A version of this article, edited for reasons of space, appeared in the NUJ's official magazine the Journalist, marking the anniversary of Martin's killing.


On the first anniversary of Martin O’Hagan’s rmurder

Few questions and little coverage have been given over to the murder of Martin O'Hagan, investigative journalist for the Sunday World in Northern Ireland. The 51-year old father-of-three was shot dead on 28 September 2001, yards from his home, by two or three Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) gunmen, in a drive-by shooting, in his home town of Lurgan, in mid-Ulster, after a night out with wife Marie.

Martin was the first journalist to be killed during the Troubles specifically because of his work and knowledge as a reporter. No one has been charged in relation to the killing, despite the killers' identities being well known. Aside from celebrating his memory, it's crucial to highlight Martin's murder.

As seven journalists are under threat from loyalist paramilitaries, it will hopefully bring proper official and media acknowledgement of paramilitary targeting of journalists. In doing this the union is mindful of the feelings of Martin's relatives.

On the first anniversary of Martin's murder, this article will highlight stories Martin was working on, and suggest other possible motives, in the unlikely event news outlets are shamed into allocating resources to covering his case.

And there may now be movement in a number of areas, including a probe by the Police Ombudsman, as Martin's brothers may soon launch a formal complaint, if they conclude the investigation has stagnated. The case may also be the subject of an international media probe.

Although Martin's killing was only one of several unsolved in Northern Ireland last year, all worthy of resolution, the fact paramilitaries targeted a journalist was shocking. During the Troubles journalists had largely been excluded from the list of "legitimate targets" for paramilitaries.

Martin was a highly intelligent, politically aware character. Like some later journalistic critics, he became embroiled in the Troubles, was interned and served time for Official IRA arms offences in the early 1970s, when he rejected violence. After entering journalism in the early 1980s he specialised in criminal and paramilitary stories, concentrating on security force direction of loyalist death squads, partly as the anti-establishment views of the Sunday World suited him, and partly because he was (bravely) writing about those things he knew best, events within his local community, including paramilitary links to drugs and crime. His expertise was readily used by outside filmmakers, including Panorama.

Along with mentor and colleague Jim Campbell he specialised in the exposés of official involvement in UVF murders in north Armagh in the 1970s, and specifically the role of UVF brigadier Robin Jackson, which provoked the notorious Shankill Butchers to shoot Campbell in 1984. He survived, but in 1992 the UVF bombed their Belfast office. Wright threatened Martin in 1992, forcing him to leave the north, but he returned two years later. He was once also interrogated by the south Armagh brigade of the Provisional IRA.

Wright went on to form the LVF in 1996, after being expelled by the UVF. He was killed by a republican splinter group in prison in 1997, but he had vowed that whatever happened to him would visit Martin "ten-fold". Martin's belief in the peace process may have made it easy for them. He had already surrendered his personal protection weapon, and had recently moved from the nationalist side of Lurgan town, to live adjacent to their Mourneview estate powerbase.

What was Martin working on that could have made him a target for the LVF? He was investigating a furniture company/front for LVF drugs, a solicitor believed to be defrauding the legal system for the LVF, and a local media personality he suspected was laundering funds for the LVF through a religious outlet. But friends believe little of his recent printed work could have provoked his killers.

Kevin Cooper, Chair of the Belfast and District NUJ branch, has done much to keep Martin's name alive, just as he intervened to keep Martin alive when Wright's threat was issued. He suspects Wright's threat was never lifted. He is demanding answers: "Martin's friends and colleagues in the Belfast and District Branch NUJ all miss him terribly. The Security Minister gave the NUJ assurances that all the resources necessary for the investigation would be made available. Why, one year on, have there been no arrests or prosecutions?"

