seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Assassination of Senator Billy Fox

senator-billy-foxBilly Fox, Protestant Irish politician and a Fine Gael member of Dáil Éireann from 1969 to 1973, and of Seanad Éireann from 1973 until his death, is assassinated on March 12, 1974 by Irish Republican Army (IRA) gunmen who are carrying out a raid on his girlfriend’s farmhouse. Five members of the Provisional IRA are convicted of involvement in his murder.

Late on the night of Monday, March 11, 1974, about a dozen gunmen arrive at the home of Fox’s girlfriend, Marjorie Coulson. She lives there with her parents and brother, and Fox regularly visits on Monday evenings. The farmhouse is in the rural townland of Tircooney in County Monaghan, near the border with Northern Ireland. The gunmen search the farmhouse and demand the occupants hand over weapons. Shortly after midnight, as this is taking place, Fox drives down the laneway and is stopped by some of the gunmen who are outside. He runs, but is shot and killed by a single gunshot through the upper torso. The gunmen then order everyone out of the house, set it on fire, and escape.

The next day, the Ulster Freedom Fighters claim that it had killed Fox because he had links to the Provisional IRA. The IRA issues a statement saying that it is not involved. However, shortly after the shooting, five men from County Monaghan are charged with Fox’s murder and IRA membership. They are convicted in May 1974 and sentenced to penal servitude for life. One of those convicted tells the court they had raided the farm because they received a tip-off that Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) weapons were being stored there. He says there was an agreement that no shots were to be fired. His understanding is that Fox had taken some of the men by surprise and they had shot to wound, not recognizing him.

It is reported that the tip-off had come from another local family and was the result of a grudge. IRA members are already suspicious that the UVF is receiving local help, following an incident in November 1973. Loyalist gunmen had bombed a house at nearby Legnakelly and shot one of the occupants, a republican activist. In its statement on Fox’s killing, the IRA says, “We have repeatedly drawn attention to the murderous acts of a group of former B Specials from County Fermanagh…led by serving officers of the British Army.” The author, Tim Pat Coogan, however, suggests that members of the Official IRA are responsible for killing Fox.

The Seanad adjourns for a week as a mark of respect. About 500 people attend Fox’s funeral at Aughnamullen, including Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and the Irish president, Erskine Childers. Fox is the first member of the Oireachtas to be killed since Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins by the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army in 1927. When John Bruton first becomes a Teachta Dála (TD) in 1969 he shares an office with Fox. He says that he is still angry at the murder. The RTÉ documentary Rumours from Monaghan report in detail on the circumstances of Fox’s killing. Because Fox is a Protestant, some suggest that the motive for the killing was sectarian.

One of those convicted for Fox’s killing, Sean Kinsella, later escapes from Portlaoise Prison. He is later convicted of arms offences and attempted murder in England. He is released by the Irish government under the Good Friday Agreement.

The Senator Billy Fox Memorial Park in Aughnamullen is named in his memory.

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The Sallins Train Robbery

The Sallins Train robbery occurs on March 31, 1976 when the Cork to Dublin mail train is robbed near Sallins in County Kildare. Approximately £200,000 is stolen. Five members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, Osgur Breatnach, Nicky Kelly, Brian McNally, Mick Plunkett, and John Fitzpatrick, are arrested in connection with the robbery.

After the failure of the authorities to produce a “book of evidence” against them, the four are released but are immediately re-arrested. During interrogation in Garda Síochána custody, all except Plunkett sign alleged confessions, presenting with extensive bruising and injuries they claim are inflicted by members of the Gardaí.

While awaiting trial, Fitzpatrick jumps bail and leaves the country. The trial of McNally, Kelly, and Breatnach in the Special Criminal Court becomes the longest-running trial in Irish criminal history, at 65 days, before it collapses due to the death of one of the three judges, Judge John O’Connor of the Circuit Court.

Medical evidence of beatings is presented to the court, both during the initial trial and the second trial. The court rejects this evidence, finding that the beatings have been self-inflicted or inflicted by the co-accused. Anticipating a conviction, Kelly flees before the conclusion of the second trial. The three are found guilty, solely on the basis of their confessions, and sentenced to between nine and twelve years in prison. Kelly is sentenced in absentia.

In May 1980, Breatnach and McNally are acquitted on appeal on the grounds that their statements had been taken under duress. The same month, the Provisional Irish Republican Army claims responsibility for the robbery. Kelly returns to Ireland from the United States in June 1980, expecting to be acquitted. Instead he is incarcerated in the maximum-security Portlaoise Prison and spends the next four years proclaiming his innocence, including a 38-day period on hunger strike.

After a campaign by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty International, and others and a song, Wicklow Boy, by the popular folk singer Christy Moore, Kelly is eventually released on “humanitarian grounds” in 1984. He is given a presidential pardon in 1992 and receives £1,000,000 in compensation. Breatnach and McNally are also given compensation.