Civil rights campaigner who helped expose truth of ‘pitchfork murders’

Fergus McQuillan was an early member of the SDLP and a relative of F Scott Fitzgerald

Fergus McQuillan: his council term was not always easy, having been first elected in 1981, the year of the hunger strikes. Photograph: Mickey McPhillips

Fergus McQuillan: his council term was not always easy, having been first elected in 1981, the year of the hunger strikes. Photograph: Mickey McPhillips

 

Born: August 17th, 1933
Died: May 18th, 2018

Fergus McQuillan, who has died aged 84, was a founder of the civil rights movement in Fermanagh in the late 1960s; a campaigner who helped expose injustices against his native county’s Catholic population; an early member of the SDLP who twice served as chairman of the former Fermanagh District Council: a man who always tried to work on a cross-community basis; and a proud distant relative of American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald.

He served as a councillor for his home area for 30 years. His council term was not always easy, having been first elected in 1981, the year of the hunger strikes. On the council he stood up for his views, but also built productive relationships with unionist colleagues.

He was involved in community projects to regenerate the economy of his home village of Newtownbutler. He always tried to work on a cross-community basis, often at times when that was not easy.

Daniel Fergus McQuillan was born in Newtownbutler in August 1933, younger of two children and only son to Dan McQuillan, a farmer and publican, and his wife Lena (nee O’Keefe). The parents had been reared on adjoining farms near the village.

McQuillan was educated at primary school in Newtownbutler; at secondary level at St Columb’s College, Derry, where he was head boy; and at Queen’s University Belfast. After obtaining a BA he trained as a primary teacher. He taught at St Mary’s Primary School in Newtownbutler his entire career, and also ran a pub and a farm.

The discrimination against Catholics in Fermanagh angered him, and he joined the Civil Rights Association when it was formed in the county. He was particularly angered at the building of a new village at Donagh, where Catholics were allocated housing, rather than building needed social housing in Newtownbutler. This was done in order to maintain a slim unionist majority in the Newtownbutler electoral area.

Lost business

He was one of the members of the Civil Rights Association who researched and produced the pamphlet Fermanagh Facts in the late 1960s. This documented discrimination in the county. While there was a Catholic majority, this was negated by gerrymandered electoral boundaries. Only 32 of 370 county council employees were Catholic. Between 1945 and 1967, the council allocated only 18 per cent of social housing to Catholics.

His pub lost significant business because of this stance.

He also assisted researchers in exposing the truth of the so-called “pitchfork murders”. Two local men were found stabbed to death on a farm the day after a UDR man had been killed. Initially Catholics suspected a revenge attack by local loyalists. Some years later two noncommissioned officers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders regiment were convicted of the murders.

McQuillan was proud to be a relative of Scott Fitzgerald through the writer’s grandfather, Philip McQuillan, who had left the parish in 1843. He re-established contact with members of the McQuillan family from the writer’s home city of Minneapolis, and was particularly pleased to host two of Fitzgerald’s grandchildren on their visit to Ireland some years ago.

He is survived by his wife, Anne; daughter, Áine; son, Peter: and grandchildren Cliodhna, Hollie and Jarlath. He was predeceased by his sister, Phyllis (Dolan).