TAOISEACH ATTENDS INSPIRING CEREMONIES TO MARK 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF BILLY FOX MURDER

18 March 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

By MICHAEL McDONNELL
michael@northern-standard.ie

IF IT WAS held to mark the milestone of a terrible thing that should never have happened, Sunday’s programme of events to commemorate 40 years since the murder of Senator Billy Fox proved, nonetheless, to be a memorable, enriching and worthwhile exercise in its own right, with large crowds braving the rain to witness a religious service and civic ceremony that were both attended by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

In reflecting on the legacy of a person described by local TD Sean Conlan as “a man ahead of his time”, the Taoiseach described Senator Fox as a young representative who sought to “look out beyond sectarian divides”, and to find a “dialogue and dynamic” that would enable people of all backgrounds achieve an Ireland “united in peace and built by patience and goodwill”.

But that goodwill was to evade the pioneering TD and senator, who was shot dead on 11th March 1974 during an incident in which a group of armed men had occupied the farmhouse of his fiancée at Tircooney between Smithboro and Clones.

The Provisional IRA never admitted involvement, but five of its members were subsequently convicted in connection with the murder.
The early seventies were bleak and brutal times during the so-called “Troubles”, and it was to be 20 years before the 1994 ceasefire signalled any light at the end of the tunnel — and led to the game-changing Good Friday Agreement four years later despite more than a few setbacks in between.

Sunday’s events began with a visit to the Billy Fox Memorial Park in the late senator’s native Bawn, where Mr Kenny laid a wreath to mark the four decades that have passed since the 35-year-old was cut down in is prime.

The 3pm Commemoration Service in Christ Church, Aughnamullen saw the historic building filled to capacity as a congregation led by the Taoiseach heard Bishop of Clogher Dr John McDowell recall how, even in those dark days, the death of Senator Fox stood out as “inexplicable”, and seemed to have been the work of people lost in a “wilderness of self-righteousness”.

Led by Rev Helene Steed, Archdeacon-elect of Clogher, and complemented by inspiring choral and brass music, the poignant service conveyed an ambience of hope rather than despair; even the old windows appeared to avidly absorb the sun from every angle though it was overcast outside.

The long dawn of a new era was perhaps further reflected through the active participation of Very Rev Thomas Quigley, the Roman Catholic PP of Latton.

G.A.A. CENTRE
The crowds had swelled considerably as they later converged on the Latton O’Rahilly GAA Resource Centre a few miles down the road — where it’s probably fair to say the “Fine Gael/politico” aspect of the occasion had moved to the ascendant, and maybe understandably with elections in the air!

Joining the Taoiseach at the top table were local TDs Sean Conlan, Heather Humphreys and Joe O’Reilly, MEPs Mairead McGuinness and Joe Higgins, Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd, FG Parliamentary Party Chairperson Charlie Flanagan and former TD Seymour Crawford (past TDs Bill Cotter and Brendan Toal were also in attendance and saluted).
Fine Gael councillors, past councillors and hopeful councillors from across Monaghan were there in numbers, and many from neighbouring counties like Cavan and Meath were also dotted throughout the hall. Senator Terry Brennan of Louth, an old associate of the late Senator Fox, had also dropped by.

PRIVILEGE
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it was a privilege to be in Latton, and he began by commending the wonderful ceremony that took place earlier in the Aughnamullen Church. The readings, the words of Latton PP Fr Quigley, and the choir with soloists Roy Crowe and Jane Haslett had added to the occasion, while the homily by Bishop McDowell was superb, he remarked, to spontaneous rounds of applause and approval.

The late Senator Billy Fox was from this parish of Aughnamullen, a modern place with ancient roots, Mr Kenny said, and he had worked on building an Ireland where all people could work and share life’s experiences together. In this, he had sought to create a political dialogue and dynamic that would enable this to happen, and his view had been that even if he did not succeed he had to try.