With the killers' names so well-known, Greg Harkin, editor of the Irish edition of The People, and an ex-colleague, is also calling for action: "Everybody in journalism who knew him misses him, and journalism itself misses him - there were very few people in the trade who are prepared to investigate the dark secrets of paramilitaries and the government, so he is a loss to British and Irish journalism. It's amazing that a year on no one has been convicted of his murder."

A range of loyalists had been provoked with his role in The Committee. Martin supplied filmmaker Sean McPhilemy with the story and sources for The Committee, shown on Channel 4 in 1991. It led to complex legal battles, with McPhilemy successfully suing the Sunday Times in 2000. It claimed loyalist death squads had been controlled by a committee of security force members and extremist Protestant clergy and businessmen, in a sectarian murder campaign.

In 1998 McPhilemy published a book on The Committee, naming "Committee" members. It also contained an allegation one of its leaders had issued a threat against Martin, in front of two witnesses, one of whom was a serving police officer, who allegedly failed to report it. Although the person in question has denied the allegation, it has been investigated by the murder inquiry team, and remains a line of enquiry.

In terms of possible motives, two of the main sources for the book have now been killed by the LVF - Martin and Lurgan solicitor Rosemary Nelson. According to Sean: "The 'Committee' story was Martin's. It's ironic that just as the murders raised by Martin and I in The Committee were not solved, neither will Martin's, until the north receives a proper police force. But it is much more difficult to cover something up than it is to discover the truth."

In the late 1990s Martin became an active and enthusiastic Secretary of the Belfast and District Branch of the NUJ. The libel case and union work, restored his confidence, and he took great delight in his union work. Peter Bunting, of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) said: "Those trade unionists who knew Martin and his great work for the trade union movement are obligated to continue our ongoing anti-sectarian campaign and there is no better tribute to Martin than that we succeed in reducing or eradicating some of that sectarianism."

His last project, a book on Robin Jackson, unearthed claims that RUC Special Branch/CID officers were linked to Billy Wright in a number of murders in the early 1990s, and specifically that a top ex-cop provided alibis for Wright. Colleagues and friends remain unsettled over these claims. Some colleagues are also unhappy that one of the officers linked to Wright may have featured in Martin's own murder inquiry.

Those are some of the most immediate lines of enquiry into Martin's murder, and pressure for these issues to be addressed is now mounting. At Annual Delegate Meeting the NUJ made Martin an honorary member, passing a motion urging "everything possible be done to bring his killers to justice", while a plaque in his honour was unveiled at Transport House in Belfast, last May Day, when local unions combined to honour him and Daniel McColgan, a postman, father-of-one and CWU worker killed by the loyalist UDA in north Belfast.

Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIRHC) Chief Commissioner Brice Dickson says the NIHRC will also ask questions, if prosecutions do not emerge from the investigation. The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of free speech, Abid Hussain has expressed his concern, prompted by Jane Winter of British Irish Rights Watch, while Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), has vowed to raise Martin's case in a number of international forums.

Aidan commented: "Martin O'Hagan was a fine reporter and an ardent trade unionist. His assassins must be found otherwise there is the danger that the ruthless killers of journalists around the world, most of whom act with impunity, will continue to target journalists."

Jim Campbell is also calling for reporters to defy his killers: "Martin campaigned for truth and justice and an end to selective political censorship in newspapers in Northern Ireland. The tragic irony is that by giving into these threats from loyalist paramilitaries you only encourage them to be more blatant in their attempts to suppress the truth about their sordid activities."

Seamus Dooley, the new Irish secretary of the NUJ, has also called for strong measures: "We must continue to press for greater safety measures, stronger legal protections, the right to protect sources." Martin's Dublin editor, Colm McGinty, echoed those thoughts: "The investigation seems to have come to a shuddering halt, in fact it's never mentioned. We have tried to keep up the pressure on the authorities, but we have to be mindful of the sensitivities of Marie and the children. Like them, we all still miss him and his craic."

