McGurk's bar massacre victim confronts killer
How I came face to face with the man who killed my mum, sister and uncle in our bar 40 years ago
This was the moment I had dreaded but waited for all of my life — staring into the eyes of the man who murdered my mother, 14-year-old sister and uncle.
Robert James Campbell is the only person to have been convicted of the loyalist murders of my loved ones and the 12 other innocent victims of the McGurk’s Bar atrocity.
He also murdered Protestant workman John Morrow, who had been driving five Catholic workmates through Ligoneil in 1976 when UVF gunmen sprayed the van with bullets.
Jimmy Campbell, as he’s known, was convicted of 16 murders in 1978 and served 15 years in prison — less than one year for each of the lives we know he took.
He also inflicted nearly 40 years of pain and loss upon my family, relatives and friends of those who perished on that terrible night.
But since his release in the early 90s he’s never even been photogaphed by the media – until now – and he has persistently refused to co-operate with official inquiries.
He has always resisted pleas for him to name the rest of the murder gang.
But could I change his mind and change our lives for the better, if I confronted him and actually managed to persuade him to help us and possibly save his own soul?
That key question hung heavy in my mind as I found myself knocking on the door of his small terraced house in north Belfast.
It was like a countdown to catharsis as I stood there for five minutes, rapping on the cheap aluminium knocker.
I don’t know why I persisted. But my gut instinct told me that he was there.
Then I peered through his living room window. And there he was — staring at me motionless, his glasses glinting in the light of the television.
It was a look which gave me the strangest feeling. It was a gaze which seemed to say: “I’ve been expecting you, after all these years”.
I made a sign with my finger for him to open the door. Seconds later, there he was in a shabby blue and grey jumper and grey sweat pants — greeting me with a sharp “hello”.
Here, in front of me, was the man of my nightmares — the man who had mercilessly killed my mother and sister and 13 others and nearly killed me, after being encased in a premature tomb of walls and rubble.
“Hello Mr Campbell,” I said. “My name is John McGurk. I am one of the survivors of the McGurk’s bar bomb. I’d like to talk to you.”
He nodded at me and ushering me into his hall.
Then, her face flushed with anxiety and anger, his wife ordered me to get out.
But Campbell remonstrated: “No, no, no, no. Not this one. This one is different. Stay here. Come on in.”
As I told him that I was there to find out if he was genuinely sorry for what he had done, he put his arm on my shoulder and repeated “I know, I know”.
It had been suggested to me that this encounter could provide me with my own ‘five minutes of Heaven’, just like Jimmy Nesbitt’s character confronting Liam Neeson’s loyalist killer character in the film of the same name.
But what ensued for me was 15 minutes of limbo — as I witnessed an old man apologise to me over and over again but refuse to say more about what happened.
As I listened to him, I wavered between belief and cynicism — and all emotions in between.
There was still a steely strength in his refusal to tell me anything more.
Eight times I asked him to tell me more about what happened and about the others who carried out the barbaric bombing with him. But eight times he refused — repeating over and over: “I can’t” or “I won’t”.
Rarely looking me in the eye, he told me that he was “disgusted” with what he had done.
“Unfortunately, I can do nothing to help all those poor people and all I can say is sorry,” he said. “Sorry is only a wee word. But it means a whole lot, you know. That’s all I can do for you, boss.”
I countered that — telling him that he could do “so much more”.
I told him he could have proved his remorse by co-operating with the Police Ombudsman and Historical Enquries Team reports — something which he refused to do.
But addressing my question about possible collusion between the UVF and the security forces, he said: “That particular incident... sorry, I actually knew nothing about that, until half an hour before it took place.
“And, as far as I know, it was nothing to do with army, police or anything, as far as I know.”
But when I asked him if he was hinting that there could have been collusion, he dismissed this, with a quick “no, no”.
An elderly man now — wheezing with poor health — I could tell that Campbell has a sense of his own mortality.
Could it be, I wondered, that he realises it is time to try to make amends?
As I glanced at the photos of sons and grandchildren on his walls, I reflected on how he had robbed all the families of the McGurk’s bar bombing with one of life’s most precious pleasures.
I reflected again on how he had refused to tell me anything about the other four men allegedly involved in the atrocity — even though they are reputed to be dead.
I reflected on his refusal to consider meeting any of the other relatives of the people he had murdered, with an agitated: “I just couldn’t handle it.”
As he grasped my hand for a second and third time, I thought that he may truly be sorry for what he did. Then the 75-year-old loyalist killer told me that he “could not handle” our meeting any longer.
