Irish gifts - sales benefit the Newshound

Shining light on the dark corners

(by Anne Cadwallader, Ireland on Sunday)

MARTIN O'HAGAN was that rare commodity, a journalist who went where his instincts took him, without fear or favour, caring little for his personal safety and with equal suspicion for both republican and loyalist camps.After all, another route is available, as loyalist protesters repeatedly point out. If the parents would only use it, albeit temporarily, that would allow a "cooling off" period for talks to begin in a bid to resolve the crisis.

He would go off on tangents. You might call him for advice on whether this or that repulsive Portadown drug-dealer was linked to the UVF or LVF. By the end of the conversation he had filled you in on who was cheating on who, who had sworn to murder who, where the fault lines were and whose star was on the ascendant.

He poked around in corners where some people don't like journalists poking. Others prefer to leave some dark corners undisturbed.

Martin was not one of them. Show him a dark corner and he would shine a light on it.

In other parts of the world, such activity is risky. But in the North, where armed gangs roam about and strike macho postures on top of their lethal dungheaps, you take your life in your hands.

He is the second person to die who was connected to allegations that an "inner circle" existed in the 1980s, linking some RUC officers, businessmen and clergy to the UVF killer gangs headed up by Robin "Jackal" Jackson and Billy "King Rat" Wright.

The solicitor, Rosemary Nelson, murdered by loyalists in March 1999, was another Lurgan resident who, perhaps, knew too much and was intimidated and finally killed for it.

There are demands for a public inquiry into her murder, demands that have not been acceded to. Perhaps now more pressure will begin to build for an inquiry into the deeds that Martin O'Hagan and Rosemary Nelson were dedicated to unveiling.

Sean McPhilemy, the man who produced The Committee for Channel 4 and who later wrote a book based on the programme, was assisted in his work by both Rosemary Nelson and Martin O'Hagan.

Those who sought to denigrate the main thesis of the programme, used the fact of an ancient arms charge against Martin to smear him and, by implication, his work. It was a low tactic, but worked with some people.

When this happened, Martin would shrug his shoulders. He knew that some of his colleagues looked down on him and dismissed his work. He marvelled at a world where such things could happen, and yet few other than he appeared to give a damn.

I remember only too well the frustrated phonecalls, the sense of surprise in his voice as he explained that no one believed some of the facts he had dug up on his journeys.

He didn't cut the kind of figure that the phrase "investigative journalist" might conjure up. He was short in stature, with a hirsute face and thick spectacles. He was no Clark Kent.

But, spend a few minutes in his company and you suddenly realised that here was guy who really knew his stuff. His information wasn't surface-superficial, but deep, down and dirty. It was frightening even talking to him.

He would go off on tangents. You might call him for advice on whether this or that repulsive Portadown drug-dealer was linked to the UVF or LVF. By the end of the conversation he had filled you in on who was cheating on who, who had sworn to murder who, where the fault lines were and whose star was on the ascendant.

He retained that vital sense of anger; anger that loyalist drug-lords in Portadown and Lurgan could destroy so many young people's lives by feeding them a potent and poisonous mixture of illegal substances and ridiculous paranoia.

There are certain boundaries which journalists cross at their peril. If you cross them, you know the risks. Marty knew the risks and he crossed over. He couldn't help himself, it was in his nature.

Many journalists, most in fact, choose not to cross over. The RUC, after all, carry guns and live in areas that offer at least some protection from those they hunt down.

It's the job of the police to dig into the darker regions of paramilitary drug-dealing not journalists.

Or so some of us tell ourselves to salve our consciences for not, perhaps, having the courage to chase the real stories.

Marty knew no such fastidiousness. He was irresistibly drawn to the dark deeds of those who kill "for God and Ulster".

He spent more time delving into loyalist activity than republican for the simple reason that there was more scope in it.

He knew he was under death threat, and at one point, when the threats became particularly frightening, took his wife and family out of Lurgan to live in Cork for their safety.

But, before too long, the family longed to get back to the North, and Martin returned, hoping that they had forgotten about him.

Well, they hadn't forgotten and on Friday night they silenced him with three bullets in the back. He died after a night out with his wife; he always went out on a Friday night, in his beloved Lurgan.

Many journalists still regard the mid-Ulster area, that amorphous and dangerous country north of Armagh city, south of Cookstown, west of Lisburn and east of Aughnacloy as the "murder triangle".

The murders might not be as frequent as they once were, but the countryside still contains some of the most vicious killers in the North, people who regard little bits of territory as their own, and woe to anyone who trespasses. We step into that land, if we know anything at all, with trepidation. It was Marty's "beat" and he regarded it with a mixture of love and loathing.

He loved his home town, but he knew only too well what dangers lurked under the surface.

Not only did he know them, he studied them, up close. Not for him the phone call or careful interview.

He moved among those he was writing about every day and every night. As a result, he knew what was going on. He was generous with his time and information. He would sometimes call me with stories that he had investigated but, for some reason or another, his own paper had decided not to run. I was reluctant to use another journalist's information, both because I thought it ethically wrong and because I would rather do the investigating myself, although I never had the time and was, frankly, often too scared to do so.

I feel now that I let him down, although at least I believed him and listened to him and marvelled at his information.

I never, as others did, laughed at him and tried to dismiss his work as irrelevant or unreliable. I believed him. Because of the way he died, there will be fewer, even than there are now, to probe the depths he probed.

It means there are loathsome creatures who sell drugs and peddle propaganda to young loyalist people in mid-Ulster who will sleep quieter in their beds as a result.

Martin was a one-off. He takes to his grave thousands of stories that will never now be published. Those of us who believed him have a duty now to press, more than ever, for the light of the truth, in the form of a public inquiry, to be shone on his serious claims of RUC/loyalist collusion.

September 30, 2001

This article first appeared in the Ireland on Sunday's September 30 edition.