Senator Fox was a young man with a relaxed and confident personality, a man who had a keen interest in public affairs and who had contributed quietly and effectively to the country. He had an abiding sense of loyalty to his ideals, which had earned him the respect even of those who did not always share his views.

He was a proud member of his own community, and coming from a small farm in Bawn he had become secretary of the Monaghan National Farmers Association and was a genuine representative for the smaller farmer.
He had also been proud to be elected to Monaghan Co Council in 1967, and was indeed the first member of his Church of Ireland religion to be elected to the South Monaghan electoral area since Irish independence.

The Taoiseach recalled that Billy Fox was elected to Dáil Éireann in
June 1969 along with the late Jon F Conlan, the father of current Fine Gael TD Sean Conlan. That was the first time the party had taken two seats in the Monaghan constituency.

Having lost the seat in the 1973 election, he nevertheless continued to serve and contribute to society, the Taoiseach noted.

It would also be fair to say that Senator Fox’s political life had evolved against the emerging troubles in the North, amid varying degrees of strife and distrust, and against the background of an Ireland that was also embracing social and cultural difference.

LOOK OUTWARD AND FORWARD
“Billy Fox always wanted people to look outward, because that’s where our strength is, and to look forward and not look backwards,” Mr Kenny said.

Senator Fox during his short life gave an example of how to build and live in a community that had to deal with the demands of everyday life, yet still cope with the demands and expectations of competing cultures and visions, the Taoiseach added.

The late senator’s political life was set in the fulcrum of a Border community, a community affected by northern troubles. But the young representative also believed he had to look beyond sectarian divides.

He believed in an Ireland united in peace, built by patience and goodwill, and where there was respect and dignity for all.

He saw also the divisions that were exploited by those with “sinister agendas” as being contrary to what he stood for and counter-productive to the island both north and south.

In his maiden speech as a TD in October 1969, Mr Fox had concentrated on the situation in the six counties. He had stated that, despite “unchristian attacks” made on him during the election campaign he was glad to stand in the Dáil, and that his presence there could, in itself, be interpreted as a symbol of the “tolerance and fair play among the majority of the people in Monaghan, Louth and Meath”.

He was right in this, the Taoiseach said, because people in Monaghan could be proud of their record in electing people from all shades of opinion and backgrounds. His own commitment hearing all sides had seen Billy Fox going up to the Falls Road and Bogside during the Troubles in the summer of 1969, because he wanted to show people that he was seeking to understand the difficulties across the divides.

CHANGED UTTERLY
Thankfully, Ireland had changed utterly from that time, Mr Kenny said, in political, social and cultural thought, and also in the acceptance of tolerance and diversity. The country now had “an emerging sense of understanding” of what it is to be Irish and a person on the island of Ireland.

It was refreshing that this was not always being analysed in terms of our nearest neighbour, or in terms of what one church or another might say or feel on various issues. The concept of wide discussion and of seeking to understand deep-rooted cultural divisions and views were all part of today’s Ireland.

Dialogue was central to the future growth of the country north and south, and it was important to talk to people about what troubled them including those affected by various atrocities in order to work to a common goal of future tolerance and respect, the Taoiseach said.

He went on to mention the recent Haas talks as having been a genuine attempt to deal with flags, parades and issues of the past. But progress had to be made though looking to the future in a rapidly changing world, where even now we could see the catastrophic incidents that might happen if they were not prevented by dialogue and negotiation.

Mr Kenny noted that he would be meeting British Prime Minister David Cameron this week, and these meetings were also important in seeking to keep a “supportive arm” on developments in Northern Ireland.

He also alluded to positive developments over the last two decades in jointly promoting the two parts of the island from a tourism point of view, which was an example of the kind of “unity” that reflected the values of 21st century Ireland. These were rooted in respect for all viewpoints. which was exactly what Billy Fox had worked for during his short life in politics.

FINEST TRIBUTE
People had voted for the Good Friday Agreement, the Taoiseach said, and they now wanted to see it implemented in full. Political representatives had a duty to pursue this, and its achievement would be the finest tribute that could be paid to Senator Fox and indeed all the others who unfortunately lost their lives during the Troubles.

