LURGAN — Journalist Martin O’Hagan, who exposed drug-dealing by loyalist gangs in his native North Armagh, was gunned down near his home on Friday night.
O’Hagan was a primary source for allegations of orchestrated loyalist-RUC collusion in “The Committee,” a controversial TV documentary and subsequently a book of the same name.
Another murder victim linked to the same program was Lurgan lawyer Rosemary Nelson, who was blown up in her car in March 1999. She had been an advisor to journalist and author Sean McPhilemy, who both produced the documentary and wrote the book, both of which have been discredited by serious observers of the Northern conclict despite legal victories by McPhilemy.
O’Hagan, who was 51, was the first journalist to be murdered in more than 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland. Others are now seriously reconsidering their security precautions amid concerns that those responsible could kill again.
For the last 15 years, he had worked for the Sunday World in Belfast. At one point he moved to Dublin, after threats, and then to Cork, but he and his family longed to return to the North, where they believed they were safe after the declaration of paramilitary cease-fires of recent years.
O’Hagan was on his way home from a pub in central Lurgan with his wife, Mairie, when the gunmen approached in a car. He pushed his wife into the hedge to save her life and was shot twice in the back.
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More than 1,000 people attended his funeral Monday, among them many journalists, show-biz personalities and senior Northern trade unionists.
The so-called Red Hand Defenders, a cover name for the Loyalist Volunteer Force, claimed responsibility for the shooting. RUC Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan confirmed that his inquiry is focusing on “local LVF elements.”
The RUC are investigating reports that less than two weeks ago, O’Hagan was threatened by an LVF figure who warned him he had been “clocked” (spotted) close to his home and that his movements were being noted.
A leading LVF man, Mark “Swinger” Fulton, an associate of murdered LVF founder and leader Billy “King Rat” Wright, denied involvement in the murder after he was named in weekend newspaper reports.
In a statement released on the day of O’Hagan’s funeral, he said: “I can categorically state that I had nothing to do with this in any shape or form. I believe that agents of the British government are setting me up for assassination purely for political reasons and to satisfy their own paranoia.”
Tributes to O’Hagan, a father of three, were written in all newspapers. Associated with the Official IRA in the early 1970s, when he was interned and convicted of possessing a firearm, he had won the respect of his peers.
RUC sources today dismissed reports that he had recognized one of the killers and had shouted out just before the shooting, “There’s Mackers.”
During the funeral, there was a two-minute period of silence in the Stormont Assembly and a minute’s silence was observed in many newsrooms.
Fr. Brian D’Arcy, a Sunday World columnist, said the O’Hagan family is devastated. In an oration over the coffin, during a violent storm at a graveyard near the dead man’s home, he said he had been “a lovely human being.”
“Martin was gunned down because he got nearer to the truth than anyone else — that’s why he was killed,” D’Arcy said. “It is up to each of us to carry on relentlessly. They have shot the messenger, not the message.”
“He gave a voice to the voiceless and to those suffering injustice. I can remember asking him some time ago if he now felt safer in his work and he had replied that ‘Thanks be to God, those days are over forever.’ ”
In a joint statement, Sir Reg Empey, the acting first minister in the Northern Ireland executive, and Seamus Mallon, the deputy first minister, said: “The murder of the journalist Martin O’Hagan was an attack on democracy itself. The right of a free press to operate without fear of violent assault or intimidation is a basic principle in any democratic society. Mr. O’Hagan’s murder must be condemned. Those who carried it out must be reviled.”