Episode 3.8: Martin O’Hagan
Hello, and welcome to this episode of Assassinations Podcast, in which we will be looking at the life and death of Martin O’Hagan, a journalist from Northern Ireland who was assassinated by a paramilitary group in 2001.
This isn’t a story about your average journalist sitting behind a desk and writing. Martin O’Hagan was a complex character who realized that the pen was mightier than the sword, moving from Republican militarism to journalistic work. Despite his complicated past, he was eventually accepted and respected as a talented journalist.
Before we get started, we have some quick housekeeping.
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We recently celebrated the first birthday of the show. We decided to run a little competition, asking listeners to tweet at us to let us know about their favorite fictional assassination.
We received some great replies! After much consideration, we chose as our winner a suggestion by listener Phil Thompson, who said his favorite fictional assassination was in the Lion King, when Scar lures Mufasa to the edge of a gorge and lets him fall to his death.
Well done for that suggestion - a goodie bag of Assassinations Podcast swag is currently winging its way to you, Phil.
Also, I’d like to ask you all to stay tuned after the episode to hear about a show we’ve been enjoying lately - it’s called Murder Mile.
And now, without further ado, let’s launch our investigation into the assassination of Martin O’Hagan.
Two young men knocked on the front door of Jim Campbell’s home. This was Belfast, Northern Ireland; and the date was the 18th of May, 1984 - the height of the civil conflict known as the Troubles.
The young men looked a little shifty, nervous … almost guilty. But this was not such an uncommon expression for many of the callers to the house of Jim Campbell.
The Belfast bureau chief of the Sunday World newspaper, he was one of the best connected men in Northern Ireland, one of the few people in the deeply divided province who was capable of communicating across the barriers of sectarian conflict.
He often worked from home, and it was not uncommon for him to receive visits of a sensitive nature from members of various paramilitary groups, politicians, and the police.
Campbell and his Sunday World paper had been running stories for several months about a paramilitary leader he had nicknamed “The Jackal”.
This was a professional killer, an assassin. The Jackal led a unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant paramilitary group engaged in guerrilla warfare against the largely Catholic Irish Republican Army.
The Jackal had organized a string of bombings and shootings targeting members and supporters of the IRA, as well as ordinary Catholics who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Campbell’s investigations had uncovered that the operations of the Jackal and his gang went beyond the bloody conflict between the Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland, beyond the paramilitary struggle between those loyal to Britain and those who wanted a united Ireland. No, Campbell had uncovered signs of collusion between the Ulster Volunteer Force and members of the police.
As he dug deeper, Campbell made an even more shocking - and dangerous - discovery. The Sunday World published the real name of the so-called Jackal - Robin Jackson. It turned out that he was a former British army NCO.
Campbell reported that Jackson and his death squad were being directed by British military intelligence, in a concerted campaign to assassinate Republicans in Northern Ireland.
Following the publication of this exposé, Campbell had received a warning: keep going down this path and you will come to serious harm.
But Jim Campbell was a hard-nosed journalist and editor in a gritty corner of the world. His was not a profession for the faint of heart, and Campbell was as tough as they came. He refused to bow to the threats. He would continue his work, no matter the cost.
I wonder, did it cross his mind, when he opened the door to those two young men on the 18th of May, 1984, that they might have been sent by the Jackal?
But he opened the door nevertheless.
The men on his doorstep fired five rounds into him, then fled the scene. Campbell, bleeding profusely, lay in his hallway. His wife rushed to help him and called for an ambulance.
Within 15 minutes, he was on the operating table of a nearby hospital, surgeons desperately trying to save his life.
Campbell was clinically dead at one point during the procedure, but was resuscitated and survived. With incredible luck, none of the bullets had hit a major organ.
Four bullets were removed during the surgery. The fifth was left, lodged in his spine, his doctors fearful that any attempt to take it out might leave Campbell paralyzed for life.
Within six months, he was back at his desk, now in a new office in the center of Belfast.
The police investigation into the attempted assassination drew a blank. While Robin Jackson, aka The Jackal, was an obvious suspect, there was apparently no evidence to link him or anyone else from the Ulster Volunteer Force to the crime.
In fact, the police - and Campbell himself - knew that there were many people in Northern Ireland with good reason to take out a journalist who had uncovered many of the dirty deeds of those on all sides of the conflict.
But still the suspicion remained that The Jackal had evaded justice because of his alleged secret links to the police.
