We shot reporter, says loyalist gang

Northern Ireland - Politicians unite to condemn murder of journalist who exposed paramilitaries' drug links
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Murdered journalist Martin O'Hagan was threatened by a well-known loyalist less than a week before his death, his newspaper said yesterday.

The killing, by renegade loyalists, of the only working journalist to die as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles, was condemned by politicians in Belfast and Dublin.

Martin O'Hagan, 51, who worked for the Belfast edition of The Sunday World in Dublin, was shot late on Friday night as he walked home from a local pub in Lurgan, Co Armagh.

Senior security sources believe that the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), which has a strong presence in Lurgan and nearby Portadown, carried out the killing.

The murder has reminded the Irish public of the murder of investigative journalist Veronica Guerin, who was gunned down by members of a criminal gang in June 1996. Paul Williams, The Sunday World's crime correspondent writes in today's edition: "I have that same horrible sickening feeling all over again. Marty O'Hagan's cold blooded murder brought back the nightmare."

Mr O'Hagan specialised in writing often provocative stories touching on loyalist paramilitary groups and drugs, and had been threatened in the past.

His distraught wife recalled the last moments of his life last night. Marie O'Hagan escaped death when her husband pushed her into a hedge as gunmen struck a few yards from their home.

"I can't really remember what happened," she said. "People tell me Martin shoved me into the hedge and used his own body to try to shield me. It's coming back to me in flashes but the fact that I wasn't shot dead or wounded speaks for itself."

The couple, who had been to the Carnegie Inn in the town centre, where they began their courtship more than 30 years ago, were close to their home when gunmen pulled up in a car and fired at them at least seven times.

The reporter was shot twice in the back. One of his three daughters, Cara ­ due to be married in a few weeks ­ was passing by in a car when she saw her father slumped on the ground.

"I thought he had maybe tripped and fallen," she said. "I jumped out of the car. Then I saw the blood on his shirt. I grabbed his jacket and tried to wrap it round him to keep him warm."

The murder was claimed, in a call to a Belfast newsroom, by The Red Hand Defenders, a cover name used by the LVF and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). It said the journalist was shot for "crimes against the loyalist people".

Mr O'Hagan had a history of run-ins with the LVF leader, Billy Wright, who was himself shot dead by republicans in the Maze Prison in December 1998.

Mr O'Hagan was forced to flee Northern Ireland in 1993 after receiving death threats from Wright, whom he had dubbed "King Rat". He had written a series of articles exposing the murderous activities of Wright's gang, the "Ratpack".

However, Dr John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who has given the UDA a "final warning" over the state of its ceasefire, remained cautious: "There is no indication at the moment that it was a UDA-inspired killing and I await further information," he said.

Gavin O'Reilly, the Chief Executive of Independent News & Media (Ireland), the publisher of The Sunday World said: "I am deeply shocked and horrified by Martin's murder ­ another champion of journalistic integrity, murdered by those in illegal organisations who challenge the very foundation of a civilised democracy.

"To be slain in such a brutal way in cold blood, in front of his wife, is an act of cowardice that every person on this island must surely condemn without equivocation. Martin's murder will only galvanise all those opposed to terrorism in every form and strengthen the determination to advance the forces of peace.

"On behalf of the board of Independent New and Media plc and all my colleagues, I express my deepest condolences to his family and many friends, and our thoughts and prayers are with Martin's wife Marie, and his daughters, Martina, Cara and Niamh."

The Sunday World has given police the name of the man who had singled him out close to his home.

Jim McDowell, the northern editor of the paper, said: "He was told by a certain individual, 'We have you clocked walking up and down this street.' The man who spoke to him is a loyalist fanatic."

Mr O'Hagan had recently been working on a number of stories involving members of the LVF, a hardline terror group that split from the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1996.

Detectives are to examine these stories carefully in a bid to catch his killers.The MP for the area, Unionist leader David Trimble, described the murder as "cowardly. Tragically, Lurgan has witnessed yet another murder and I would call upon the wider community to assist the RUC in any way possible as they seek to bring to justice the perpetrators of this act," he said.

Staff at The Sunday World were preparing a special tribute edition of the paper for their dead colleague.

Mr McDowell vowed that the paper would be as hard-hitting as ever. "Everyone in here is wrecked," he said. "But we are not going to demean Marty's memory by stepping back. We will be going out strong tomorrow..

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 for his family and his paper, but for the wider community. He was a man who contributed to a better life for everybody."

The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, condemned it as a "senseless and brutal murder".

Ulster Unionist Sir Reg Empey and SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon described the attack in a joint statement as "an attack on democracy itself." They added: "The right of a free press to operate without fear of violent assault or intimidation is a basic principle in any democratic society."

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