For decades, Northern Ireland was wracked by sectarian bloodshed. A civil rights movement among the Catholic population developed in the late-1960s, as many people, especially the youth, rose up against what they regarded as a deeply unfair system. Tensions rose between Protestants and Catholics, and the British government sent soldiers to patrol the streets in order to attempt to retain control.
Violence ensued, with Nationalist forces wanting a united Ireland, while Unionists wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Within these two sides were more extreme positions. Republican paramilitaries, principally the Irish Republican Army, fought the British armed forces and the police. Meanwhile the Loyalists, such as the Ulster Volunteer Force, fought the IRA.
In this environment, Martin O'Hagan's life took some curious twists and turns. Born in 1950, he spent much of his early childhood living on a British military base in West Germany, where his father worked, before his family moved back home to Northern Ireland in 1957. In his teens he was inspired by leftwing politics and the civil rights movement, leading him into the Republican camp. He joined the IRA in the 1970s, becoming an armed militant in his hometown of Lurgan. For O’Hagan, the conflict was not about Protestant versus Catholic; rather, this was a fight against the British imperialist occupation of the north of Ireland.
After serving 5 years in prison from 1973 to 1978, he turned his back on the increasingly sectarian character of the armed conflict in Northern Ireland. O’Hagan went to university to study sociology before becoming a freelance journalist in the 1980s. Finding regular work at a popular newspaper, Sunday World, he developed a reputation as a tough investigative reporter, whose work brought him into conflict with Loyalist paramilitaries as well as his former comrades in the IRA. In particular, he uncovered evidence that suggested there was collusion between the police, British military intelligence, and paramilitary groups.
O'Hagan was assassinated in 2001, likely by one of these groups, known as the Red Hand Defenders. His killers were never convicted, leading some of his colleagues to believe that the police deliberately left the case unsolved in order to protect their sources - and their secrets.
For a powerful view of the tragic human cost of the period in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles, we recommend this book by Patrick Radden Keefe: