Sergeant Joseph Campbell never wore his gun. For an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1977 this was unusual, but Joe was an unusual RUC officer. He was Catholic, born across the border in Donegal, he rarely wore his uniform and he refused to drive. People liked him. Maybe it was because everyone liked him that he saw no cause to wear his gun, or maybe people liked him because he didn’t wear it. But, on the evening of February 25, 1977, Joe Campbell wore his gun.

He was off duty and had spent the evening at home with his wife Rosemary and most of their eight children in the small bungalow where she still lives in Cushendall, North Antrim. He was withdrawn. The phone had rung twice, and he had answered it twice. After receiving the second call, Joe made a call himself. Then he went to his gun cabinet and fetched his service pistol.

Joe’s arm hadn’t worked properly since his stroke in 1973. His brain worked fine but his body was still recovering and he couldn’t fasten his holster strap. As she sat by the fire, Rosemary told their eldest daughter Mandy to help her father.

Mandy and Joe weren’t speaking. He’d refused to let her join her friends at a house in Belfast because British soldiers had just lifted people from it and interned them. This happened a lot. Still, Mandy did as she was told and fastened her father’s holster for him. It was cold and drizzling outside. Joe put on his raincoat.

Rosemary thought it was strange at the time about the gun, but now it makes sense. Joe put on his gun and left the house, she says, because he understood his killers were coming for him.

“He just opened the door and said, ‘I’m away’ And that was it.”

She and the children were watching the snooker on television when they heard the bang. Rosemary went to her bedroom window and looked out across the street towards the station.

“I saw a man standing with his hands in his pockets. He had a raincoat on him and a green felt hat on, just standing looking out. I have no idea who that man was.”

The man either hadn’t heard the gun shot or didn’t react to it. He just kept looking out.

It was Malachy Delarghy who found Joe lying on the ground by the gates of the police station.

The barracks where Joe served and the gate where he was murdered. Photo: Bryan Meade

“I thought he must have had a fall so I pulled up into an entrance across from the road from the barracks, and I’m down and I looked at him and I could see his brain. I could see his brain moving. Jesus, I thought, that’s not a fall.”

Delarghy knocked for the priest who lived next-door to the barracks but he wasn’t in. He raced down the road to Constable Pat Donaghy’s house and Donaghy raised the alarm at police headquarters in Ballymena.

The local GP Alastair McSparran was watching the BBC 9 o’clock news when Joe’s eldest son Tommy arrived at his door. Joe was a good friend and he knew Tommy well. He told the doctor there had been an accident at the station.

“When you come across a scene like that you have a first impression, will this work, or will this not work. But when you see brain tissue coming down a patient’s nose and out his ears and over his face, you know there’s no way of winning.

“He was moribund at that stage. His breathing was brain-stem breathing as opposed to conscious breathing. The nuns were there with cushions and things. They were trying to comfort him but I don’t think he was comforted.

“I told Tommy that the war was over, and that was tough for me as it was for him. He was only a young fella. I told Tommy that he had to take charge.”

The phone rang at the Campbell house. It was Ballymena police calling, looking for the sergeant. There had been an incident reported at the Cushendall barracks.

“I told them Daddy was down at the barracks,” says Rosemary Junior. “Mummy was in her room. I called to Mummy and she ran out to the front onto the bank shouting for Daddy.”


Joe Campbell was pronounced dead at 10.10pm on February 25, 1977, at Ballymena hospital. Two police investigations, one murder trial and a Police Ombudsman’s report have all failed to find his killer. His family believe this is not because the UK government doesn’t know who shot Joe Campbell; if the family themselves know, then the government surely does. They believe that the murder has not been solved because to do so would require the UK’s admission that Sergeant Campbell was killed by or for police, and that police then worked meticulously over 45 years through the destruction of evidence and corruption of its judicial system to cover up the truth of his murder.

But John Weir, a former RUC sergeant and member of the UVF, who served 14 years of a life sentenced for the murder of Catholic chemist William Strathearn in April 1977, says this is exactly what happened. He knows, he says, because the killer was Robin Jackson and he and Jackson were both leaders of the same loyalist alliance; a group that would later become known as the Glenanne Gang.

“All this was being talked about openly. Everybody knew and yet we’re sitting here today and nobody knows who shot Joe Campbell?” Weir says.

Rosemary is now 88. Two of her children have died. She is not interested in retribution or compensation, but she wants the truth to be told and her hope now rests on a Coroner’s Inquest, listed to start next year.

‘I’ve forgiven whoever killed him. Why was he killed, that’s what I want to know. That’s the most important question,’ Rosemary says.

‘He was such a good man. He was very straight. He didn’t deserve to get what he got. They didn’t have to shoot him.’

The Glens of Antrim

Cushendall is a small, beautiful village in the Glens of Antrim nestled at the rugged feet of Lurig mountain on the shores of the North Atlantic Ocean. It’s 11 miles across the water from Scotland and when Joe and Rosemary moved here in 1963, they could see the Mull of Kintyre from their living room window.

“I came over the mountain and I could see nothing, only sheep, which I loved. My father had them when I was young. And I said dear God what did I do to you that you sent me to a place like this.”

The family were moving from Crossmaglen in Armagh, notorious bandit country. The threat to British security forces from republicans there was seen to be so severe that soldiers were helicoptered in and out of their bases. But despite being a Catholic and working for the overwhelmingly Protestant RUC, Joe was popular with the locals. So popular that when it was announced he had been promoted to sergeant and would be moved to Cushdenall, thousands signed a petition to keep him. But Joe wanted something different for his family.

