile defendants, including the boxer Terry Marsh (acquitted of attempting to murder his former manager), Ernest Saunders, former chief executive of Guinness (convicted of insider trading), and Rosemary West (convicted of assisting her husband Fred, who committed suicide before trial, to murder ten young women; Ferguson remarked with deadpan understatement that the abusive West household was 'not your average family home' but that West's admitted participation in sexual abuse did not make her a murderess, and stringently interrogated prosecution witnesses about their financial relations with newspapers; for the rest of his life, Ferguson maintained that the evidence against West was unsatisfactory and her trial compromised by prejudicial media coverage). His success was founded on a number of factors, including diligent study of casework, his skills as an untheatrical but robust cross-examiner, a willingness to stand up to judicial pressure, his ability to cultivate juries by projecting Ulster-accented wit and charm, and his powerful closing summations.
Ferguson appeared in a number of Northern Ireland-related cases, including the defence of the Brighton bomber Patrick Magee, and of Danny McNamee (accused of the July 1982 Hyde Park bombings; his 1987 conviction was overturned in 1998 because of police failure to disclose material evidence). He represented John Walker and Hugh Callaghan, two of the Birmingham Six, in their first, unsuccessful appeal (1987–8) against their convictions for the killing of twenty-one people in the November 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. (Callaghan recalled that the lawyer had been visibly distressed when the appeal was dismissed; the convictions were overturned in 1991 after new evidence that police had fabricated confessions. In 1992 Ferguson characteristically challenged Irish self-congratulation over the failings of British justice by pointing out in the Criminal Law Review that the Irish republic, unlike Britain, had no mechanism to reopen an appeal after it had been dismissed.) He also represented Lee Clegg, a soldier convicted of murder after shooting into a stolen car driven by 'joyriders' in Belfast, in a series of appeals; Clegg secured a retrial and his conviction was eventually overturned. In 1989 Ferguson published an article in the New Law Journal denouncing barristers who refused to defend suspected terrorists.
In later life Ferguson made occasional appearances before the Northern Ireland courts. In 2003 he represented the leading Sinn Féin and IRA activist Martin McGuinness before the Bloody Sunday inquiry, and in 2009, though in frail health, he represented the PSNI at an official enquiry about whether the police had deliberately failed to prevent the murder of Robert Hamill by a loyalist mob in Portadown.
Richard Ferguson died in London Bridge Hospital on 26 July 2009 after heart surgery. His career reflects the alienation of the cosmopolitan professional elites of Northern Ireland from provincial unionist politics, but he was above all a barrister of genius.