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Harris criticises ‘toxic public discourse’ at Billy Fox portrait event |



Harris criticises ‘toxic public discourse’ at Billy Fox portrait event |

Toxicity in public discourse must be “dialled down”, the Taoiseach has said as he unveiled a portrait of a politician murdered during the Troubles.

Billy Fox, a former TD and senator, was shot dead by IRA gunmen on March 11th, 1974 after he interrupted their raid on a farmhouse in Co Monaghan, at the home of his girlfriend Marjorie Coulson.

A portrait of Mr Fox was unveiled in Leinster House on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.

Born in Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, he had been a farmer in the area before becoming a Fine Gael politician.

Taoiseach Simon Harris with Rural Minister Heather Humphreys and Seanad Cathaoirleach Jerry Buttimer look at a portrait of Billy Fox
Taoiseach Simon Harris with Rural Minister Heather Humphreys and Seanad Cathaoirleach Jerry Buttimer (Brian Lawless/PA)

A member of the Church of Ireland, he notably criticised the British Army’s use of rubber bullets as a crowd-control measure, and the cratering of border roads.

He attracted national attention when he was forcibly removed from the Dáil chamber during a debate in December 1971, when he displayed two rubber bullets and a CS canister which he said had been fired over the border by British forces.

Mr Fox was the only member of the Oireachtas to be murdered during the Troubles.

He was 35 years old when he was killed.

Simon Harris and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald walking side by side in Leinster House
Taoiseach Simon Harris and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald attend the unveiling (Brian Lawless/PA)

Speaking at the unveiling, Taoiseach Simon Harris welcomed Mr Fox’s family and friends as he said the country “honours his sacrifice”.

Mr Harris said: “Senator Billy Fox was a man of peace who gave his life in the service of his community and in the service of our country.

“To borrow Marjorie’s own words, he wanted justice for everyone.”

He added: “He served the people of our island regardless of their religion, or their background, or their political beliefs.

“He was a good man, he was a gentleman, he was a man of courage and conviction – and he was a peacemaker.”

Mr Harris added: “The values he lived for and died for did not die with him. They still guide us today.”

Senator Jerry Buttimer speaking from behind lectern with a Seanad Eireann sign next to him
Senator Jerry Buttimer speaks at the unveiling of the portrait (Brian Lawless/PA)

While political violence against public representatives in Ireland has been a “rarity”, Mr Harris said: “We can never take it for granted.

“Toxicity in public discourse now must be dialled down and all of us have a role to play in that.”

Mr Harris’s family has experienced a bomb threat against their home, as well as a number of protests outside the property.

To applause, he added: “Today, let’s not just lament Billy Fox but let’s commit to making sure that people can always serve in public office in peace and safety for them, their families and their communities.”

Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Jerry Buttimer described Mr Fox as a “patriot” as he recalled hearing the news of his death when he was seven years old.

Mr Buttimer said: “It shows you that life is precious and those of us elected to parliament, wherever we are, are privileged to be the people’s representative.”

He said Mr Fox was a “genuine, hardworking decent public representative” who had been “brutally murdered in a senseless act of violence” while going about his business.

Mr Buttimer said it was “appropriate and fitting” that his portrait would be unveiled within the grounds on the 50th anniversary of his killing.

“Right across the world today, political violence has become a fact of life. Elected representatives face real risks in carrying out their duties.

He added: “Attacks on politicians are horrific on a personal level but they’re also attacks on wider society.”

The portrait was painted by Polish artist and Monaghan native Nina Ruminska.

The unveiling was also attended by Marjorie’s brother George Coulson, former Taoiseach John Bruton’s wife Finola Bruton and former president WT Cosgrave’s granddaughter Mary Cosgrave.

Additionally, former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, former Tánaiste Ray MacSharry, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, Minister Heather Humphreys and members of Monaghan County Council were in attendance.

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