Three young brothers who had been asleep in their beds burned to death early Sunday in a sectarian attack marking what shaken Northern Ireland leaders termed a "turning point" in a violent stalemate over a blocked Protestant march.
A neighbor reported hearing 10-year-old Richard, 9-year-old Mark and 7-year-old Jason Quinn screaming while fire gutted their home in Ballymoney, about 40 miles northwest of Belfast.Their Catholic mother escaped with her Protestant boyfriend, who was beaten back by flames when he returned to try to rescue the brothers, police said. There were reports the boys were being raised as Protestants.
A photograph released by the family showed three impish little boys in sweatshirts, Richard's grin revealing a wide gap in the middle of his teeth.
Police said they broke up a demonstration outside the boys' home shortly before the attack, and police issued an urgent appeal to anyone who might be able to identify individual protesters.
Businessman Ken Bates, chairman of a major London soccer club, offered a $164,000 reward to find those responsible.
"What price your principles now?" asked Seamus Mallon, the Catholic deputy first minister of the new Belfast Assembly. "Does it take one child, two children, three children?"
A hollow-eyed Ronnie Flanagan, head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, said he considered the boys' deaths a "turning point" in the increasingly fractious standoff over the Orange Order's stymied attempts in the past week to march down the predominantly Catholic Garvaghy Road in Portadown.
"These are the real victims of our troubles, murdered while they slept in their beds," Flanagan said. "For me, this changes everything. There are things clearly much, much more important than marches or opposing marches.
"We owe these youngsters more. We owe all our youngsters more."
After their leaders met, the Orangemen whose parade was stopped a week ago said they would continue the standoff outside Portadown "indefinitely."
Mallon and David Trimble, the Belfast Assembly's first minister, had echoed a number of Protestant clergymen in calling for the Orangemen to "immediately end their protest and to return to their homes."
Authorities counseled Catholics - who mostly had remained out of the fray since the July 5 stalemate began - not to retaliate for the boys' deaths.
"All elements must ask themselves what they can do to defuse the situation," said Trimble, head of the largest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists.
Mo Mowlam, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, urged "mothers, fathers, sons and daughters" to stay home Monday, one of Northern Ireland's biggest Protestant marching days, for the sake of the province's fragile peace.