Comment & Analysis

Peace must be built on truth, not lies
Murder of police officer highlights failings of the system

There are big arguments in Northern Ireland about whether dealing with the past is part of enabling the present and the future, or whether we have to ‘leave the past behind us and get on with the future’.

History shows that eventually, countries which have emerged from conflict, as the North has, just have to deal with their past. Wrong done and hurt suffered has to be acknowledged. There has to be a recognition that everyone is subject to the rule of law and that no one is above or beyond the law. On that basis a new solid foundation will emerge and a more sustainable future can be built.

Our leading politicians have thus far shown themselves unable to do what must be done. Sinn Féin and the DUP argue endlessly in the media about each other, but there is no positive leadership to bring our people into the living of a common shared future.

We have had so many attempts – Healing Through Remembering (HRR), the Eames-Bradley Report, and the recent Haass talks all came to approximately the same conclusions: that we need multiple solutions to the problems of the past, solutions which recognise pain, which allow stories to be told, which provide support for those whose terrible injuries were life changing and who have not been properly looked after by the state. We need support for their carers too, and we need an independent investigative process which will bring before the law those who can be made accountable, and will tell as much as can be told about all the other deaths of the Troubles, no matter what embarrassment or inconvenience that may cause to anyone or any government.


The problem that those who want to close down the past do not seem to understand is that for many of those who have suffered grievous wrong, and have been affected by the most serious crimes, what happened remains part of the present.

Last week saw the report by the Police Ombudsman on his investigation into the death of a good man, Sgt Joseph Campbell, murdered because he was doing his duty. It is an investigation which I started as Police Ombudsman when his son came to make a complaint in 2002. The investigation took far too long and involved me making a request for a change in the law in 2005 to allow us to carry out further inquiries. That alone took nearly three years. It was a difficult investigation, yet many people came forward to give evidence and to assist the inquiry. Some former and serving police officers helped the inquiry, other retired officers who might have provided information refused to help.

Sgt Campbell was a well-known and well-liked member of the community and a very well respected RUC officer. A Catholic, he worked for 13 years in the beautiful little seaside village of Cushendall. He and his wife Rosemary had eight children. They were part of the community.

On February 25, 1977 he was murdered as he closed up the police station in Cushendall at nine o’clock in the evening. For 37 years his family have tried to find out what had happened to him.

Joe Campbell was not murdered by the IRA, although there were those who tried to say that he was. He was murdered because he had identified and reported on suspected criminal activities by some police officers and loyalists in North Antrim. He had known he was at risk. The evidence suggests he was very concerned. When he went to close up the police station that night he took his gun with him. Sgt Campbell did not normally wear a gun. After his death the RUC started to investigate bank and post office robberies by an element of police Special Branch and others in Co. Antrim. These had been said to be IRA attacks. They weren’t. Arms were being smuggled into to Red Bay near Cushendall by loyalists and, it has been suggested police officers, before Sgt Campbell’s murder. It seems he knew about this too.

Some junior police officers working in Ballymena Special Branch knew that Sgt Campbell was at significant risk before he was murdered. They raised their concerns. The army also reported to police that there was a risk to him before his death. No action was taken by the RUC management.


Two months after Joe Campbell was murdered a Catholic shopkeeper in nearby Ahoghill was also murdered. Police officers John Weir and William McCaughey were convicted of that murder. John Weir subsequently told the Police Ombudsman that he and other police officers had become associated with Robin Jackson, commonly known as ‘the jackal’, and his UVF gang, and that Jackson was involved in the murder with a police officer and at least one other man. He said that Jackson had admitted murdering Sgt Campbell.

At the Cushendall crime scene no spent bullet cartridges were found, which is unusual. There was no attempt to murder Sgt Campbell’s colleague who had left the station just minutes earlier. This crime had only one objective: to kill Sgt Campbell. There was no proper investigation, inadequate resources, significant intelligence was not given to the investigators, searches were not carried out and there were failures in dealing with the weapon used to kill Sgt Campbell. There was systemic destruction of critical documents. A second investigation in 1980 was also very flawed.

This pattern of not investigating is something I have seen many times as Police Ombudsman. The family of Sgt Campbell had the right to have his murder fully and properly investigated by the police. This did not happen.

A police officer was tried for his murder and acquitted. He did not return to police duties. An informant who was that police officer’s associate admitted and was convicted of withholding information about the murder and other serious offences. He was sentenced to 18 years and was released early by a Royal Prerogative of Mercy. He was regarded by the court as an unreliable witness.

The Campbell family were failed utterly by those officers who knew of the risk to Sgt Campbell, and did not act to try to prevent his murder, by those who facilitated destruction of critical documents, by an inadequate investigation, and by those who obstructed the investigation.

No rational explanation for the failures before and after Sgt Campbell’s murder can be found. At the end of the day one can only conclude that they were deliberate. They are part of a pattern: the activities of the Glenanne Gang, comprising UDR soldiers, police officers and UVF men who murdered so many people in Northern Ireland during the 1970s are another example of the failures of the state to keep control of its personnel and to ensure they acted within the law. Thirty-two families are now suing the British government for compensation for the loss of their loved ones in relation to Glenanne alone. This collusive pattern continued until at least 2003 as shown in my investigation of collusion in relation to UVF informant activity in North Belfast. Individual Special Branch officers have repeatedly been shown to have failed to act according to the law with both republican and loyalist paramilitaries.

We have to learn from what happened, but above all the truth must be told. We have to build our peace on truth, not lies, evasion and the cover up of collusion. Trust must be the basis for our future relationships and trust must have as its foundation truth and integrity.