But I told him: “It is very hard for me. And you’ve also got to understand that I am sure what you are going through now is nothing compared to what me and the other families have gone through for the 40 years.”
Then I gave him a final opportunity to make his peace with me.
And I knew that I was also giving him the chance to do something good for himself.
“I think that you could make your peace by helping me and those other people,” I told him.
But the man who murdered so many, wouldn’t, or maybe just couldn’t, take up that chance of spiritual salvation.
Casting his eyes to the floor and shaking his head, he whispered: “I can’t Mr McGurk. I am very, very sorry... You are going to have to leave me alone.”
Was he expressing sorrow for me and the others whose lives he ripped apart? Or was his sorrow motivated by a fear for himself?
As I left him, without a backwards glance, I suspected that it was both.
During our encounter, he said that he had asked God “many’s a time” to forgive him and that he thought God had forgiven him.
As I closed the killer’s door — the man who had taken my mother and sister away from me — I thought about my father and what he had always taught me and my brothers.
By his Christian example, he taught me to try and forgive Robert James Campbell and the men this killer protects to this very day.
But my dad also reminded us that God will judge us all, if we do not show true repentance for our sins, through our actions.
Mr Campbell, if you are reading this, maybe you should surely reflect upon this today, before it is too late.
A simple sorry would be nice
“Forgive, but never forget’ “ — that is the remarkable legacy of Christian charity, humanity and love left by my father, Patrick McGurk.
“I wish this sacrifice to be offered up, that peace may prevail in the community, that it wouldn’t cause friction and furthermore that, as the Good Book says, ‘Father forgive them’.’’
These are the simple but powerful words uttered by my father — only one day after loyalist paramilitaries murdered his wife, his 14-year-old daughter, brother-in-law and 12 customers, whom he called friends, in the McGurk’s Bar atrocity on December 4, 1971.
His moving display of true Christian charity made me — his youngest son — literally gasp for breath after UTV’s Jane Loughrey discovered the footage for her balanced, yet deeply touching news report last week.
I gasped with emotion as I saw my father’s face, bearing thick dark stitches to close the bloody wounds inflicted by UVF terrorists.
But it was his calm strength and lack of bitterness which made me catch my breath even more so, with sheer admiration and love for this most extraordinary of ‘ordinary’ men.
He coped with the unimaginable pain for the rest of his life with a dignified reluctance to talk about the night he lost virtually everything, except me, my two brothers — and his faith.
That silent pain was compounded by insinuations that the explosion had been an ‘IRA own-goal’ and that decent folk were somehow responsible for their own deaths.
The strangest thing though is that my late father’s TV interview also made me think of PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott.
Both men share deeply ingrained Christian faiths and an unswerving dedication to family, church and civic duty.
At the time of the McGurk’s massacre my father was 50 years of age – Mr Baggott’s age now.
The Police Ombudsman’s report into the RUC investigation last Monday found there had been “investigative bias” and advised Mr Baggott to say sorry for the actions of the force after the atrocity.
Although former Stormont security minister Paul Goggins apologised in 2008, sorry seems to be the hardest word for Mr Baggott to say — in Northern Ireland anyway.
Mr Baggott also dismissed the Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson’s finding that there had been “investigative bias” within the RUC, inexplicably claiming that “several” other reports had reached different conclusions.
Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson displayed a refreshingly open and honest ability to admit to past mistakes by apologising to the McGurk bombing relatives for his first, highly-criticised and hastily withdrawn report into the atrocity.
Surely Mr Baggott, it’s not too much to ask you to say that simple word - “sorry”.
Fifteen innocent people ranging in ages from 13 to 73 were killed in the ‘no warning’ UVF bombing of McGurk’s bar, near Belfast city centre on December 4, 1971.
They were: Francis Bradley, 61, dock labourer. John Colton, 49, coach builder and part-time barman at McGurk’s. James Cromie, 13, schoolboy. Philip Garry, 73, school lollipop man.
Kathleen ‘Kitty’ Irvine, 45, mill worker and mother of five. Her family is at the forefront of the campaign to uncover the truth about the tragedy.
Edward Kane, 25, married man with a family. Thomas Kane, 45, livestock drover. Edward Keenan, 69, retired dock labourer. Sarah Keenan, 58, wife of Edward.
Maria McGurk, 14, schoolgirl. Philomena ‘Phyllis’ McGurk, 46, mother of Maria and wife of bar owner.
Thomas McLaughlin, 55, foreman labourer. David Milligan, 52, dock labourer James Smyth, 55, docker. Robert Charles Spotswood, 38, slater.
Source Sunday Life