Northern Ireland

Sgt Joseph Campbell: RUC commanders 'could have prevented murder'

Sgt Joseph Campbell
Image caption Sgt Campbell was shot dead in County Antrim in 1977

The murder of a police officer 37 years ago could have been prevented by senior Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) commanders, the police ombudsman said.

Sgt Joseph Campbell, a father-of-eight, was shot dead as he closed Cushendall RUC station in County Antrim in 1977.

"Senior RUC officers and management had information on a very specific threat and failed to respond," Police Ombudsman Michael Maguire said.

But he said he did not believe the RUC colluded in the murder.

In his report, published on Friday, he said senior RUC officers failed to act on warnings from junior officers concerning a specific threat against Sgt Campbell, made long before he was murdered.

Speaking on BBC NI's Good Morning Ulster on Friday, Dr Maguire said the head of special branch at that time knew about this threat and it was "highly likely" that the chief constable at the time, Kenneth Newman, also knew.

However, Mr Newman told the ombudsman investigation that he did not remember this.

"There was no corrective action taken by the RUC to warn Joe Campbell, increase patrols or move him from his position, none of that happened," Dr Maguire said.

"There was a prolonged failure in duty to the Campbell family."

Dr Maguire said the original investigation into the murder was "very poor" and that the 1980 investigation had been undermined by a lack of information.

"The impact of the murder of Joe Campbell reverberated throughout RUC at the time, I was surprised the chief constable did not recollect it," he said.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the Campbell family were failed by the RUC."

'Wider conspiracy'

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Media captionPolice Ombudsman Michael Maguire said the original investigation into the murder was "very poor"

In his 50-page report, Dr Maguire found that the two criminal investigations into the shooting had been flawed, and hampered by the withholding of sensitive intelligence information, including the threats to the victim's life.

The Campbell family has welcomed elements of the ombudsman's report, but said they were unhappy that Dr Maguire's investigation did not find evidence of RUC collusion with loyalist paramilitaries.

Sgt Campbell had been a well-known and respected police officer in the County Antrim community for many years.

The shooting took place on the evening of 25 February 1977 and since then, his widow and children have campaigned for more information about the circumstances surrounding his death.

The Campbell family believe that the killing was carried out by a loyalist paramilitary - Robin Jackson - with the aid of rogue elements of the security forces.

Jackson was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

Joe Campbell Jr told BBC Radio's Good Morning Ulster programme that he had been in his father's police station in connection with an unrelated matter shortly before the murder.

"He came down to the station, he was unexpected there and as I was leaving, he opened the gate for me and told me to get home quickly," Mr Campbell said.

"I didn't think anything of it at the time, but not more than 10 minutes later he was murdered at the gates he had let me out of."

Another son, Tommy, said his father's moods had changed dramatically in the months before the murder.

"He had become more conscious about his own personal security. He was careful about what we were doing and where we were about," he said.

"It's well documented that on the night this happened, a phone call was received.

"He went to the station. He put on his own personal protection weapon, which he never wore. He just didn't wear a gun at all at any stage.

"While we are aware at the time that something a bit different was going on, it's only after the murder, and in latter years, that we could contextualise it."

'Systematic destruction'

While the family has alleged a wider conspiracy of a cover-up, Dr Maguire said he had been unable to substantiate all of their allegations.

However, he found both the victim and his family were failed by the actions of the RUC before and after the shooting.

Image caption Sgt Campbell's sons, Joe Jr, left, and Tommy believe there was a wider conspiracy behind the murder of their father

Dr Maguire said: "I have to conclude that Sgt Campbell, a dedicated community police officer in the Glens of Antrim, was failed by senior members of the police service, of which he was a respected member."

He added that there was "sufficient, reliable evidence that senior police officers throughout the RUC's command structure" were aware of the threats to Sgt Campbell's life and "failed to act upon them".

Dr Maguire said he uncovered the systematic destruction and removal of RUC documents, and adds that some retired RUC officers refused to cooperate with his investigation.

Previous investigations

There were two RUC investigations into the murder of Sgt Campbell, carried out in 1977 and 1980.

As a result of the 1980 investigation, a member of RUC Special Branch in Ballymena, County Antrim, was arrested and tried for the murder.

The Crown case had been that a "rogue" Special Branch member had been carrying out criminal activities, including armed robberies in County Antrim, and had murdered Sgt Campbell to prevent him from passing on information about him.

The Special Branch officer was acquitted of murder.

'Lined up to be murdered'

Thirty years later, Police Ombudsman inquiries into the killing uncovered new evidence, but the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decided no further prosecutions would follow.

The Police Ombudsman's investigators heard from Special Branch officers who had passed their concerns about Sgt Campbell's safety on to their senior officers, including that "Joe was to be lined-up to be murdered".

Image caption The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Michael Maguire said he uncovered the systematic destruction and removal of RUC documents during the investigation

Army intelligence officers had also been aware of the risk to Sgt Campbell.


One police officer was told by a member of the public that there was a link between a bank robbery in Cushendall in early 1977 and the murder of Sgt Campbell several weeks later.

The officer passed this statement on, and said he was always surprised that he was never asked about it.

In conclusion Dr Maguire said: "The inadequacies of those investigations further undermined the prospect of effective investigation of the murder of Sgt Campbell and promoted an atmosphere of suspicion in which allegations of a wider conspiracy, whether correct or incorrect, have subsequently thrived and the family of Sgt Campbell have been failed."

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which replaced the RUC in 2001, expressed its sympathies to the Campbell family and said the ombudsman's report made "difficult reading".

PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Alistair Finlay said: "It is clear there were significant shortcomings in the RUC handling of information prior to the murder and in both subsequent police investigations into Sgt Campbell's murder."

Mr Finlay expressed disappointment that "a number of retired officers felt unable to engage with this Police Ombudsman's investigation".

However he added that policing "back in 1977 operated in a very different context" and said RUC officers investigated 112 troubles-related murders that year.

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