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20 September 2001 Edition

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Bernard O'Hagan remembered

BY LAURA FRIEL

In his photographic anthology ``Family, friends and neighbours'', Oistin 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.''

It was a time of intense repression. The year before the then British Secretary of State Peter Brooke had declared that Britain had ``no selfish economic or strategic interest in Ireland'' and that the British government's sole concern was to facilitate ``democratic debate'' and ``political process''.

But even at the time of Brooke's hundred days speech, northern nationalists and republicans were already experiencing a period of increased conflict as the British heightened their campaign of terror across the Six Counties.

An upsurge in sectarian violence that sought to terrorise nationalist communities formed the backdrop against which the British government pursued a strategy of ambush and assassination. Raids, arrests and the torture of detainees escalated with the introduction of legislation with even greater powers of repression.

The late 1980s and 1990s witnessed a series of SAS shoot to kill operations that included the killing of eight IRA Volunteers in Loughgall in 1987, three in Gibraltar in 1988, and two IRA Volunteers close to Loughgall in 1990, three in Coagh in 1991 and four in Coalisland in 1992.

Ambushes and summary executions of IRA Volunteers were accompanied by a series of political assassinations in which Sinn Féin elected representatives and party activists were repeatedly targeted by the British army's covert unit, the Force Research Unit, and the RUC's Special Branch, colluding with loyalist death squads.

In February 1989, Sinn Féin Councillor John Davey was shot dead as he drove home after a council meeting in Maherafelt. Crown force collusion was immediately suspected because the car in which Davey was driving when he died appeared to have been halted prior to the shooting.

In 1990, Sinn Féin activists Tommy Casey and Sam Marshall were shot dead by loyalist gunmen and on the eve of the New Year, Fergal Caraher was gunned down by a British Army patrol.

In the year Bernard O'Hagan died, the British offensive had continued. In the spring of 1991, Sinn Féin Councillor Eddie Fullerton was shot dead at his Donegal home and in the autumn, election workers Pádraig Ó Seanacháin and Tommy Donaghy were killed.

In line with many other loyalist attacks, the killing of Bernard O'Hagan bore all the hallmarks of crown force collusion. The pattern is all too familiar in republican circles. Bernard became a target of heightened RUC and British army harassment.

Then, three months before the shooting, the RUC informed Bernard that crown force intelligence files containing his personal details were in the hands of loyalists. The stage had been set.

On the morning of the shooting, Bernard's brother noticed an unusual number of crown forces' checkpoints and patrols that a short time later, just prior to the killing, miraculously disappeared.

Recent revelations exposing details of how the FRU operated in collusion with loyalist death squads have confirmed that the covert unit had the authority to order all other crown force personnel out of any area and routinely did prior to an operation.

The demeanour of the gunman suggested he had been freed from the normal fear of capture. 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.

Bernard's widow Fiona, commenting on her husband's death, said that she believed he had been killed because ``he was successful and articulate.''

In 1989, Bernard had been elected to the local Magherafelt District Council and soon established a reputation as a diligent worker on behalf of his constituents. But even this small recognition could not be acknowledged by the unionist-controlled council after his death.

``I've been very annoyed that there has never been any mention of Bernard's death by the council. There's been no sign, it's not mentioned in council minutes. It has never been acknowledged that he was ever there,'' said Fiona.

Speaking at the time of the killing, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams described attacks on party members coupled with the upsurge of sectarian killings as ``a restructured counter insurgency strategy'' in which British crown forces were co coordinating a campaign of terror.

Bernard O'Hagan was the last elected member of Sinn Féin to be assassinated but he was not the last party member to die. The early 1990s also witnessed the killing of Pat McBride, Paddy Loughran, Malachy Carey and Peter Gallagher.

Alan Lundy was shot dead at the house of Sinn Féin Councillor Alex Maskey. Sheena Campbell, the architect of the Torrent strategy, was key election organiser when she was gunned down in 1992.

To date, loyalist assassination squads have killed 17 members of Sinn Féin, many others have been targeted. In 1993, Belfast Sinn Féin Councillor Bobby Lavery survived a gun attack on his home but his son was fatally wounded.

Sheena Campbell's partner, Sinn Féin Councillor Brendan Curran, survived a number of attacks. Belfast Councillor and Assembly member Alex Maskey has also been attacked numerous times. And the threat continues.

In 1999, the Ballycastle home of a Sinn Féin councillor was repeatedly attacked and last year, 20 of the party's elected representatives were warned that they were being actively being targeted by loyalist death squads.

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Bernard O'Hagan, who lived and died in particularly dangerous times. ``It is easy to recount the injustices, dangers and untimely death of Bernard, but that would be only part of the picture,'' says Oistin Mac Bride.

``He was a vibrant intelligent person who thrived on activity and progress. It is not hindsight that defines him as one of the brightest and best. It was his work and passion, his energy and resolve.''
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