The famous - and fabulous - British raconteur Quentin Crisp once said that during a visit to Northern Ireland he told an audience that he was an atheist.
A woman in the audience stood up and shouted at him in anger and confusion: “Yes, but is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in whom you don’t believe?”
This sectarian division has racked Ireland as an island, and Northern Ireland in particular, for hundreds of years.
Britain’s oldest colony, religion was long used to divide and rule. When Ireland fought for its independence in the early 20th Century, a so-called compromise deal was struck, whereby the predominantly Catholic south broke away, while the majority-Protestant north remained part of the United Kingdom.
As with other partitions that followed the collapse of the British Empire, from the Middle East to India, the division of Ireland into two parts was a muddle and a fudge that satisfied few and solved little.
In Northern Ireland, the Catholic minority believed they were the victims of a Protestant supremacist regime, which had been established in order to enforce British rule through intimidation and harassment.
Many Catholics believed they were second class citizens in Northern Ireland, condemned to lower-wage employment, poorer housing, and unfair policing.
In the late-1960s and early 70s, a civil rights movement emerged, animated by this sense of injustice. As tensions rose, violence spread. Protestant groups attacked Catholics, the near defunct Irish Republican Army revived as a fighting force, and the British army was sent to the restive province to try to maintain control.
Northern Ireland by the mid-1970s had turned into a garrison state: soldiers patrolled the streets, rifles loaded; police rolled through towns and cities in armored vehicles; military helicopters buzzed overhead; snipers looked down on working class neighborhoods from watchtowers; and vehicles were routinely stopped and searched at army checkpoints.
Northern Ireland was well and truly divided, with mostly Protestant Unionists who strongly supported remaining part of the United Kingdom on one side, and mostly Catholic Nationalists who wanted a united Ireland on the other.
And within these two side, often categorized as “communities”, there were more extreme forces. On the Protestant side, there were the Loyalists, members of several paramilitary organizations fighting to keep Northern Ireland part of the UK; and then there were the Republicans, mainly members and supporters of the IRA, which was waging a guerrilla war against what they regarded as the British occupation of the northern part of Ireland.
The IRA targeted the British military and state institutions, in particular the police force in Northern Ireland, then named the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Though IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups were fighting each other, as ever, it was the civilian population that bore the brunt of the conflict. Innocent bystanders, often people out for a drink in the wrong pub at the wrong time, were killed and maimed in bombings and shootings.
There was nothing in the early childhood of Martin O’Hagan to indicate that he would one day become a Republican militant fighting against the British. Far from it, his grandfather had served in the British army during World War II, his father worked as a civilian contractor for the British army in West Germany, and Martin spent his early childhood living on a British military base.
The O’Hagan family returned to Northern Ireland in 1957, when Martin was seven years old. One of six children, he left school aged 16 to work in his father’s TV repair shop. But he, like so many of his generation, was brought up in an era of radicalization and conflict - and quiet shop life was never going to be for him.
For the teenaged Martin, the emerging Republican struggle was not about a Catholic-Protestant divide. Rather, he believed that the fight for a united Ireland was a fight against British imperialism. He was an atheist and a left-winger, and at the time the IRA put forward a vaguely socialist form of Republicanism that was, at least in theory, distinct from religious sectarianism.
Such religion-based politics was of no interest to O’Hagan. Throughout his life, he worked and socialized with people from the Protestant community, and he married a Protestant girl.
Due to his involvement in the IRA, he was rounded up in a mass arrest operation launched by the British government in 1971.
The British had suspended the right to jury trial in Northern Ireland for people accused of terrorism-related offenses and hundreds of people had been jailed under the policy of interment, fueling resentment against the British but doing little to curb the growth of Irish Republicanism, or its Loyalist counterparts.
Under these draconian emergency laws, O’Hagan was imprisoned without trial and spent more than a year in jail.
This detention did nothing to dent his beliefs. In fact, the use of internment only strengthened his commitment to the Republican cause. The mass arrests and abandonment of trial by jury in Northern Ireland provided further proof, he thought, of the reactionary character of British rule.
Detained with other IRA members, his time in prison proved to be more of a training camp than a punishment.
Soon after his release, at the age of just 22, he was put in charge of an IRA unit in his home town of Lurgan. He was given orders to plan and carry out the robbery of an armored truck carrying cash through the town. This was required to raise much-needed funds for IRA operations.