So in commemorating the 40 years since his murder, the qualities of sincerity compassion and generosity of spirit that lit up his 35 years should be celebrated, Mr Kenny said. The 40 years that passed were more than the years Billy Fox had lived, but the very fact that an event that started in the Church of Ireland earlier in the day was concluding in a hall run by the Gaelic Athletic Association was itself a symbol of the great progress being made.

On the headstone at Aughnamullen church, where he’d had the privilege of laying a wreath, the inscription said Senator Fox had “served every man with Christian devotion and died in Holy Innocence”.

But it also bore another line that stood out, Mr Kenny noted in conclusion, a line that served as both a benediction to Billy Fox and an invitation to everyone else: ‘Let your light so shine before men.’

The Taoiseach’s address prompted a prolonged standing ovation from the packed hall.

Fine Gael’s Monaghan County Executive chairperson Joe Sherry, who was acting as MC and had earlier expressed delight at being able welcome such a large gathering, was unable to resist sparking another outburst of approval by commending Mr Kenny’s speech and predicting that the people of Ireland would surely return him as Taoiseach for another term!

Mr Sherry said he could well remember the joy on the night in June 1969 when the late John F Conlan and Billy Fox came into Geoghagan’s Hotel in Castleblayney after winning two seats in Monaghan. But it was with a heavy heart that he also remembered the fateful morning of Billy Fox’s murder, he conceded.

SEAN CONLAN
Monaghan-based Fine Gael TD Sean Conlan told the attendance that the large numbers present here and at the service earlier were a credit to the memory of the late senator, and he went on to speak on the close connections between his own father, the late John F Conlan TD and Billy Fox.

He was delighted that the Taoiseach had been able to attend these events, Deputy Conlan said at the outset. In this, he gave special thanks to Josephine Patterson, who had first suggested the idea of the service to mark the 40th anniversary and of inviting the Taoiseach to Aughnamullen and Latton.

A note of thanks also went to Packie Boyle, who had become unwell at the ceremony but was present here and had hopefully recovered, for having suggested the visit to the Billy Fox Memorial Park that occurred earlier in the day.

Deputy Conlon extended a special welcome to Rev George Beattie and Marjorie Beattie (neé Coulson, the former fiancée of Senator Fox), and to all the Coulsons and all the wider members of Billy’s family who had travelled from far and near.

Giving thanks to Archdeacon elect Helene Steed for all her work in preparing the church service, Deputy Conlan said both she and Bishop McDowell spoke very well at what everyone would agree to have been a very poignant event.

For providing this facility, Latton GAA were to be thanked, he said, as were the volunteers who made the hall ready and prepared the refreshments.

He also welcomed Fr Quigley, the Fine Gael Chairperson Mr Flanagan, MEPs McGuinness and Higgins, Minister of State O’Dowd, fellow TDs, councillors and members of the party, and gave an apology from former Taoiseach John Bruton, a friend of Senator Fox’s who was unable to attend as he was out of the country. Apologies had also been received from Cavan county councillors David Blake and Madeleine Argue.

This was personal enough moment for himself, Deputy Conlan said, as his father, the late John Francis and Billy were elected together when they won two out of the three seats in Monaghan in 1969. It was the first time the Fine Gael party had done so.

He revealed that, prior to the 30th anniversary commemorations in 2004 (where Mr Bruton was guest of honour), he had spoken at length with his father about Billy. John F had a very high regard for the senator, and had recalled being at a meeting in Rockcorry on the night of the shooting (where the possibility of establishing the Abbott factory now in Cootehill was being discussed).

But when he arrived home from the meeting he received a phone call from somebody who had just heard the news and was asking about it. This as the first his father had heard of it, Deputy Conlan stated, and it was a big blow for him when he rang Clones Garda Station and was told it was true.

John F had known the Fox family from even before Billy was born, as the Irwins used to visit the Wrights, who, in turn, lived next door to the Conlans in what was now Deputy Conlan’s constituency office.