As disappointing as the lack of charges is the lack of attention. Martin's murder was knocked off the agenda by media reaction to 9/11, the murder of reporter Daniel Pearl and the global financial scandals. But the real reason it has not been covered is that the British and Irish media are just frightened of "The North", according to some. Roy Greenslade, media commentator for the Guardian, calls the British media "supine" for ignoring the assassination of their colleague: "The British media have given up on properly reporting the north of Ireland." He thinks it's been ignored essentially because his killers were loyalists.

Mike Holderness, an NUJ activist with a special interest in the protection of journalists and journalistic freedoms, agrees: "The background to Martin's killing was better reported in Spanish, French and German papers than in most of the British press. It seems to be allergic to covering journalism and the right to report in the UK. Heaven forfend that we should take issues about British journalism seriously - apart from brave stands by a publisher's own lawyers, of course."

The murder of crime reporter Veronica Guerin in Dublin in 1996 by a drugs gang enabled the southern government to move against organised crime, with anti-gangster legislation and the biggest criminal investigations in the state's history, telling the gangsters "enough was enough" - an attack on a journalist being an attack on a state's democratic pretensions. And it was politically expedient for it to do so.

Dublin-based journalist Susan McKay believes the southern media has forgotten Martin because while Veronica was a southern-based celebrity in her own right, an image she believes was cultivated by her employers Independent Newspapers, Martin's death lacked that glamour.

And she is scathing at the failure of executives and politicians to show solidarity with Martin and other journalists, at his funeral: "Whatever the reasons, it was unforgivable that so few media management people turned up at Martin's funeral, while there was a huge turnout for Veronica's funeral. Whilst a lot of that was media-led the fact that so very few newspaper editors and senior executives, including people from the top level of Independent Newspapers, attended Martin's funeral was disgraceful," she said. Another twist is the links between Wright's sectarian UVF, and the (presumably) Catholic organised gangs from Dublin, like Martin Cahill, which both reporters had exposed.

But in Martin's case there has been no such official reaction. It was one of the first such investigations for the new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). At the time, northern secretary John Reid and then-Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, vowed to catch his killers. Last March northern security minister Jane Kennedy promised action. Recently, NUJ representatives met with PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Stephen White, with responsibility for the mid-Ulster area. Some suspect that the broader political desire of encouraging an LVF ceasefire will forestall action.

But Roy Greenslade wonders whether the PSNI is technically capable of pursuing such cases: "You wonder if enough effort was made to catch Martin's killers. It's very significant that no one gets away with murder, if they're known, in England, what with forensics and DNA tests."

According to Detective Inspector Ian Montieth, from the murder inquiry team, the investigation has "hit a wall": "Our enquiries are limited now because we're finding nothing new. Without intelligence or witness evidence we can go no further, and we're getting to that stage. Resources for this have never been a problem, and we've put the best we can into this, but I wouldn't be sure more resources would take the inquiry further. We've made six arrests, we know who was there, but getting evidence is the problem. There are two lines of enquiry - who was involved, and the motive. I believe the motive was he was just an easy target."

But with revelations of security service and security force connections to the UFF killing of solicitor Pat Finucane, Martin's colleagues and friends remain suspicious that Special Branch, or another intelligence gathering agency, are blocking the murder inquiry to protect an informant or agent within the gang. But this is firmly rejected by DI Montieth: "I'm not aware of anything like that, and I may not be in a position to stop it, but I would raise it very strongly. I have very strong views on that."

More ominously, top UVF sources are adamant Wright was in fact a British agent, and that he established the LVF as cover, to pre-empt their unmasking of him. The UVF have shown a file on this to certain journalists. Given this, his threat against Martin must form a central part of any inquiry into Martin's murder. But for local journalists the question is - is anyone asking questions about the case at all, and does anyone even want the answers?

Martin O'Hagan, killed on 28 September 2001
Martin O'Hagan attending the trade union event to mark May Day 2001. Photo © 2001 Kevin Cooper
 
 
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