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3 October 2016 Edition

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Bernard O’Hagan – Collusion questions still linger

25th anniversary of UDA/UFF assassination of Sinn Féin councillor at South Derry College

• Sinn Féin Councillor Bernard O’Hagan, was shot dead by a lone gunman as he arrived for work

‘The killer made no effort to disguise his appearance and showed no particular haste to escape after the shooting’

ON THE MORNING of Monday, 16 September 1991, four days after his 38th birthday, Belfast-born Bernard O'Hagan drove into the car park at Magherafelt College. It was the start of the day, with many students and staff around. As Bernard got out of his car, a man walked up to him and fired multiple shots at him. He fell to the ground beside his car and it is thought he died almost immediately. The killer – unmasked – left the college grounds and walked in the direction of Magherafelt town centre. 

The UDA/UFF later claimed it had carried out the killing of the Sinn Féin councillor for The Sperrin Ward.

No one has been arrested or charged in connection with the killing.

Bernard’s wife, Fiona, said he had been targeted because “he was successful and articulate”.

At Bernard’s funeral, Belfast City Councillor Joe Austin said that the cold, calculated assassination was part of a renewed counter-insurgency strategy by the state:

“It was British Military Intelligence who set up our friend and comrade for assassination and who provided information and direction to his killers.”

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• Bernard O'Hagan’s wife, Fiona

In his photographic anthology, Family, Friends and Neighbours, Oistín MacBride writes of Bernard O’Hagan’s death:

“The killer, young and unmasked, fired eight shots and apparently walked out of the front gates of the college and wasn’t seen by another witness. No getaway car was spotted or abandoned. No disguises or overalls dumped. No weapons ever recovered and no one ever charged with any aspect of the killing. Bernard’s killer made it look easy, and it probably was.”

Writing in An Phoblacht in September 2001, Laura Friel noted that the killing of Bernard O’Hagan bore all the hallmarks of crown forces collusion. The pattern was all too familiar in republican circles as Bernard had become a target of heightened RUC and British Army harassment.

Three months before the shooting, the RUC informed Bernard that British Army Intelligence files containing his personal details were in the hands of loyalists. “The stage had been set,” Friel wrote.

Numerous revelations have since emerged of how the British Army undercover Force Research Unit death squad and others that operated in collusion with loyalist death squads had the authority to order all other crown forces personnel out of any area and routinely did so prior to an operation.

“The demeanour of the gunman suggested he had been freed from the normal fear of capture,” Laura Friel reported. “He made no effort to disguise his appearance and showed no particular haste to escape after the shooting.

“The killer displayed a confidence inappropriate to the crime – a confidence most easily understood within the mechanisms of collusion that ensured he’d never be brought to account.”

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• Bernard's body lies covered at Magherafelt College

The expressed belief of leaders of the nationalist community was that Bernard’s killing was a political assassination directed by government forces. This was denied but there were disturbing facts surrounding Bernard’s killing:

  • Bernard was warned that his security records had been disposed of ‘on a dump’ and were in the hands of loyalist paramilitary groups;
  • Bernard said he was being followed continually by RUC officers in the weeks before he was killed;
  • Bernard was targeted by a lone gunman who was not masked and is said to have made his escape through the main gates of the college, going in the direction of the town centre;
  • A major building contractor for the British Army and RUC had its headquarters nearby and it was usual for a heavy security presence to be operating in the area but, on the morning of the killing, there were no RUC or military patrols to be seen in the area, including the usually manned road checkpoints;  
  • Many staff and students witnessed the killing – only two witness statements were presented at the inquest provided in the coroner’s report;
  • No attempt seems to have been made to discover evidence and take statements from people living or working on the route along which the killer made his escape;
  • No appeal for witnesses to come forward was made;
  • ‘Photofit’ evidence was collated but not published;
  • The area of the shooting was not secured and there was no sign of it being searched thoroughly for forensic evidence;
  • Was there a record kept of those who authorised and carried out the disposal of the documents?
  • Why was there no recorded disciplinary action taken against those intelligence officers who allowed files to fall into the hands of Bernard’s UDA/UFF killers? 

Bernard O’Hagan’s family told An Phoblacht:

“Bernard would be the first to let people know that there are over 3,000 families in Ireland who have had to deal with the death of a loved one and that, no matter what the political view, the grief is the same.

“In a civilised, democratic society justice should be equal for all. In the case of Bernard O’Hagan –  and many other victims – justice and the rule of law has been and is continuing to be subverted by the British state. This is a wrong which needs to be righted without delay.”

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