While lying in wait, O’Hagan and his unit came face-to-face with a police patrol. This was the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the heavily armed police force that in many respects acted as a paramilitary organization during the period of armed struggle in Northern Ireland.
For the IRA, the local police were just as much of an enemy as British soldiers patrolling the streets or the British government sitting in London.
Perhaps panicking, the still inexperienced O’Hagan gave the order to open fire on the cops. A police officer was hit. As he lay wounded on the ground, O’Hagan shot him a number of times, killing him. Two other officers were injured, but managed to flee the scene.
In early-1973, O’Hagan was part of an IRA operation that targeted a pub in Lurgan known to be frequented by police officers and members of Loyalist organizations. One person drinking in the pub was shot in the leg.
O’Hagan was arrested and charged for his involvement in the incident, but he was released for lack of evidence. He was now a marked man, and it wasn’t long before he was arrested by an army patrol while in possession of two rifles. Convicted of possession of firearms with intent, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.
In prison, members of the rival paramilitary groups were permitted semi-political status, effectively permitted to organize as prisoners of war. For example, they were exempted from wearing prison uniform or carrying out prison work. This special treatment was as a result of protests by inmates, including hunger strikes. However, this policy of allowing paramilitary prisoners special status was abandoned in 1976, leading to more protests, including further hunger strikes.
Upon his release in 1978, the authorities believed that he was still involved with the IRA, but they couldn’t successfully linked him to anything. But O’Hagan would later claim that at this point in his life, he had made the decision to turn away from paramilitary activists, due to the increasingly sectarian character of the armed conflict in Northern Ireland. Whatever his associations with the IRA might have been after his release from prison, in 1978 O’Hagan enrolled in university to study sociology with the aim of pursuing change through study, debate, and - as he saw it - exposing the malfeasance of British rule.
In the 1980s, he began work as a journalist for a small leftwing newspaper in Northern Ireland. He then went freelance, submitting investigative pieces to various local papers, before getting a job at the Belfast office of the popular Irish newspaper, the Sunday World, which was well-known for its a mixture of investigative journalism and titillating tabloid reporting. There, O’Hagan quickly developed a reputation as a no-nonsense, old-fashioned muck-raking journalist, specializing in exposés of the activities of people within Loyalist organizations, as well as a Protestant Masonic organization known as the Orange Order.
He cultivated a range of contacts across the political and sectarian divide in Northern Ireland, including sources within the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In 1989, the IRA assassinated a senior policeman. Searching the dead man’s possessions, they discovered a telephone book - in it was written the name and number of Martin O’Hagan.
As a result, the journalist was “invited” to attend a meeting with IRA enforcers. Not having too much choice in the matter, O’Hagan turned up to the spot where a so-called interview would take place. He was seized right away and a bag was placed over his head. Abducted, O’Hagan was taken to another location to be grilled as to his relationship with the police. But he managed to convince his captors that his relationship with the police officer had been entirely in line with his work as a journalist. The flow of information was one way, from the cop to O’Hagan, and not vice-versa.
He would later tell friends that he was sure he’d be killed by the IRA that day, and considered himself very lucky to have escaped unscathed. Other people suspected by the IRA of having collaborated with the police had been “disappeared” - abducted, tortured, and killed - based on such evidence of contact with the police or British intelligence.
Clearly, this was dangerous work, where the line between friend and enemy, and between the law and the outlaw, was hopelessly blurred.
We’ll be right back.
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Like a dog with a bone, O’Hagan carried out the dangerous work of investigating one of the leading members of the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force.
Billy Wright was one of the most notorious sectarian killers to emerge during The Troubles. He had taken over from Robin Jackson - the so-called Jackal, who had died of cancer. Commanding a kill team, Wright was similarly tasked with assassinating members of the IRA. He even boasted in a newspaper interview, using a pseudonym, to have personally murdered 12 Catholics.
Wright is believed to have orchestrated at least 20 paramilitary killings in the 1980s and 90s. For example, in 1991, he was responsible for the assassination of three IRA members outside a bar. He was arrested, but released when we was able to give an alibi for the night of the attack. Wright lived only a few miles from O’Hagan in County Armagh. Northern Ireland is not a particularly big place, and it was not uncommon for paramilitary fighters to live in the same towns, shop in the same stores, and go to the same movie theaters. And yet the signs of sectarian divisions were quite obvious, especially in the capital city of Northern Ireland, Belfast. Many working class neighborhoods were strictly segregated along religious lines. So called “Peace Walls” - concrete barriers, some 20 feet high - were erected to separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in the city. Inside these communities, gable ends were painted with murals depicting paramilitary fighters or proclaiming propaganda messages. Homes in Catholic areas were adorned with the Irish tricolor flag, while the British Union Jack was flown from the houses of Protestants.
