By: Shawn Pogatchnik, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Protestant and Catholic politicians united in silence Monday as more than 2,000 mourners walked behind the casket of one of Northern Ireland’s most courageous journalists — and the first to be slain in three decades of violence here.
A harsh rain fell as journalists from both parts of Ireland took turns helping to carry the coffin of Martin O’Hagan, 51, from his home in Lurgan to the city cemetery.
The investigative reporter for the Sunday World, Ireland’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, died by his wife Marie’s side Friday night after Protestant extremists shot him several times in the back near his home.
His killers cited his reports into their activities as the reason.
“Martin was gunned down because he got nearer the truth than the rest of us,” said the Rev. Brian d’Arcy, a Roman Catholic priest and columnist for the Sunday World, who gave the graveside oration. “The best honor we could pay his memory is to carry on that quest for truth undeterred.”
For more than a decade. the Sunday World featured O’Hagan’s reports on Northern Ireland’s paramilitary underworld — the Irish Republican Army and its many anti-British offshoots on the Catholic side, and the pro-British Protestant extremists who frequently killed Catholic civilians in retaliation. Between them the two armed camps have claimed more than 3,000 lives, violence that persists despite prevailing cease-fires.
His reporting made O’Hagan a particularly hated figure for members of one Protestant gang, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, which is based in Lurgan’s neighboring town of Portadown. He also said he was once abducted and interrogated by IRA members who wanted to know his sources.
In Belfast, members of Northern Ireland’s cross-community government offered a minute’s silence Monday in honor of O’Hagan. And press freedom organizations worldwide appealed to Britain to devote extra resources to imprisoning the killers that O’Hagan spent his career trying to unmask.
In Vienna, Austria, the International Press Institute said Britain must “bring to justice those responsible for this heinous act” and “ensure the safety of journalists covering events in Northern Ireland.”
Although police have yet to arrest anybody, Northern Ireland police chief Ronnie Flanagan said the most likely culprits were Loyalist Volunteer Force members, whose intimidation rackets and drug-dealing O’Hagan investigated.
O’Hagan had told his wife that a senior Loyalist Volunteer figure had recently threatened him. But on Monday the group’s alleged commander, Mark “Swinger” Fulton, issued a statement denying any involvement in the attack.
Responsibility for the killing was claimed by the Red Hand Defenders, which police and politicians consider a cover name for members of the Loyalist Volunteers and other illegal Protestant groups. In a statement, the group said O’Hagan’s reports on them were “crimes.”
O’Hagan had dubbed Loyalist Volunteers founder Billy Wright “King Rat” in his reports. The rest of the media eventually adopted the nickname.
The journalist fled Northern Ireland in 1993 after Wright told other reporters he’d like to see O’Hagan killed — a threat followed up by a bomb that wrecked the Sunday World‘s Belfast office.
O’Hagan returned to Northern Ireland in 1995 after most paramilitary groups had called cease-fires. Wright was killed in prison in 1997 and the Loyalist Volunteers called a cease-fire after the Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
Many compared O’Hagan’s slaying with the 1996 assassination in Dublin of Veronica Guerin, a reporter for the Sunday Independent newspaper who was killed by a Dublin drug-dealing gang she had highlighted in her reports. That killing — the first of a reporter in the Republic of Ireland — provoked lawmakers and police to crack down on organized crime, and inspired two Hollywood films.
Though other journalists frequently sought O’Hagan’s help in contacting paramilitary figures, some also viewed him with suspicion. In recent years he said he felt isolated from the mainstream press, breaking stories about dangerous individuals that others feared to mention in print.
O’Hagan was imprisoned in 1972 for possessing weapons as part of his admitted involvement in the “Official” Irish Republican Army, a Marxism-influenced branch of the IRA that called a cease-fire that year. His IRA background made him suspect in many Protestant eyes.
He was paroled in 1975 and, saying he no longer supported violence for political purposes, gradually worked his way into the media. The Sunday World didn’t flinch from naming criminals — a rarity in Northern Ireland media.
“No other journalist that I know of had the bravery to write the way he did in the face of ever-present danger,” said Jim Cusack, security editor of The Irish Times newspaper. “Marty didn’t just break the big terrorism stories, he exposed all the dirt.”