A Northern Ireland coroner has ruled that Martin O'Hagan's assassination was linked to the reporter's investigation of a loyalist paramilitary gang, and hears an admission by officers that they have been unable to prosecute those they believe are responsible.
A senior policeman has told a coroner's inquest in Northern Ireland he believed that eight men interviewed over the murder of the investigative journalist Martin O'Hagan five years ago had been responsible for the killing. The suspects have never been charged for lack of evidence following the drive-by shooting. O'Hagan, 51, was shot dead by loyalist paramilitaries as he walked home from a pub in Lurgan, County Armagh, with his wife in September 2001. The coroner in Armagh, John Leckey, has now paid tribute to the bravery of O'Hagan for his crime reporting for the Sunday World newspaper. He ruled that death was caused by gunshot wounds to the chest and abdomen, and said he was satisfied with the police theory that the reporter was murdered because he had been investigating a paramilitary gang, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, which was dealing drugs in the Mid-Ulster area. He branded the LVF a sinister organisation and said a number of newsagents in the area had stopped selling the Sunday World after being threatened. Mr Leckey said: "There were widespread threats, not only against journalists like Mr O'Hagan who was seeking to expose these criminals, but also against those who distributed the newspaper which contains his articles." He noted that Mr O'Hagan was the first journalist to be murdered in such circumstances in Northern Ireland, but that such killings happened around the world. The bravery of such investigative reporters "needs to be recognised", he added. Police Chief Inspector Charles Patterson told the inquest he was confident that eight men arrested and questioned in the weeks after the murder were behind the killing. They were released for lack of evidence. "These people are associated with the LVF in the Lurgan area. Unfortunately, despite extensive investigations, I don't have the evidence to proceed against these persons," said Mr Patterson. He said the murder investigation remained alive, but admitted it was not actively being worked on. He said the case would be internally reviewed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in the New Year. Kevin Cooper, chairman of Belfast and District Branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), said later that the inquest had lasted only a couple of hours, and that local journalists had been hoping for a more meticulous examination of the evidence - given the level of disquiet over the whole affair. He said there had been no reference at the inquest to intelligence reports compiled on the case, or to widespread claims that there had been agents or informers of the security forces among the murder gang and that the police investigation had failed in order to protect them. The police have always vehemently denied this. However, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Nuala O'Loan, is now looking into the stalled investigation following a recent formal complaint from O'Hagan's siblings. Séamus Dooley, the Irish secretary of the NUJ, repeated the union's call for an outside police force to take over the murder investigation. He said: "The inquest was a grim reminder of the pain and suffering of the O'Hagan family." He added: "There needs to be a greater sense of urgency about this investigation. We find the approach of the PSNI unacceptable and, at this stage, the only solution is the involvement of an outside police force."