To this day, twenty-one years after the 1998 ceasefire that brought a formal end to The Troubles, you can still see much of this iconography in some neighborhoods, and there are still Peace Walls dividing sectarian communities who live a - literal - stones throw away from each other.
In 1992, Billy Wright attempted to have O’Hagan murdered in retribution for his investigations into Loyalist activities. Hearing of the assassination plot, the journalist temporarily moved to the office of the Sunday World in Dublin, and later to the city of Cork on the southwest coast of Ireland. From exile, he continued to write on the paramilitaries, and Billy Wright in particular.
Wright’s unit in the Ulster Volunteer Force was nicknamed the “Brat Pack” as they were all relatively young. O’Hagan picked up on this and satirically named them the “Rat Pack”, with Billy Wright as “King Rat”. Much to Wright’s annoyance, the nickname became popular with the media. In retribution, Wright had the Sunday World’s office in Belfast firebombed.
Returning to Northern Ireland, O’Hagan continued to write for the newspaper, and he continued to receive death threats for his work exposing the operations of the Loyalists. In particular, he began to focus on allegations of collusion between these Protestant paramilitaries and the police. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was viewed by the Republican movement as the gendarmerie of British imperialism, and it was assumed that there were links between its officers - who were generally speaking, but by no means exclusively, Protestant - and Loyalist groups.
Working with the London-based Channel 4 television news, in 1991 O’Hagan uncovered the existence of something called the Ulster Central Co-ordinating Committee. This was a group comprised of Loyalist paramilitary leaders, the police, and British military and intelligence officers. The purpose of this covert committee was allegedly to organize sectarian assassinations against members of the IRA, as well as another Republican group called the Irish National Liberation Army. Unsurprisingly, the British government and the Royal Ulster Constabulary denied any such collusion with the Loyalist paramilitaries.
Channel 4 was hit with a series of prosecutions and libel cases, and ultimately fined £75,000 plus legal costs. The program makers had refused to name names in court. They would not reveal who had spilled the beans about collusion and the Ulster Central Co-ordinating Committee, and it cost them a pretty penny.
In 1998, a peace agreement in Northern Ireland was finally reached after prolonged negotiations between the Republicans, the British and Irish governments, and the Loyalist groups. Power was devolved from London to a new legislative assembly in Belfast, and that power was to be shared between the factions that had for decades been locked in bitter conflict. It has always been an uneasy peace, with deep resentments, distrust, and ongoing divisions, but for most people it’s a damn sight better than life during The Troubles. Still, violence always bubbles just beneath the surface.
On the evening of Friday, September 28th, 2001, Martin O’Hagan and his wife went to their local pub in the town of Lurgan. This was their Friday routine: a few drinks with old friends, a chance to take a break from the messy world of tabloid journalism. The pub had a mixed crowd, Protestants and Catholics, and people of no particular affiliation. People were simply enjoying a drink and chat, living in the new era of relative peace, the security concerns of The Troubles by-and-large behind them. Yes, there were still a few dissident groups causing problems in Belfast; but for most folk, Northern Ireland was a quieter, safer place.
O’Hagan was not blind to the fact that his work still put him at risk. As an investigative journalist, he knew he’d always be a target for powerful forces with dangerous secrets to hide. Not only was he still investigating the past crimes of Loyalists and the ongoing claims of police collusion, but he was also looking into the criminal activities of former paramilitary fighters, from both sides of the sectarian divide, who had moved seamlessly from the armed struggle to common criminal activities such as smuggling, drug dealing, and protection rackets.
Making their way home, O’Hagan and his wife had to walk past a Protestant neighborhood, a part of town known to be home to a number of Loyalists. As they neared their home, a car pulled slowly alongside them. O’Hagan pushed his wife aside as a gunman opened fire from the passenger seat, hitting him several times. He was dead by the time the ambulance arrived.
A dissident paramilitary group called the Red Hand Defenders, which had not signed up to the peace agreement, claimed responsibility for the slaying. The group was largely made up of former members of a splinter group from the Ulster Volunteer Force, a faction which had been formed and briefly led by Billy Wright.
