Sunday 8 December 2019

No prosecutions over the murder of ‘Sunday World’ journalist

Michael McHugh

EIGHT people investigated over the murder of a Northern Ireland journalist more than a decade ago will not be prosecuted because of concerns about a key witness's evidence, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in the North said today.

Sunday World reporter Martin O'Hagan, 51, was shot dead by loyalists in Lurgan, Co Armagh, in September 2001.

Neil Hyde gave an account to police which could not be independently verified, the prosecution authority said.

DPP Barra McGrory QC said: "The prosecution of any of the accused in this case would depend on the evidence of Neil Hyde.

"Having regard to all the circumstances, it has been concluded that, in the absence of any corroboration, the available evidence is insufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of obtaining a conviction against any individual."

Mr O'Hagan worked for the Sunday World, a Dublin-based tabloid which targets terrorism and organised crime, and built a reputation for covering paramilitary and drugs-related stories.

He was the first journalist believed to have been murdered in the line of work in the history of Northern Ireland's troubles, killed as he returned from the pub in his home town.

A car pulled alongside and a gunman shot him. Marie O'Hagan escaped death when her husband pushed her into a hedge to protect her.

During the police investigation a suspect, Hyde, indicated that he was willing to assist the authorities. He was interviewed at length by detectives about his knowledge of the killing and his own involvement.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) prosecuted him for a range of offences including conspiring to carry a firearm with intent to wound in connection with the murder, which had been claimed by the Red Hand Defenders, a cover name used by the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

Hyde was jailed for three years last February. Sentencing judge Patrick Lynch QC told him if he had not agreed to identify the alleged culprits in Mr O'Hagan's murder and give evidence about the activities of the outlawed LVF, he would have been imprisoned for 18 years.

The PPS is considering whether Hyde should be referred back to court so his sentence can be reviewed and that decision hinges on whether he gave an untruthful account.

Mr McGrory said: "I know this decision will be disappointing to Mr O'Hagan's widow, family, friends and colleagues but the evidence that can be given by an assisting offender must be carefully evaluated and the test for prosecution applied on a case by case basis.

"Every case is different and the question whether the test for prosecution is met can only be determined on the merits of each individual case."

He said his approach had been assisted by detailed consideration given by Mr Justice John Gillen, who highlighted the dangers of convicting on the uncorroborated evidence of an accomplice after an Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) supergrass trial last year. Twelve of the 13 men were acquitted of all charges following one of the longest trials in Northern Ireland's legal history.

The judge in that case said the supergrasses confused the roles of those they alleged were present.

Sunday World northern editor Jim McDowell said he was disappointed, annoyed and angry.

"Myself and the staff have worked hard since that black Friday in September 2001 to try to get justice for Martin O'Hagan.

"It now seems, that old adage, while there there may be a law in this country, where is the justice?"

He added that today's announcement had come as a complete shock to him and the dead man's family.

"This will not diminish in any way our resolve to continue to try to get justice for Martin," he said.

Mr McGrory insisted he had no reservations about legislation covering the use of supergrasses and said it set off the process of evaluating the evidence of an accomplice.

"There is a legislative framework which is helpful rather than a hindrance," he said.

"The legislation is structured in such a way that there are safeguards built in."

He said the absence of corroboration did not in itself mean no prosecution could be taken but meant the evidence of an accomplice had to be scrutinised to an even greater degree than it might otherwise have been.

"It becomes all the more difficult to prosecute, not necessarily impossible," he added.

"I have to apply as the DPP, in as fair and accurate a way as possible, the test for prosecution, requiring me to act only on evidence which I feel I can confidently bring to court and it will be relied upon and in this case I do not feel that that is the case. In this case the principles of justice are being rigorously applied."

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News