Barnhill, John ('Jack') Eccles Nixon (1905–71), senator and businessman, was born 11 April 1905 at Brickfield, Strabane, Co. Tyrone, the third child and second son in a family of at least five children (two sons and three daughters) of William Wilson Barnhill (1867–1950), a well-to-do farmer and barrister-at-law, and his wife Violet Alice (née Irvine). He was educated at Prior School, Lifford, Co. Donegal, and Campbell College, Belfast. On leaving Campbell College, Barnhill began a business career with the agricultural machinery and seed firm of William Thompson & Co. Ltd in Derry and, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, became managing director. He was also a substantial farmer and served for many years as honorary treasurer of the North-West of Ireland Agricultural Society.
An active member of the Unionist party, Barnhill was serving as vice-chairman of the North Tyrone Unionist Association when he was elected to the senate of Northern Ireland in 1962. In the senate Barnhill frequently spoke on matters affecting the north-west of Ireland and in 1965 he became a leading member of the campaign to locate the new university of Ulster in Derry. While he enthused that the university campaign transcended the religious divide, his earlier comments at a unionist meeting in Derry in January 1964 had provoked a storm of controversy: he had stated that, while employers in Derry should not sack good nationalist employees, they should ensure that new employees were unionists. Barnhill was generally identified as a hard-line unionist, and he had been strongly opposed to the reforming policies of Terence O'Neill (qv). At the time of his death, William Fyffe, MP for Tyrone North, stated that people would remember Senator Barnhill as ‘a strong unionist and one who held office determined to do good for all the citizens’ (Strabane Chronicle, 18 Dec. 1971). Barnhill's senate speeches were noted for their embellishment with poetic quotations and he won many awards for his speeches at unionist meetings in the north-west. He was elected to serve as deputy speaker of the house (1967–8) and the nationalist senator Patrick McGill (qv) recalled that Barnhill was a very cultured man who set a remarkably high standard in his senate contributions.
Senator Barnhill was murdered on 12 December 1971 in the course of a bomb attack which destroyed his home, Brickfield, on the Bog Road, one mile from Strabane, Co. Tyrone, and half a mile from the border with Donegal. The Official IRA admitted responsibility for the murder but denied that they had intended physical harm to either the senator or his wife. They alleged, in a statement issued shortly after the killing, that Barnhill had struggled with the raiders and that he was shot dead in the ensuing brawl. They also stated that the bomb had been placed in reprisal for recent attacks on working-class catholic homes and that Barnhill's premises had been selected because he had been identified as a supporter of the policies of Brian Faulkner (qv). The murder was strongly condemned by members of the SDLP and by some within the republican movement such as Tomás Mac Giolla, president of Sinn Féin (Gardiner Place). At a meeting of Sinn Féin (Gardiner Place) in the Mansion House, Dublin, Bernadette Devlin, MP for Mid-Ulster at Westminster, called on the army council of the IRA to discipline the men involved. She suggested that while Barnhill was ‘a bigot of the first-class order’, he did not represent British imperialism and was not a threat to the people or the IRA (Ir. Times, 14 Dec. 1971).
In contrast to the Official IRA's statement, the RUC claimed that Barnhill was shot dead on answering his door to the raiders and that his dead body was then laid alongside the 50 lb (22.7 kg) gelignite bomb. His wife had been ordered out of the home and reached a neighbour's home as the bomb exploded. Barnhill was the twenty-second person to die as a result of the conflict in Northern Ireland in just eight days. The previous day, four people were killed when a bomb exploded in a crowded shop on the Shankill Road, Belfast. He was also the first member of the Stormont parliament to die since the murder of W. J. Twaddell in Belfast in 1922.
Because of the proximity of Barnhill's home to the border with the republic, Brian Faulkner suggested that an IRA gang, operating from a safe haven in Donegal, was responsible for recent killings in the Strabane area, including that of Barnhill. The Unionist party, the New Ulster Movement, and the Westminster government subsequently placed renewed pressure on the taoiseach, Jack Lynch (qv), to take effective action against the IRA. The Royal Black Preceptory (RBP), of which Barnhill was a member, called for sanctions to be applied against the Irish government, as they believed that the state was harbouring terrorists. Lynch vehemently denied such allegations and instead renewed his suggestion that the British and Irish governments should jointly ask the UN security council to provide a UN observer group on both sides of the border. He also suggested that unionist politicians and others were attempting to use the death of Barnhill to shift the blame for the continuing tragedy in the north to the Irish government and away from those directly responsible – the British government and the Stormont administration.
Barnhill was survived by his wife, Margarette, his brother, William, and his sister, Gladys. Speaking at his funeral, the Rev. Frank Hay, minister at Leckpatrick presbyterian church, referred to him as a cultured gentleman and noted that, as a ruling elder and clerk of session of that congregation, he manifested an intimate interest in the work and welfare of the presbyterian church. Barnhill was also prominent in the loyal orders and served as worshipful master of Leckpatrick LOL 251, treasurer of Strabane district LOL no. 14, worshipful master of Artigarvan RBP 91, registrar of the Strabane District royal Black Preceptory no. 2, and grand censor of the County Tyrone Grand Black Chapter. He was also president of the Mitchelburne club Apprentice Boys, Artigarvan branch.
On the thirtieth anniversary of Barnhill's death, the cross-party Stormont assembly commission decided to inscribe the names of Senator Barnhill and Senator Paddy Wilson (qv) (a prominent member of the SDLP who was stabbed to death in June 1973) in the Rotunda outside the old senate chamber.