By Anne Cadwallader
RASHARKIN, Co. Antrim – In displays of agony rarely seen in recent years in Northern Ireland, the parents of three children who were burned to death in a sectarian firebombing of their house wept as their bodies were borne to their burial place Tuesday.
The Quinn brothers – Richard, 11, Mark, 10, and Jason, 9 – were burned to death in their home on a mainly Protestant estate early Sunday morning. Their mother is Catholic, their father Protestant. They attended a Protestant school.
Three white coffins were carried from their grandmother’s house in the small village of Rasharkin, Co. Antrim, for funeral Mass in Ballymoney, where they had been killed.
The funeral cortege then returned for burial in Rasharkin, because their mother never intends returning to Ballymoney and wanted them buried where she could visit their graves.
The dead boy’s mother, Christine Quinn, had to be supported as she walked behind the cortege. Their father, John Dillon, cried aloud as he carried his son’s coffins, constantly stroking them as he walked. Thousands of people came to the chapel of Our Lady and St. Patrick in Ballymoney to pay their respects, including fire crews and policemen who had tried to save their lives early on Sunday morning.
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Also attending was the family’s last surviving son, Lee, who had been staying the night with his grandmother in Rasharkin when the fire broke out and was saved.
At the funeral, the bishop of Down and Connor, Dr. Patrick Walsh, left few people guessing as to whom he was referring when he spoke of “strident voices carrying words of hatred.”
Walsh said that “for too long the airwaves have been saturated with noises – strident, harsh, discordant voices, carrying words of hatred, of incitement, of recrimination.”
“The weapons of hate-filled words inevitably fuel weapons of murderous destruction – indeed, how true are the words of the Psalm: ‘Their teeth are slings and arrows. Their tongues sharpened swords.’ ”
The leader of the DUP, the Rev. Ian Paisley, had said the previous night, speaking to 5,000 diehard Orange protesters at Drumcree, that Brid Rodgers of the SDLP had found his “teeth were tougher than hers.”
Still, Walsh said there was hope amid the pain. “Agonizing words, words of self-examination, courageous words, words of strength, words of healing, have been spoken,” he said.
Northern Ireland’s first minister, David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists, visited the Quinn family the day before the funeral. His deputy, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP, attended the funeral as a “statement of abhorrence at the way these children were murdered.”
Though many Orangemen who remained at encamped near Drumcree church insisted that the killings of the three children were not sectarian, the RUC said they were satisfied they were. It’s understood one of the two men being questioned about the killings has paramilitary links.
Young people from the area read a poem about their sadness and confusion about the murders. “Who would have so much evil at their fingertips?” it asked, saying they had been snatched away and would never be forgotten.
Early morning attack
The petrol bomb that started the fire that killed the boys was thrown through a downstairs window at 4:30 a.m. Sunday when all six people inside the house were asleep. Neighbors heard a bang before the house was engulfed in flames.
Richard screamed for help, saying he was in a corner of his bedroom. Neighbors shouted that he should go to the stairs, but they collapsed in flames before the child could make it.
When the three small bodies were lifted out of the charred remains of their home, they were unrecognizable. “You couldn’t tell one from the other,” said a neighbor.
The RUC were on the scene in minutes, but were beaten back by flames, heat and smoke. The fire brigade entered the house with breath apparatus, but the three boys were already dead.
Their mother and her boyfriend were injured trying to save them, but they could not rescue the children either. Both were treated in hospital for cuts and shock.
The family had been threatened numerous times before and were planning to move out of the mainly Protestant estate. In the wake of the tragedy, other Catholic families have been warned to leave, some were sent bullets in the post, and are packing up to go.
The boys had even been helping gather wood for a loyalist “Eleventh Night” bonfire on the day they were killed. One man said, “Instead of watching the bonfire, they were burned themselves.”
The night before the tragedy, at Drumcree church, where loyalists had gathered to protest at being rerouted away from the Garvaghy Road, one loyalist said: “We have to burn the Catholics out and kill their children with swords. All of them.”
“You think I’m joking, well I’m not. It may sound extreme, but if you don’t kill the kids they will grow up and will be killing you. We must have them all out.”
Condemnation was immediate and absolute. One of the first on the scene, Chief Inspector Terry Shevlin of the RUC, said, “It is the unbelievable result of sectarianism and naked hatred at its worst.”
Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan said: “This was not protest. We believe we are investigating the sectarian murder of three children asleep in their beds. That’s not protest – that’s murder.”
British prime minister, Tony Blair, said they were “evil, vicious sectarian murders” and those responsible must not be allowed to triumph over the majority who wanted a new future for Northern Ireland.
David Jones, the Orange Order spokesman for County Armagh condemned the murders but accused the chief constable and others of making political capital out of the crime. He denied the cause of the deaths was sectarianism.
The Orange Order’s Co. Armagh Grand Chaplain, Rev. William Bingham, said walking down a road was not worth one human life. “I believe the Order needs to call off its protests because we can’t control them,” he said.
Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam said everyone should focus on what needed to be done so that another family would not suffer in the same way as the Quinn family.
“Last night a family went to bed in Ballymoney,” she said. “When they woke up, three young boys were dead. A family which has never done anybody any harm.” She appealed to everyone to think about their collective guilt.
A spokesman for the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition, Breandan MacCionnaith, said the need for dialogue was becoming more stark. “We need to start embracing one another instead of putting more distance between ourselves,” he said.