Assassination of Martin O’Hagan – Journalist and Ex member of Official IRA

Martin O’Hagan

Owen Martin O’Hagan, (23 June 1950 – 28 September 2001) was an Irish investigative journalist from Lurgan, Northern Ireland and a former member of the Official Irish Republican Army who spent much of the 1970s in prison. He was the most prominent journalist to be killed as a consequence of the Troubles and the only one to be specifically assassinated as a result of his work.

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Insight: The Murder Of Martin O’Hagan

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Life

Martin O’Hagan’s father worked as a radio and TV repairman for the British military. O’Hagan was one of six children, and spent part of his childhood in the married quarters of British bases in Germany. His grandfather was also a British soldier, and saw service at Dunkirk. O’Hagan’s family returned to Lurgan when he was seven, and he was educated in the town, leaving after taking O-levels to work in his father’s TV repair shop.

As a teenager during the early Troubles, he joined the Official IRA‘s Lurgan unit (a relative was Joe B. O’Hagan, a highly regarded Irish republican active from the 1940s onwards). He was drawn to the Officials because of their then radical socialist-republican politics, and became active in their military wing. He was interned in 1971 and spent more than a year in the Official IRA compound at Long Kesh. After he was released in 1973, he was jailed for seven years for transporting guns, and was released in 1978.

He despised the sectarianism of Northern Ireland society and married a local Ulster Protestant woman, Marie Dukes, with whom he had three daughters. O’Hagan retained his socialist outlook throughout his life. He studied sociology at the Open University and the University of Ulster.

O’Hagan worked as a reporter for the tabloid newspaper, the Sunday World. In this capacity, he wrote about a range of criminals and paramilitaries. He was also secretary of the Belfast branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) at the time of his death.[1]

Work

Notwithstanding his history with the Official IRA, O’Hagan became accepted into the press community in Northern Ireland. His hard work quickly gaining him respect. In addition to his insightful stories on paramilitaries, he was known for old-fashioned, muck-raking tabloid stories, especially for exposing the private and sometimes seedy lifestyles of Ulster loyalists. One story included a picture of a well-known Orangeman, wearing Orange Order regalia, beside one of the same man found in a sex-contact publication, showing him naked.[2]

In the late 1980s he was prominently featured in the controversial Channel 4 documentary The Committee, which made allegations of RUC collusion in loyalist murders of Roman Catholics. As a witness in a subsequent libel action against the producer of the programme at the High Court in London he said: “I have tried to be an independent and objective journalist but my conviction has hung over me like a sword, although I have always tried to be honest about it… I have always tried to be squeaky clean because people will always try to cast this up in my face.” [3]

Not all of his work was controversial. In the early 1990s he collaborated with several Portadown musicians and took over a talent competition previously run by the Ulster Star newspaper in Lisburn, turning it into a Northern Ireland-wide event.

O’Hagan would often confuse paramilitaries by writing under an assumed name or by not naming the subject of his articles. He would instead use a nickname. The person would be described in great detail: appearance, habits, haunts, associates, type of car, etc. – everything but his name, but in the Who? column (a long-running and sometimes hard-hitting page of snippets in the newspaper) he would refer to the person by name in a way which would allow the reader to link both stories.

In the early 1990s, he wrote several pieces about the UVF Mid-Ulster Brigade. He coined the nickname “the Rat Pack” for this group, and “King Rat” for its leader Billy Wright. Wright later founded the Loyalist Volunteer Force, a breakaway faction. He was responsible for an attack on the Sunday World offices in Belfast, and threatened to kill O’Hagan. Wright was assassinated by the Irish National Liberation Army in 1997.

Provisional IRA abduction

O’Hagan was abducted by the Provisional IRA in 1989 following a report by the Sunday World about the killing of John McAnulty on 18 July 1989.[4] He was interrogated for several days regarding the source of reports to the newspaper (supposedly from an IRA insider) and expected to be killed. He was later released unharmed. Following this incident and Loyalist threats he moved to the Cork offices of the newspaper for several years but later returned to the Belfast office.[3]

Assassination

After returning to live in Lurgan, O’Hagan published a series of articles on drug dealing in a loyalist paramilitary grouping,[5] and had been the subject of death threats. He had bumped into a known loyalist on a previous walk home from his pub and had been advised that he had been “clocked” (a local term meaning ‘observed’) walking the route.[6] He and his colleagues on the Dublin-based Sunday World were accustomed to threats of this nature, however, and although “rattled” by the veiled threat, O’Hagan continued to walk home from the pub on Friday nights but varied his route as a precautionary measure.[6]

On 28 September 2001 Martin and his wife Marie walked to “Fa’ Joe’s” pub, a well-known mixed bar on Lurgan’s Market Street, for their usual Friday night drink together. The pub had been Martin’s favourite for many years. As they walked home to Westland Gardens, close to the loyalist Mourneview Estate, a car pulled slowly alongside them just yards from their house. Martin pushed his wife into a hedge as a gunman opened fire from the car hitting him several times. As he lay wounded he asked his wife to call an ambulance. When she returned from doing so he was dead.

Martin O’Hagan’s murder was “claimed” by the Red Hand Defenders, a nom de guerre used by the Loyalist Volunteer Force.[7]

Legacy

No-one has yet been prosecuted for the killing of Martin O’Hagan. However his colleagues at the Sunday World (particularly Jim Campbell, who was also wounded in an assassination attempt by Loyalist paramilitaries),[8] and the NUJ continue to criticise police and prosecutors in Northern Ireland for the absence to date of any murder convictions. On 6 April 2008 the Sunday World published an article naming Robin “Billy” King as the killer, and asked why the PSNI had not arrested and charged him with the murder.[9] In the same issue the newspaper ran a story on the unveiling of a plaque in memory of O’Hagan at Belfast’s Linenhall Library.[10] The Sunday World has run a series of articles which have “targeted the O’Hagan suspects with an extremely accurate weekly account of their activities.”[8]

The NUJ has discovered that Martin’s journalistic notes, written in a personalised and initially undecipherable shorthand, have been partially decoded and the PSNI are examining the interpretations in connection with the Omagh Bombing.[11]

Writing in the NUJ newsletter “Freelance” in September 2008, Kevin Cooper said:

He continues to be remembered and missed by his colleagues and friends of the Belfast and District Branch of the NUJ. We miss his good humour, his love of mischief, his tireless commitment to socialism and trade unionism. He was no saint; he was, like the rest of us, human and made mistakes. He could infuriate and delight you at the same time. He was not always treated with the respect and dignity he deserved.[12]

Murder trial

Five men were arrested and sent for trial in September 2008 for the murder of Martin O’Hagan. However, no one was ever charged for the murder, leaving Martin O’Hagan and his grieving family without justice

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