Saturday 21 September 2019

Reporter shot in the back by killers

Journalist Martin O'Hagan, who was murdered on Friday night, had been a marked man for years, writes Jerome Reilly

VETERAN Sunday World reporter Martin O'Hagan, the first journalist murdered in the three decades of the troubles, had been a marked man for years but remained fearless in pursuit of the truth in Northern Ireland.

On Friday night, loyalist assassins caught up with him, shooting him in the back just yards from the safety of his fortified home in Westfield Gardens, on the Tandragee Road around 10.30pm and in front of his wife Marie.

He leaves behind three daughters, Martina, Cara and Niamh.

Days before his murder, Mr O'Hagan told colleagues he was working on a particularly delicate story.

Like Veronica Guerin of the Sunday Independent in 1996, Martin O'Hagan was murdered by cowards who feared the truth. They were petrified that their murderous criminal activities would be exposed and they would be brought to account.

Just weeks ago, Mr O'Hagan, who was 51, recalled a journalistic career pursued under the shadow of intermittent death threats from paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian divide.

It was he who gave loyalist murderer Billy Wright the sobriquet "King Rat". In a taped interview, Wright, who was later murdered by the INLA while in prison, said that "the sooner Martin O'Hagan was dead, the better".

Wright was behind earlier murder threats which forced O'Hagan to leave the North for a period for his personal safety. He left Cork and returned to his native Belfast after the paramilitary ceasefires in 1995.

It is Wright's former henchmen, the hardline loyalist splinter group known as the Red Hand Defenders, who have admitted responsibility for O'Hagan's murder.

In a call to a Belfast newsroom the group used as a cover name in the past for the Loyalist Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association said they shot him for "crimes against the loyalist people".

Mr O'Hagan recently came to prominence as a key witness in a libel case over the controversial Channel Four programme The Committee, which alleged leading members of the security forces were involved in a secret ring linked to loyalist paramilitaries.

Recalling earlier death threats against him, O'Hagan wrote in Journalist, the official magazine of the National Union of Journalists, of the physical and mental toll of his work.

"The Sunday World offices were raided by gunmen who left a bomb. I was assaulted by loyalists and Billy Wright said the sooner I was dead the better. I was tipped off that hit- men had come to my house to shoot me, but not seeing my car had presumed I wasn't at home.

"I am also one of the few to return alive from the IRA's notorious interrogations and extermination camp on the South Armagh border after a terrifying grilling session about my press contacts. This, and years of harassment from other paramilitaries and the security forces, pitched me into a nervous breakdown," O'Hagan recalled.

He was also open about his own involvement in the troubles in his younger days.

"I had been a political prisoner who served a sentence for possession of weapons in 1972. Since my release 25 years ago, I have worked as a journalist knowing that I have to be above reproach," he stated.

His murder on Friday night may yet have significant repercussions for the Northern Ireland peace process.

Details of the fatal shooting are sketchy but residents in the area said that Mr O'Hagan and his wife Marie were returning from a nearby pub when a car approached and the killers opened fire. They shot him in the back.

As the scene remained sealed off, forensic experts began to comb the area for clues in the hunt his killers. The RUC are also examining a burnt-out car found a short time after the shooting in nearby Glenavon Lane.

The motive for the murder is still unclear. Mr O'Hagan's friends and work colleagues are shocked at the loss of a brave journalist and a devoted husband and father.

The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the Tanaiste Mary Harney, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen and the Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid all condemned the killing. They were joined by UUP leader David Trimble, the RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, the SDLP, the Workers' Party, John Robb, consensor of the New Ireland Group, and political groupings north and south of the border.

The Taoiseach said: "I want to condemn in the strongest possible terms the senseless and brutal murder of Sunday World journalist Martin O'Hagan by loyalist paramilitaries in Lurgan last night.

"Those responsible for this barbarous act have no place in the new society all right-thinking people are trying to build in Northern Ireland. They have deprived a family of a husband and a father for no other reason than to satisfy their craven thirst for violence."

Jim McDowell, editor of the @@STYL cf,mili Sunday World @@STYL cf,mils northern edition in Belfast, broke the news to his staff last night before travelling to Lurgan.

Mr McDowell said: "My heart goes out to Marty's wife Marie and their family. All of the staff at the Sunday World are in sorrow and shock at what has happened."

Mary Maher, Cathaoirleach of the Irish Executive Council of the National Union of Journalists, said the union had learned of the murder of Martin O'Hagan with shock and outrage.

"Journalists in Northern Ireland have played a crucial role not only in informing the public of events but in highlighting the realities of sectarianism and terrorism.

"Like his colleague Jim Campbell, who has also been a target of violence, Martin has been a journalist of singular courage in an environment which demands our members to expose themselves to danger on a daily basis from those who reject democracy."

Bernie Guerin, the mother of Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin, said she was was shocked and saddened by the murder of another journalist slain for exposing the truth. Before this killing, Veronica Guerin, who was shot dead as she sat in her car at traffic lights on the Naas dual-carriageway on June 26, 1996, was the only journalist in Ireland to have been murdered in the course of her work .

"The parallels with Veronica's murder were immediately obvious," she said. "Irrespective of his past politics or the political claims of those who took his life, this was a journalist gunned down by those who feared and resented his exposure of their evildoing. It was another blow against freedom and democracy. I will pray for his soul. My thoughts are with his wife and children, his editor and colleagues."

The murder was described as a "barbaric killing" by the Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid. Following discussions with the RUC Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan, Dr Reid said: "I am appalled by this killing.

"It shows contempt for human life, contempt for freedom of the press and contempt for the people of Northern Ireland.

"My heart goes out to the family of Mr O'Hagan and to his work colleagues at the Sunday World.

"I have spoken to the Chief Constable and I share his absolute determination to track down the cowards responsible for this act of savagery."

David Trimble, MP for the area, said he was appalled by this latest shooting.

"Tragically, Lurgan has witnessed yet another murder and I would call upon the wider community to assist the RUC."

Sunday World editor Colm MacGinty yesterday travelled from Dublin to visit Mr O'Hagan's distraught family and to put together a special memorial edition.

Hugh Jordan, who worked with Mr O'Hagan for 10 years, paid tribute to his friend and colleague. "Marty was tenacious. He wouldn't let go of a story. He had great enthusiasm for his job.

"He was totally against violence in any shape or form. He was committed to the eradication of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland.

"This is a sad loss, not just to his family and his paper, but to the wider community. He was a man who contributed to a better life for everybody."

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