Belfast Telegraph

Why sorry shouldn't be the easiest word to say for McGurk's bar bomber

By Gail Walker

John McGurk's extraordinary account at the weekend of meeting one of the men who killed his mother, uncle and 14-year-old sister in the notorious bar bombing in 1971 made for harrowing reading.

John is a journalist with the Sunday Life and someone whom I've known to say hello to for a few years. A lovely, gentle guy, he always has a smile and a cheery word at the coffee machine. Remarkable, really. Given what he's had visited upon him.

A few days ago, John confronted convicted killer Robert James 'Jimmy' Campbell, who served 15 years for 16 murders, at his home and squeezed from him an apology for his role in the atrocity.

"Unfortunately I can do nothing to help all those poor people and all I can say is sorry. Sorry is only a wee word. But it means a whole lot, you know. That's all I can do for you, boss."

What he couldn't do, though, was gain any information from Campbell on the anonymous men who helped him plant the bomb which tore through his family's life and left them with a 40-year legacy of hurt and loss which has not diminished with the passing of time.

Campbell is now an elderly man in failing health. There is no reason to doubt that he feels sorrow for his deeds. The photograph accompanying McGurk's exposé shows an old man like any other one might meet in the street or at a bus stop or tottering for his pension.

But this is not a man like any other. This is a man for whom "apology" became something for which he had been preparing, getting used to the idea of, in the years since his release in the early 1990s.

So much so, so well had he accustomed himself to the notion that the foul murders he had perpetrated in the name of Ulster were indeed things to be apologised for, that while his wife was shooing John from the door, he could step past her and bring one of his surviving victims inside his home.

Campbell assured John that he had asked God "many's a time" for forgiveness and was convinced God had forgiven him.

It is remarkable how, even in the hardest of hearts, the ideas of repentance and forgiveness hold such sway.

But it is only remarkable in how even those ideas have become bastardised in our society.

It was no problem for Jimmy Campbell to apologise. After all, the deed was done. As he says himself, there is nothing else he can do for the people he murdered.

Except shop his chums. Which he will not do. More powerful than repentance, you see, stronger even than forgiveness or what vestiges of Christian faith this man wraps round himself as his own death approaches, is the loyalty to those who got away with it.

This land is stalked by men like Jimmy Campbell.

Like him in that they are murderers, but unlike him in that they have never been brought to face their deeds in public. Who knows how many? For them, "sorrow" would only begin to be manufactured on the day they are arrested.

Amid all the talk of victims' commissions and reconciliation movements, the fact is no-one expects killers, of whatever hue, who have never been caught to come forward and volunteer their testimony.

It's only ex-prisoners who can be tracked down and confronted rightfully by those still living with the effects of crimes the killer "put behind them" decades ago.

And those ex-prisoners themselves, like Campbell, keep mum about their comrades in arms. Still in hiding. Still cowards.

Meanwhile, men like John McGurk proceed to live their productive, harmless, forgiving, tolerant, blameless lives. We are meant to praise the murderers for seeing the error of their ways - but make sure not to ask them unreasonable questions.

Because John McGurk is not a killer; he only turned up on Campbell's doorstep with questions to ask. With a pen in his hand, not a gun in his pocket. He was just a man wanting to know who killed his mum, his sister and his uncle all those years ago. He got nowhere.

For him, "sorry" is the easiest word of all.

Far too easy, boss.

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