Patricia Devlin was at home in Northern Ireland when the police arrived with a stark message: there was an immediate threat to her life from members of the outlawed Ulster Defence Association, a pro-British faction linked to the criminal underworld.
“I was told that a UDA group had planned an imminent attack on me and that they were in possession of firearms and pipe bombs,” said Ms Devlin, a journalist at the Sunday World newspaper who reports on paramilitary crime in the UK region and has been threatened in the past.
“Within 12 hours, police were back at my house again to say they had received further intelligence that west Belfast UDA planned to shoot me and that the shooting would take place in Belfast city centre in the next day or two,” she added.
The threats against Ms Devlin were the latest in an escalating cycle of paramilitary intimidation against journalists in Northern Ireland reporting on organised crime and criminality.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based group that promotes press freedom, said it has been monitoring the situation and documenting incidents.
“It’s very important that the region’s law enforcement thoroughly investigate all threats against members of the press and hold those responsible to account,” said Gulnoza Said, the group’s Europe and Central Asia co-ordinator. “Lawmakers and government officials should support free and independent media and commit to protecting journalists.”
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement settled decades of political violence over Northern Ireland’s future but the long transition to peace has not ended pro-British loyalist or Irish republican paramilitarism — and some members of these illegal groups have taken to crime, including narcotics, fuel-laundering, counterfeiting or loan-sharking.
The Independent Reporting Commission, a panel of experts Britain and Ireland established by treaty to promote the ending of paramilitarism, recently said there were still “thousands” of signed-up members of paramilitary organisations. But “only a relatively small number” of activists were involved directly in specific illegal activities at any time.
“There are those who use paramilitarism as cover for criminality — assaults, extortion, drugs, and other crimes including threats to political representatives and journalists,” the commission said in November.
“The paramilitary ‘cloak’ allows them to conduct these activities under a quasi-political guise in the context of Northern Ireland and its history,” it added.
Leaders of the region’s devolved executive have also received threats. Arlene Foster, first minister and head of the Democratic Unionist party, this week said she had been “made aware” by police of a threat against her by the UDA, which she believes was a response to her support for the family of a man murdered last year. The threat was criticised across the political divide.
The National Union of Journalists, the profession’s main representative body in the UK and Ireland, reported a litany of threats and intimidation against Northern Irish journalists in 2020. Loyalists were blamed for many of the most serious cases. But dissident republicans opposed to the Irish Republican Army’s embrace of the Good Friday deal also threatened a journalist based in Belfast for the Irish News in April.
Attempts via intermediaries to stop the threats have proved fruitless, according to Séamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary, who said threats were being made nearly every week. “There is no route through intermediaries in these cases and the reason for that is that the intimidation and threats are not politically motivated and they’re outside all [command] structures,” he said.
“When we talk about this being paramilitarism, that disguises the fact that this is about criminality and it’s no coincidence that the journalists under greatest threat are those whose work threatens to impede the making of profit.”
The threats have intensified despite public outrage at the murder in April 2019 of Lyra McKee, a young journalist shot dead while observing a riot in Londonderry, also known as Derry. The so-called New IRA, a dissident republican faction, claimed responsibility for the killing.
Ms Devlin was one of two Sunday World journalists to receive loyalist threats in November. Another of the title’s reporters, Martin O’Hagan, was murdered by loyalists in 2001. The paper is part of Independent News & Media, the largest news group on the island of Ireland. Another journalist at INM titles the Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life was also threatened — while in May a blanket threat was issued against all Sunday Life and Sunday World staff, drawing criticism across the political spectrum.
Ed McCann, INM deputy publisher, said the newspapers were being targeted for shining a light on the illicit activities of paramilitaries. “It’s important for Northern Ireland as a society to move on. Any attack on freedom of speech is in some ways trying to hold us back and stop us from moving on,” he said.
“Journalism plays such an important role in exposing the detrimental impact wrought by the remnants of paramilitarism, particularly on working class communities.”
Ms Devlin has complained to the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland about what she said was the PSNI’s failure to investigate a threat made against her baby last year that was signed in the name of the neo-Nazi Combat 18 group, which had past links with loyalists. The chief suspect behind the threat tried to contact her in her office during the summer.
The PSNI said it could not comment on the case: “We do not discuss the security of individuals and no inference should be drawn from this. However, we never ignore anything which may put an individual at risk.”
But Ms Devlin, a journalist for 14 years, said the “never-ending” intimidation had worsened in the past two years. “It’s moved from online abuse to threats to being warned that there’s going to be an attempt on my life within two days,” she said.
“When you’re out and about doing stories, you’re looking over your shoulder.”