Fox, William (‘Billy’) (1939–74), farmer and politician, was born in January 1939 in Cortubber, Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, the only son of William Fox and his wife, Helen. He was educated at the local national school and Victor Weymount grammar school, Carrickmacross, and then worked as a farmer at Bawn, near the Cavan–Monaghan county boundary. Involved with the National Farmers’ Association, Fox became county secretary for the organisation in Monaghan, as well as being a member of the select vestry of the Church of Ireland and of the diocesan synod. Popular with farmers, he was active in the Fine Gael youth group in the 1960s, belonged to the liberal wing of the party, and was sympathetic to republicanism.
First elected to Monaghan county council in 1967, Fox was elected in 1969 to the dáil for Fine Gael along with John Francis Conlan, who took the seat vacated by James Dillon (qv). This was the only occasion on which Fine Gael secured the election of two members for the three-seater Monaghan constituency. Fox's election was assisted by support from the Co. Monaghan Protestant Association (founded in the 1920s as a political grouping for ex-unionists; it had continuous representation on the county council and local bodies, occasionally electing a TD in the 1920s and 1930s). However, Fox made no secret of his republican views, stating in 1969 that he regretted the ‘ghetto mentality’ of many Monaghan protestants. His stated view that religion was an irrelevance in political terms was not universally shared; in 1970 the Fianna Fáil ministers Kevin Boland (qv) and Brian Lenihan (qv) were forced to apologise after describing him as a B-Special. Although Fox rarely spoke in the dáil and seanad, he attracted attention by criticising the British army over its use of plastic bullets for crowd control and the cratering of ‘unapproved roads’ on the border (he was alleged to have filled in some of these craters on occasion). During one dáil debate in December 1971 he displayed two rubber bullets and a CS canister which he claimed had been fired across the border by British forces. He was forcibly removed from the dáil chamber, attracting national publicity.
Fox also criticised Ian Paisley (qv) after the announcement that a free presbyterian congregation was to be established in Drum, Co. Monaghan, and was reported to have discussed a federal Ireland proposal with the Sinn Féin vice-president Daithi Ó Conaill (qv). Fox lost his seat in 1973 by 235 votes; it was claimed that his defeat was due to some protestant voters who were unhappy with his republican views, though some Fianna Fáil supporters also carried on a slur campaign linking him to the B-Specials. Fox was subsequently elected to the seanad from the educational and cultural panel.
On 11 March 1974 Fox was killed by a thirteen-member IRA gang who were raiding the home of his fiancée, Marjorie Coulson, at Tircooney, near Clones; some of the raiders were neighbours of the family. Fox arrived by car while the raid was in progress. When stopped by armed men he ran towards the house and was shot twice; he died in a field and his body was not located until the next day. The raiders then set fire to the Coulson house and a mobile home owned by the family. It was later alleged that a local family who had a grudge against the Coulsons had falsely informed the IRA that UVF arms were stored at the farmhouse, and that Fox's arrival had caused the raiders to panic. Other commentators felt that this explanation downplayed the extent of sectarian hatred involved. Before Fox's arrival one of the raiders had burnt the Coulson family Bible – a traditional anti-protestant sectarian gesture. Some commentators believe Fox was deliberately targeted, as he was known to visit the farm every Monday (when Marjorie, who was matron at a Belfast hospital, visited her family). Some commentators also linked his death to the killings of several protestants on the northern side of the border in this area in subsequent years. Marjorie Coulson's subsequent ill health and premature death were linked by members of her family to the incident.
Five Provisional IRA members were brought to trial in May 1974, convicted of the murder on 6 June, and sentenced to life imprisonment; one of them claimed in an unsworn statement (whose authenticity was questioned by some republicans) that the killing had been carried out by a northern IRA man who did not recognise Fox. They were freed in 1990 after sixteen years in prison; a campaign to have a release date set for them had been supported by Cardinal Tomas Ó Fiaich (qv) and Clones urban council.
The death of a member of the oireachtas in a blatantly sectarian killing caused outrage, which the IRA attempted to defuse by claiming the Ulster Freedom Fighters were responsible, releasing a statement condemning the murder, and referring to Fox as ‘someone who was known personally to a number of the leadership of the republican movement’. At the same time local IRA supporters engaged in a whispering campaign, claiming that Fox had been involved in UVF activities and alleging that the Monaghan town bombing on 17 May 1974 had been a revenge attack for his death carried out by named Monaghan protestants. (It became known later to have been perpetrated by loyalists from Portadown, Co. Armagh.) These unfounded allegations were published in Micheál Ó Cuinneagáin's Monaghan: county of intrigue (1979). Over 2,500 people, including President Erskine Childers (qv) and the taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, attended Fox's funeral at Aughnamullen; Billy Fox Park in the parish is named after him. The death of an oireachtas member reinforced the fears (widely shared in official Dublin circles in the early and mid 1970s) that the Northern Ireland conflict might destabilise the republic; however, Fox was the only member of the oireachtas killed during the Troubles.
John Bruton (taoiseach 1994–7), who shared a Leinster House office with Fox, claimed that his own views on the northern conflict were permanently affected by Fox's murder. Fox's career reflected both the increasing political integration of a new generation of border protestants within the republic's political system and the persistence of sectarian divisions and whispered hatreds along the border.