50 years on: Murder of Senator Billy Fox is remembered by his then girlfriend

Marjorie Coulson was waiting for her boyfriend to turn up when he was murdered by the Provisional IRA near her home

On the night of March 11th, 1974 Senator Billy Fox was due to pay a visit as he always did to his long-term girlfriend Marjorie Coulson at her family home in Tircooney outside Clones in Co Monaghan.

Monday night was always the one they set aside to meet. Ms Coulson, then 34, was a matron in a boarding school in Belfast and Mondays were her night off; for Senator Fox (35) it was an opportunity to meet before he travelled up to Dublin for the Seanad business of the week.

By the end of that night Senator Fox had been murdered and his girlfriend burned out of her family home in one of the most notorious sectarian attacks that occurred south of the Border during the Troubles.

The couple had met in the late 1960s at a dance in Newbliss, Co Monaghan. They were neighbours from a Protestant background as many were in that part of Monaghan.

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Marjorie Coulson says there was always an understanding that she and Senator Fox would get married some day. She supported his political career as a Fine Gael TD between 1969 and 1973 and as a senator until his death.

Senator Fox was the only member of the Oireachtas to be murdered during the Troubles. His death caused outrage in the Republic and was originally blamed on loyalist paramilitaries. He had been one of the most vocal critics of British government policy in Northern Ireland and had taken CS gas canisters and rubber bullets into the Dáil chamber in 1971.

His girlfriend at the time says Senator Fox was motivated by fair-mindedness in his life. “He wanted justice for everybody. It didn’t matter what denomination you were. He was trying to do good for both sides.”

It now appears that a claim of responsibility attributed to the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) was faked to distract from the fact his murder was carried out by the Provisional IRA. Five members were later jailed for the crime.

The Provos had targeted the Coulson house because they had heard rumours locally that the UVF were using it to store weaponry. A dozen men entered the house on the night of March 11th, and made the family lie on the floor. They then proceeded to ransack the house and burn it to the ground. They took a family bible and threw it on the fire.

Senator Fox’s body was found a kilometre from the scene. He had been shot three times. It appears he had been chased by members of the gang across fields and then shot.

Ms Coulson was the chief mourner at his funeral as Senator Fox was an only child and both his parents were dead. A year later she met and married her husband, George Beattie, then a printer based in Belfast who became a Church of Ireland minister as a late vocation in 2004. She now goes by her married name Marjorie Beattie.

There was no truth in the suggestion that her brother, George Coulson, was a quartermaster in the UVF. “He didn’t even know what a quartermaster was,” she says. The IRA had been given the Coulson name by somebody in the community who wanted to deflect from their own involvement with loyalist paramilitaries. “The wider community knew that the Coulson family had absolutely nothing to do with any paramilitary organisation,” she says.

She believes the attack on their family was a sectarian act and that Senator Fox was deliberately targeted and not, as has been alleged subsequently, been simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. She believes they killed him because of his friendship with the then minister for justice Paddy Cooney who had cracked down hard on the Provisional IRA.

Her husband, George, died two weeks ago at the age of 82. As a couple they would often attend memorial events and the Senator Billy Fox Memorial Park in Co Monaghan which was named in honour of her late boyfriend.

A memorial service for the 50th anniversary of Senator Fox’s murder will be held on April 28th at Aughnamullen Church in Co Monaghan.

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