Joseph Fisher was a barrister, a newspaper editor, and an author. However, Fisher's most prominent role was his appointment as Unionist commissioner on the Irish Boundary Commission.
Fisher was born in Raffrey, County Down, Ireland, in 1855, the third son of clergyman Ringland Fisher, minister of the local Presbyterian church. He was educated at Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Belfast, and Queen's University, Galway, graduating with a B.A. in 1876. Fisher was foreign editor of the London Daily Chronicle until 1881 and assistant editor of the London Standard thereafter. He was called to the Bar at a relatively late age in 1888 and practiced until 1900, when he returned to Belfast. In early 1900, Fisher became editor of the Northern Whig, a liberal unionist daily paper, and remained in that position until the First World War.
Fisher's most controversial role came in 1924 when he was appointed to the Irish Boundary Commission. Article 12 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty stipulated that the commission was to have three members but the Ulster Unionist government of Northern Ireland refused to appoint the commissioner required of it, wishing to concede "not one inch" of the territory of the six parliamentary counties that had seceded. The Labour government in Great Britain and the Irish Free State government legislated to allow the British government to impose a representative on behalf of the Unionists. Fisher had a reputation of being a staunch but liberal unionist. Ramsay MacDonald announced Fisher's appointment on 18 October 1924.
The three commissioners set to work and spent most of 1925 visiting communities near the six-county border and taking written and "in camera" verbal hearings. The British government's commissioner Justice Richard Feetham interpreted the commission's mandate narrowly and thus, with Fisher's Unionist vote, there was a two-to-one majority in favour of only minor changes to the border. On 7 November 1925 an English conservative newspaper, The Morning Post, published leaked notes of the negotiations, including a draft map that suggested that parts of east Donegal would be transferred to Northern Ireland. This was seen as a grave embarrassment in Dublin.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Fisher was responsible for the leak. Fisher had told Florence Reid, the wife of D. D. Reid, M.P., the leader of the Ulster Unionists in the Westminster parliament, that the report would make no major changes. He had also written to Edward Carson, former leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance, assuring him that Carson's ‘handiwork’ in creating Northern Irish state would survive. As a Unionist newspaperman, Fisher would seem in any case the obvious source of the information and the Irish government seems to have suspected Fisher of being the source.
Fisher's alleged press leak effectively ended the Commission's work. The Irish government's commissioner, Professor Eoin MacNeill resigned two weeks later, on 20 November but Fisher and Feetham, the remaining commissioners, continued their work without MacNeill.
This caused the boundary negotiations to be swept into a wider agreement concluded on 3 December 1925 between the British and Irish governments. The publication of the Commission’s award would have an immediate legal effect, so the Free State government quickly entered into talks with the British and Northern Ireland governments. Further, the Irish Free State's trade deficit was growing and it was unable to meet existing levels of social spending, but it was also faced with its obligations under Article 5 of the Treaty to pay a pro-rata share of the public debt of the United Kingdom. The Conservative government that had replaced Ramsay MacDonald's short Labour-Liberal coalition wanted to avoid Irish disputes. The December agreement resolved the financial obligations of the Treaty in exchange for leaving the border unchanged. Early that evening, Fisher and Feetham were briefed by the three prime ministers together with Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The two remaining commissioners expressed their view of the problems that would result from a failure to adjust what they saw as the border's more absurd anomalies, in particular protestant east Donegal (for which "Derry was the market town"); Pettigo and Belleek, County Fermanagh (both of which straddled the border); and the Drummully and Clones areas of County Monaghan, parts of which were accessible by road only from Northern Ireland. The politicians requested of the commissioners that the report be "burned or buried". This inter-governmental discussion about suppressing the report, and the report itself, remained a secret until 1969. Ultimately the agreement to make no changes was concluded by the three governments and the Commission rubber-stamped it. The publication, or not, of the Commission's report became a legal irrelevance but remained controversial ever after.
Aged 70 at the end of the Commission's work, Fisher retired to London; his address was in barristers' chambers in Essex Court, Middle Temple. He died, unmarried, on 26 October 1939 at 12 Lancaster Drive, Hampstead, close to the Swiss Cottage Tube station."Law of the Press" (in part; with J. A. Strahan) (1891). London: William Clowes and Sons.
"Finland and the Tsars" (1899). London: Edward Arnold.
"The End of the Irish Parliament" (1911). London: Edward Arnold.
“Finland” in The Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.), 1911 (in part; with Peter Alexeivitch Kropotkin and John Scott Keltie)