Martin O'Hagan 1950-2001

IT WAS a Belfast taxi driver who told NEC member Kevin Cooper that a journalist had been murdered, as he wended his way home on the night of 28 September. "I got in, checked Ceefax and discovered it was Martin O'Hagan." Not only was Martin a close colleague as Secretary of Belfast and District Branch, but had become a friend as Kevin worked hard to protect him from paramilitary violence before. This time, they'd murdered him. This is what Kevin told the London Freelance Branch meeting on 8 October:

It is not unique that a husband or a father or a trade unionist is killed in Northern Ireland.

Neither is Martin the first journalist to be killed as a result of the Troubles. The first was killed in the Harrods bombing in London - as a customer. The second was freelance photographer Ed Henty, killed by the Bishopsgate bomb on 24 April 1993 - by falling glass from the building he was sheltering beneath in the City of London. Tragically, Ed didn't understand how the blast from a bomb works.

But Martin O'Hagan was the first journalist killed in Northern Ireland because he was a journalist and because of his work as a journalist, and that's a terrible milestone.

Martin O'Hagan, killed on 28 September 2001
Martin O'Hagan attending the trade union event to mark May Day 2001. Photo © 2001 Kevin Cooper

For 30 years we journalists thought we could in some way mediate the threats. The NUJ is an international union. It has members from the full spectrum of opinion in Northern Ireland. When threats were issued - and we've had threats from all sides - we were able to tell the parties that the society which needs to understand their views will not hear those views if we are silenced.

Martin had been under threat before - from the "Joint Loyalist Command", a body that included the Loyalist Volunteer Force and particularly a gentleman called Billy Wright, who was later gunned down in prison. Martin had to be moved for his own safety, to work for the Sunday World first in Dublin and then in Cork.

Martin was courageous. Despite the threats, he continued to do the stories that were the reasons they targeted him. He moved back to Northern Ireland as soon as it seemed relatively safe to do so.

He tended to do stories on paramilitaries - of all kinds. He was a major source for the TV documentary The Committee, which alleged collusion between "Loyalist" paramilitaries and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. When the programme makers were sued for libel, Martin stood by his story, and refused to reveal his sources.

It is especially shocking that in the middle of a peace process we have a journalist shot. We need to be very clear about marking this - lest it be easier for paramilitaries to cross that line for the second time.

The way a threat is usually issued in Northern Ireland is that a newsroom is phoned and a recognised codeword is given. That's how we have known the difference between serious threats and, say, random abuse in a bar or shouted from a passing car. There was no such threat or warning on this occasion.

A very serious risk is that journalists will feel threatened all the time because of the lack of warning this time. Once again, the political process is stalling and there is violence in the streets. I come from North Belfast, where there are a lot of very small communities intermingled and there's tension on the streets and pipe-bombings.

It's easy for people in such situations to blame the media. Journalists are human and do make mistakes. But if we live in fear we may be tempted to self-censorship, and self-censorship is the worst form of censorship.

When staff journalists feel frightened, they make themselves unavailable. Often freelances are called on to step in.

Anyone offered work in Northern Ireland should not take it on unless:

  • you have previous experience of working in conflict;
  • the media organisation is providing backup; and
  • you will not be asked to work alone - that's one of the most dangerous things you can do in a conflict.

I have called for a security review of newsrooms and of journalists' homes. That will not be enough. Journalists who live in Northern Ireland are known to their neighbours - especially, but not only, those who front to camera. It is, after all, a small and tangled place. Martin's home in Lurgan was within hundreds of yards of a loyalist housing estate with LVF/Billy Wright murals.

I very much appreciate London Freelance Branch sending a message of condolence to Martin's wife and three daughters.

You should be reassured that the NUJ has a House Agreement at the Sunday World. Management have indicated that they intend to make payments to the family over and above the reasonable terms of that Agreement.

And you should be alerted that the rumour that Martin recognised his killer - or muttered a name before he was shot - is false. Obviously anyone believing that rumour could be a threat to his wife. She believes that, as they were walking back from a regular Friday night in the pub, he saw a car slow down and a window wind down. She reports that he threw her into a hedge to protect her, and turned his back on the car. He was shot in the back. He did not speak a word.

Members of the various governments have expressed their outrage. Politicians in the Northern Ireland Assembly have issued strong statements of condemnation and in favour of the right of the media to work free from intimidation. They include Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble. The UK's Northern Ireland Minister Dr John Reid vowed that the killers would be caught.

I am concerned, though, that the Sunday World released Martin's computer to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They had the best of intentions to help catch Martin's killers. But disclosure of sources is disclosure regardless of the circumstances.

I do congratulate everyone working on the Sunday World for turning the entire paper around in 24 hours. The most appropriate response to this outrage is for journalists to continue to do our job, and get the news out impartially.

  • Kevin also congratulated NUJ staff and officials for their response - "when the union does swing into action, it does well." He mentioned NUJ public relations officer Tim Gopsill; Irish Organiser Seamus Dooley, who was in London and flew to immediately to Belfast where he was of great assistance; Irish Executive Committee Cathaoirleach Mary Maher and office staff in Dublin. General Secretary John Foster flew to attend the funeral on Monday 30 September, as did NUJ President Rory Macleod. Attendance at Martin's funeral was a credit to him and the regard he was held in. Over 100 journalists attended, representing all Northern Ireland newsrooms, and there were some 2000 people there altogether.
Last modified: 16 October 2001 - © 2001 contributors
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