AHEAD OF HIS TIME
From speaking to his father, the Fine Gael TD said it was clear that Billy Fox was a man ahead of his time, who put out the hand of friendship to everyone and was always willing to act as an intermediary to bring about peace. He was a broadminded man who tried to understand other points of view.

His murder had been a senseless act, Deputy Conlan said. As the then Bishop of Clogher Dr Robert Heavener said at the funeral service, it was “a dark day for Ireland. The deeds of that day, 11th March 1974 and brought shame to all of Ireland.

But much had changed over the past 15 or 20 years, and we all had to ensure that those dark days never reoccurred, Deputy Conlan said.

“We all have to work to ensure that we create a truly tolerant, peaceful society where the views of all are respected,” he stated.

Giving thanks to the Taoiseach for appointing him to the Good Friday Agreement Committee and the British Irish Parliamentary Association upon his election, he said he felt that being on those bodies was allowing him to play his own small part in helping bring that peaceful, tolerant future about.

HEATHER HUMPHREYS
Heather Humphreys TD complimented Rev Helene Steed and the parishioners at Aughnamullen Church of Ireland for the beautiful, poignant service they had organised.

She also paid tribute to Bishop McDowell for his very profound and meaningful sermon, and gave thanks to all those that organised the service and also the food at this centre, including Latton GAA Club.

Commending the Taoiseach for taking the time to attend, Deputy Humphreys said it was a fitting tribute to the memory of the late Senator Billy Fox that so many people were present to remember him some 40 years on.

As everyone knew, he was a Protestant from this area who had described his election to the Dáil in 1969 as a symbol of tolerance and fair play among the majority of people in the Monaghan, Louth and Meath constituency.

As an Irish woman, and as a Protestant, Deputy Humphreys said she was proud to say that this tolerance and fair play was continuing, though sectarianism could still manifest itself in many subtle ways.

On 11th March 1974, Billy Fox became the only serving member of the Oireachtas to be murdered, and she recalled that this struck a great fear into the entire community and in particular the Protestant community. They had been left in fear about what the future would hold for them in this country.

Billy Fox was a “true democrat”, and it was important to commemorate his death and remember the very difficult and turbulent times of the Troubles. In remembering Billy, we also had to reaffirm our commitment to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland and avoid returning to the dark days that had such a huge impact on Border counties such as Monaghan.

We had to continue to support communities, she said, and there was no better example of this than what was happening here, where the Church of Ireland and GAA communities were working together. She was sure that if Billy were here today he would be very proud of his community.

Billy Fox was a proud Monaghan man and she was a proud Monaghan woman, Deputy Humphreys said, and as such she was marking the occasion by presenting a piece of Carrickmacross Lace to An Taoiseach. It was beautifully crafted by Martha Hughes, and she was sure Mr Kenny would also be delighted that Ms Hughes was originally from Mayo!

WONDERFUL EVENT
Cavan-based Fine Gael TD Joe O’Reilly said this was a truly wonderful event in the manner in which it was being conducted, in the attendance, and in the spirit and the entire emotion that went with it.

Today they were remembering a very special person, and a very cheerful, warm, giving person who was completely committed to public service. The greatest and only tribute that could be paid to his memory was to do all that could be done to make the peace permanent.

He called on everybody to be an advocate of peace, calm and tolerance in their families and society, and in the clubs and groupings they were in. And those who were privileged to speak as elected representatives had a duty to remember and honour Billy Fox by continuing to implement the Good Friday Agreement.

FIRST TO VISIT
Latton Fine Gael branch chairperson Tom McEntee told Mr Kenny he was in fact the first Taoiseach ever to visit the area. He knew that former taoiseach Liam Cosgrove was in Bawn in the 1973 by-election campaign, but he had not come this far.

On that note, Mr McEntee presented the Taoiseach with a clock that was handcrafted by local man Eugene McGuirk, and remarked that perhaps at some time in the future it would remind Mr Kenny of this visit.

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