John McGurk reflects on his meeting with the man who had killed his family
The death of the man who murdered my mother, sister, uncle and many other innocent victims gives me no cause for celebration at all.
Why should it? Robert James Campbell’s passing doesn’t bring back my loved ones or any of the many people whose lives he took during his bloody years as a senior UVF terrorist.
My family brought me up to ‘never speak ill of the dead’. And my father helped me to understand that forgiveness is always better than hate.
So, instead I try to accept the news with a calmness and sense of Christian charity — far removed from the hatred which Campbell and his accomplices displayed the night they had murder on their minds.
Whatever your opinion about him may be, one simple fact is indisputable: Robert James Campbell was a sectarian mass murderer.
He remains the only person convicted the McGurk Bar bombing which killed 15 people on a cold dark December 4, 1971 night.
Another one of Campbell’s known victims — Protestant workman John Morrow — died in a hail of bullets when a UVF murder gang sprayed a van carrying Catholic workers in north Belfast in 1976.
But the Ballysillan loyalist resolutely refused to talk about his part in the attack which was the worst sectarian atrocity of the ‘Troubles’ until the horror of the Omagh bombing in 1998.
On a personal level, the revelation that the man known as ‘Jimmy’ or ‘RJ’ to his family and friends has died envelopes me with a numb, inarticulate pain.
His name opens up the chasm of horrific memories which his murderous actions inflicted upon me, my brothers, relatives and the families of all those whose lives he bloodily blighted.
I was truly blessed to escape with my life that terrible winter night when Campbell and his cohorts dumped a bomb intended for another pub at the entrance to my family’s quiet working man’s pub and happy home. His victims ranged in age from childhood friend, 13-year-old Jimmy Cromie to 73-year-old school lollipop man Philip Garry.
Another innocent child, my sister, 14-year-old Maria, perished in the atrocity and my 15-year-old brother Gerard sustained a broken leg.
Others who should never have experienced the horrors of sectarian hatred at such a young age were my other brother, 12-year-old Patrick and friend Seamus Kane.
‘Jimmy’ Campbell cast a shadow over my childhood and my life. But he couldn’t take away my faith in humanity.
And that was principally because of the extraordinary example of Christian faith inspired charity, humanity and love — shown by my father.
Patrick McGurk’s life was quite literally torn apart by Jimmy Campbell. He lost virtually everything — both material and personal — his wife and my mum, Philomena; his only daughter and my sister, Maria; his home and his business.
The day after he had lost everything, my dad told TV interviewer Gordon Burns: “I wish this sacrifice to be offered up, that peace may prevail in the community, that it wouldn’t cause friction and furthermore, as the Good Book says ‘Father forgive them’.”
And it was my father’s wise words of enduring hope in the inherent goodness of men that led me to Jimmy Campbell’s door in February 2011. It was, as I wrote back then, “the moment I had dreaded but waited for all of my life”— staring into the eyes of the man who killed my mother, sister and uncle.
It was an ordinary looking man with greased back grey hair and broken teeth who greeted me.
It wasn’t at all like Jimmy Nesbitt’s character meeting Liam Neeson’s loyalist killer in the TV film Five Minutes of Heaven.
There was no dramatic revelation — no happy ending. It was 15 minutes of limbo in the company of someone who said “sorry”, but left just a little too much doubt for me to be completely convinced.
His voice shook with emotion and he grabbed on to my shoulder with a vice-like grip belying his age and failing health — as I showed him a school photo of my sister, telling him that he had killed her.
He rebuffed his wife Kathleen’s anger-filled attempts to protect him by leading me into his living room.
His apologies seemed sincere. But his eight refusals to say anything other than that suggested otherwise.
Rolling up and smoking cigarettes in spite of noticeable breathing problems, he rarely made any eye contact with me. Soon, the mental barriers went up and with a steely resolve, he stopped talking to me.
Was it the old terrorist training never to talk about your activities kicking in? Was it fear of saying something that he thought could get him into trouble with his paramilitary pals?
Or was he genuinely traumatised at meeting someone like me, who vocalised the years of hurt and pain he had
inflicted on so many directly to his face? Campbell served 15 years for 16 murders — those killed in the McGurk’s Bar atrocity and the shooting of 36-year-old Protestant work van driver John Morrow.
Upon his release in the early 1990s, he refused to co-operate with any Historical Enquiries Team or Police Ombudsman investigations into the bombing.
But he had ushered me into his house against his angry and anxious wife’s protests, saying “this one is different” — and seemed willing to talk, even unburden himself with me.
After asking him if he had seen my father’s TV interview asking God to forgive Campbell and co, ‘Jimmy’ claimed that he believed God had forgiven him for what he had done.
However the elderly killer who raised a family including a son, Robert James Jr who was also involved in the killings of innocent Catholics and Protestants, wouldn’t or maybe couldn’t entertain a suggestion of mine which was intended to go to the heart of his proclaimed Christianity.
“I think you could make your peace by helping me and those other people,” I said.
His agitated reply was: “I can’t Mr McGurk. I am very, very sorry. You are going to leave me alone.”
And I did leave him alone. I left his house without any words of angry farewell — even though I knew in my heart that I would never see him again.
I left his house hoping against hope that I may have pricked his conscience enough for him to truly reflect upon his actions and demonstrably prove his sorrow — before it was too late.
Two years passed and Jimmy Campbell never did open up about his role that night of mass murder.
He died either unwilling or unable to display the Christianity he claimed to have.
This week, his family and friends will gather to bid a fond and affectionate farewell to a dad and grandad. I can empathise with their loss and grief.
But Jimmy Campbell himself enjoyed what he had robbed too many innocent people of — a long life lived well into his seventies.
He died in old age, in hospital, with the care and attention of nurses, with his family by his side, as his life slipped away.
He didn’t perish under rubble — crushed or asphyxiated by leaking gas or burned by its fatal flames — like many of his victims in the wreckage of my father’s bar and remains of my devastated home.
And as I reflect upon the death of the man whose actions took the lives of so many — one particular memory keeps recurring in my mind.
When I met him, he rebuffed my attempts to engage him in closer thoughts about his faith, his morality and the afterlife. Instead, the ageing killer in ailing health stared intently at the television.
Weirdly, he was watching that feelgood US spiritual TV show Touched By An Angel.
Could it be that this was a reflection of Jimmy Campbell’s silent search for some sort of salvation in his final years?
In one of his death notices, Psalm 23 is mentioned. Jimmy Campbell is walking “through the valley of death” now.
A relative of one of his victims told me with no hint of malice after hearing of his death — ‘”It’s not up to us to judge him. God will judge him.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital