The history of Northern Ireland is so littered with atrocities that many people have grown emotionally distant from the terror. But the murder last week of three children in the small town of Ballymoney touched even the hardest of hearts—and caused a turning point in a violent sectarian crisis. Richard Quinn, 11, and his brothers Mark, 10, and Jason, 9, who had a Catholic mother, were burned alive when Protestant extremists firebombed their home. The image of their three small white coffins being lowered one by one into a single grave was one of the saddest in 30 years of strife. “I feel ashamed of my religion today,” said Sandra White, one of many Protestants who attended the three boys’ funeral in neighboring Rasharkin. “These deaths bring us back to our vile past and should be a reminder of what we want to leave behind.”
The tragedy led Northern Ireland’s horrified political leaders to pledge to work even harder to strengthen the reconciliation begun with the landmark Good Friday peace agreement. It also took the wind out of a violent confrontation between security forces and members of the Protestant Orange Order, who were banned from marching through a Catholic area in the fiercely sectarian town of Portadown. But the repercussions from the crisis will be felt for months, and could still unravel the fragile peace process.
Only two weeks earlier, Northern Ireland had seemed well on the way to a brighter political future. For the first time since 1974, a local parliament—established under the Good Friday pact—had met and chosen its leaders: Protestant David Trimble of the pro-British Ulster Unionists as first minister, and Catholic Seamus Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour Party as his deputy. For the first time ever, hardline Protestant firebrand Rev. Ian Paisley had sat opposite Gerry Adams of the Catholics’ Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.
Tragedy averts a crisis— for now
But the situation started to deteriorate after the Londonappointed Parades Commission banned a march organized by the 50,000-member Orange Order from going down the Catholicsettled Garvaghy Road in Portadown, 60 km outside Belfast. The annual marches, held throughout the province to commemorate the Protestant victory over Catholic forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, have often turned into violent confrontations. To protest the decision, thousands of Orangemen took over a field beside Drumcree church, next to the banned route, and pledged to stay until the order was overturned. Across the province, Protestants went on the rampage, attacking security forces, hijacking car and trucks and firebombing Catholic properties. The worsening situation was due to climax on July 13, when the order held its main marches. There was speculation that thousands more supporters would descend on Drumcree and storm the barricades, handing extremists a victory that could kill the peace pact But on the eve of the threatened confrontation, the Quinn children were killed. Their house was evidently targeted because their mother, Chrissie Quinn, 29, is Catholic, although her live-in partner is Protestant and they lived in a Protestant area. She and her estranged Catholic husband, John Dillon, 28, attended the funeral separately, each weeping throughout. Quinn, whose remaining son Lee, 13, survived because he was staying at his grandmother’s, vowed never to return to Ballymoney.
The killings immediately turned popular opinion against the Orange Order, even among unionists. “No road is worth a life,” said one of the order’s own leaders, Rev. William Bingham. The numbers of Orangemen at Drumcree declined drastically, and marches elsewhere proceeded peacefully. But a few hundred still remained at Drumcree at week’s end, sleeping in tents, and they say they will stay put until the march is allowed. They have planted a Christmas tree to show their determination.
The crucial moment will come well before then. The Northern Ireland parliament, in recess for the summer, reconvenes in September. Moderate Trimble commands a wafer-thin majority among unionists—30
to 28—and at least four of his supporters are potential dissidents. Already, some have said that if the march isn’t allowed before September, they might boycott parliament. This could leave the unionist hardliners with the majority, allowing them to scupper the peace deal. Militants also note that the current antiOrange mood among many Protestants could fade by September as anger over the Quinn deaths cools.
But the range of pressure on the Orangemen to retreat remains broad, from Archbishop Robin Eames, head of the Protestant Church of Ireland, to moderate unionist politicians. Business leaders warn that the extremists’ actions are having a devastating effect on attracting tourism and industry. A card on a wreath at the Quinn brothers’ funeral summed up the hopes of many ordinary people. “To three beautiful boys,” it said. “May you be the last little children we bury.” For the moment, at least, that sentiment has saved the peace process.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.