Britain faces rising militant Protestant threat in Northern Ireland as Catholic journalist slain

Friday, September 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LURGAN, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Northern Ireland's security chiefs debated Saturday how to defeat Protestant extremists behind a wave of attacks on Catholics, particularly the slaying of a Catholic investigative journalist _ the first reporter slain in three decades of terrorism.

A caller claiming to represent an extremist anti-Catholic group, the Red Hand Defenders, told the British Broadcasting Corp. it killed veteran Sunday World journalist Martin O'Hagan on Friday night. The caller cited his reports into the Protestant paramilitary underworld.

O'Hagan, 51, had been walking back to his home with his wife in his hometown of Lurgan when shots fired from a passing car struck him in the head. Police later found the attackers' burnt-out vehicle in a nearby Protestant neighborhood.

``Those who have carried out this heinous act have absolutely nothing to offer the people of Northern Ireland except fear and silence,'' said Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen. The slaying represented ``an assault on one of the fundamental principles of any democratic society _ an independent and unfettered media.''

O'Hagan had long been hated by Protestant militants because of his reports on leading paramilitary figures, their many murders and criminal rackets.

He coined headline-grabbing nicknames for the most infamous godfathers, including ``King Rat'' for Billy Wright, the founder of the outlawed Loyalist Volunteer Force, a 5-year-old Protestant gang rooted in Lurgan's neighboring town, Portadown.

Wright personally threatened to kill O'Hagan in 1993 after his henchmen bombed the Sunday World's Belfast office, and O'Hagan fled south to the Republic of Ireland. But he had been working more openly in Northern Ireland ever since Wright was assassinated in prison in 1997 and the Loyalist Volunteers called a cease-fire following the Northern Ireland peace accord of 1998.

Despite the Red Hand Defenders' claim of responsibility, police say the very existence of this group is debatable. They say it provides cover for members of Wright's Loyalist Volunteers and a much larger Belfast-based paramilitary group, the Ulster Defense Association, which are both supposed to be observing cease-fires in support of the 1998 pact.

The dilemma for Britain is that the killing immediately followed Britain's high-profile demand for UDA commanders to end attacks on Catholics, as well as on riot police protecting Catholic neighborhoods. Police said 46 of their officers were wounded in UDA-inspired rioting in Belfast earlier this week.

Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, John Reid, announced Friday he would sign an order declaring that the UDA's 1994 cease-fire was no longer valid if police implicated the UDA in any more violence. But he didn't mention the Loyalist Volunteers, who in recent years have built a working relationship with Belfast UDA figures, particularly in their common pursuit of drug trafficking.

Reid declined to say Saturday whether his threat to punish the UDA would be applied to the Loyalist Volunteers. He said he discussed options with Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, commander of Northern Ireland's predominantly Protestant police force, ``and I share his absolute determination to track down the cowards responsible for this act of savagery.''

Britain's primary leverage against both outlawed groups would be to imprison members given early parole under terms of the 1998 accord. More than 200 UDA men and 30 Loyalist Volunteers have walked free from prison, often after serving only fractions of their intended sentences for murders.

Meanwhile, Reid announced the full membership of a joint Catholic-Protestant board to reshape the police force, one of the most complex and important goals of the 1998 peace deal.

Britain has spent the past two years trying to win Catholic support for its reform plans, which already go too far for many Protestants.

Reid said Saturday that the board's deputy chairman would be a former Catholic priest, Denis Bradley, who served in the early 1990s as a secret intermediary between Britain and the Irish Republican Army during efforts to broker a cease-fire.

In a break from Catholics' traditional boycott of policing, Northern Ireland's moderate Catholic party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, has accepted seats on the 19-member board. But Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that represents more hard-line Catholics, has refused to take its seats, which instead have been allocated to Protestants.