Wright himself had been killed while serving time in prison in 1998, shot to death by the Irish National Liberation Army. Questions were raised as to how the Republican group could have smuggled a gun into a maximum security prison - with some people suggesting that maybe the British authorities were quite happy to have Wright, with his possible knowledge of collusion between Loyalists and the police, permanently silenced.
In the months and years after O’Hagan’s death, little progress was made finding his killers. There was a sense among his former colleagues at the Sunday World that the police were none too enthusiastic about investigating the assassination of a man who had been investigating allegations against that very police force.
Instead, the paper carried out its own long-running investigation into the killing. April 2008 the Sunday World published an article naming Robin King as the killer. King, who lived in Lurgan, was a well-known Loyalist paramilitary leader, who had been a close friend and comrade-in-arms of Billy Wright. The paper asked why the Police Service of Northern Ireland had not already arrested and charged King, when, in the view of the editors, there was clear evidence that he was the one behind the killing.
With mounting claims that the police were deliberately dragging their feet because of collusion, five men were eventually arrested for the murder of Martin O’Hagan and put on trial in September 2008. None, however, were convicted. The case against the accused was paper-thin, relying on the testimony of a single witness without much credibility.
Critics of the investigation claimed that the trial had been little more than a sop, a token effort by the police and public prosecutors, without any real intention to secure a conviction.
Sunday World editor Jim Campbell has campaigned for years for justice for his former colleague and friend. In 2016, he spoke with the Irish News newspaper, claiming that O’Hagan's killers were never convicted because those involved were paid police informers.
“They boasted they would never face trial because they could reveal damning information about collusion with the police in several sectarian killings,” Campbell said.
He added that he’d received information that police officers had been warned in advance of O’Hagan’s assassination that a Loyalist gang was driving around Lurgan looking for someone.
In 2018, the National Union of Journalists issued a renewed call on the governments of Ireland and the UK to appoint an independent international investigation into the murder of O’Hagan. Séamus Dooley, the union’s Irish secretary, called for a re-investigation of the circumstances surrounding the assassination, stating that the failure to secure a successful prosecution for the killing of O’Hagan was, quote, “a stain on the history of Northern Ireland.”
The murder was a direct attack on the freedom of the press,” Dooley stated, adding, “The failure to apprehend those responsible for his murder casts a dark shadow for all who care about human rights and the right of journalists to operate freely and without threat.”
Just a few weeks ago, another journalist was killed in Northern Ireland. Her name was Lyra McKee.
A 29-year-old freelance journalist, she was present during a disturbance in a neighborhood of the city of Derry.
The police had received intelligence that a dissident Republican organization, calling itself the New IRA, was planning an operation, and that a house in the neighborhood was being used by the group.
During the raid, local youth in the predominantly Catholic working class area attacked the police vehicles, setting two cars on fire with petrol bombs. As the incident turned into a riot, McKee tweeted that it was a scene of “absolute madness”.
Standing near an armored police vehicle, McKee was hit in the head by a bullet. After being rushed to hospital she was pronounced dead.
In a later statement by the the New IRA, the group acknowledged that one of its members had fired the shot - but they insisted that McKee was not the target.
Nonetheless, her death is another tragic example of the impact of sectarian politics in Northern Ireland, and an example of the inherent dangers of being a journalist, just doing your job, in many parts of the world.
Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of Assassinations Podcast.
Next week, we’re launching an investigation into the killing of Henry Liu, a Taiwanese journalist who was assassinated in California in 1984, by members of the Bamboo Gang, a triad organization, allegedly acting on the orders of the government of Taiwan.
Liu had written a critical, unauthorized biography. He was verbally attacked for writing this book - and it cost him his life.
Please stay tuned after the credits to hear about a podcast we’ve been enjoying lately, Murder Mile. Murder Mile is a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk of London’s most notorious (and often forgotten) murder cases, all set within one square mile of the West End. If you enjoyed our episodes on the case of Alexander Litvinenko, I recommend checking out their take on the famous case. Stay tuned after the credits to learn more about the show.
This episode was researched & written by me, Niall Cooper.
Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show.
Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald. To hear more of Graeme’s music, check out his band, Remember Remember. We’ve included a link to his iTunes band page in our show notes.
You’ll find us on Twitter, @AssasinsPod.
If you’d like to support the show, check us out on Patreon at patreon.com/assassinationspodcast. And if you’re a current patron, we have a bonus episode on the death of Lyra McKee.
Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you next week.
Until then, goodbye.
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