“Daddy loved Cushendall. He loved everything about it,” his daughter Mandy says.

The Glens are predominately Catholic but when violence erupted in 1969 and raged across the north for more than 30 years, it barely touched Cushendall.

The pier at Red Bay. Photo: Bryan Meade

Andrew McAlister is one of many Cushendall McAlisters. He has lived here all his life, his family own the village store, he is now the village funeral director. His sister Joan McAlister married Joe Campbell’s eldest, Tommy.

“At that time our life would have been so care-free. We were in our own wee world, we just played sport and went out boating,” McAlister recalls.

“And a lot of that was down to Joe Campbell. He kept out the worst from every side,” adds his cousin, Paul McAlister.

Holiday makers came to Cushendall understanding that the conflict exploding 45 minutes down the road behind them in Belfast would be left there. From Easter to Halloween, the coastal caravan sites were packed with families taking a break from the Troubles, active IRA members among them.

“I was running a sports day out in the field and there was an egg and spoon race and the two names that were drawn for it were children of two major paramilitaries in Belfast. I said, ‘Look I’m not going to die in a ditch for an egg and spoon race’,” says Paul. Like Tommy Campbell, he was a teacher.

“But if they didn’t give any bother, then they didn’t get any bother. To some extend it was a truce here. A different sergeant could have tried to make a name for themselves by getting the army in and sweeping through. But there wasn’t any active army patrol or anything here, we were spared all that.”


The army had wanted to send a patrol from the Ulster Defence Regiment [UDR] into Cushendall. Created in 1970 on the recommendation of the Hunt Report, the UDR replaced the B Specials, a notorious, paramilitary reserve group tasked with fighting and suppressing the IRA from 1920 until 1969. It was a force described by the Manchester Guardian in 1921 as being ‘drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of the Orange Lodges and the Unionist ‘Volunteers’… administering a sort of lynch law.’

The UDR was recruited predominately from the disbanded B Specials and soon became the largest infantry in the British Army. It saw a surge in Protestant enlistment after the introduction of internment on August 9, 1971. A policy introduced to crack down on paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, it allowed detention without trial or charge. Of the 1,900 people interned before the policy was dropped in 1975, only 100 were loyalists.

Joe Campbell did not approve of internment or its impact on communities; nor did he like the behaviour of the UDR. There was a tradition among Antrim police that whenever a policeman died the other policemen would pay a fiver towards a children’s party that was thrown every Christmas. Rosemary used to take the kids along with Moira Donaghy, Constable Pat Donaghy’s wife.

“There were always UDR boys at those things putting out their cigarettes in the trays of food. Joe didn’t like that. He didn’t say anything to me, it was Moira Donaghy that told me it was because of Joe that we stopped going to these parties and he refused to pay a fiver because he objected to their behaviour at these things.”

The McAlisters believe that if the UDR had come to Cushendall, the conflict would have followed them.

“I’m one of six boys and we often say that if there had been a different police sergeant than Sergeant Joe Campbell, once the first three of us would have been interned, the other three of us would have been involved. That’s what happened all over the north,” Paul McAlister says.

“But Joe told them don’t be lifting people at random here. I know the families; the families know me. Anybody who breaks the law, I’ll take them to task, but it will be done in a civil way. People who were going off the rails were advised to go and get a job in England somewhere because they were in the wrong company here.”

There were active republicans in Cushdenall but Joe Campbell knew them and he knew their families.

“Several people left the village because Joe Campbell basically said to them, to be honest boys I have to take action here but if you happen to disappear…,” Andrew McAlister says.

Rosemary remembers the day Joe went to see the UDR because it wasn’t long after his stroke. She hadn’t expected him to return to duty, the doctors had said he wouldn’t be able to. But he had made a remarkable recovery, thanks in large part to her mother who insisted on taking him to Derry for six months to recuperate with her. Joe’s mother-in-law adored him.

“I remember him getting dressed that day, putting on his full uniform and all the works,” says Rosemary.

“He put his logbook on the desk and told them that if the UDR were allowed into Cushendall then he was leaving, he was quitting his job. And it worked.”

Sergeant Joseph Campbell

Joe Campbell was raised to respect authority and to carry authority with respect. He couldn’t stand to see it abused.

He was born into policing. His father and grandfathers had served in the Garda Siochana in Monaghan and Rathmullan. Joe joined the RAF as soon as he left school. When he returned to Monaghan and was in need of a job, the Gardaí weren’t taking new recruits, so he and his brother went across the border and signed up to the RUC in Enniskillen. He met Rosemary at a courthouse in Derry.

Joe Campbell’s log book. Photo: Bryan Meade

“My mother was on a jury and I drove her. Someone from Bellaghy had shot his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend,” Rosemary explains.

“I was sitting on a bench at the back of the gallery and someone came in and sat beside me. I dropped the keys of the car and the person bent down to get the keys and handed them to me. All I could see were his black boots. The next time I saw that was the night he died. I went to see him and all I could see was black boots.”

Tall and slender, Joe Campbell was affectionately known as ‘the wee sergeant’. He was a committed GAA man. He was a terrible golfer but a keen golfing supporter and according to Dr McSparran, an excellent commentator. He enjoyed watching the tournaments on Cushendall golf course overlooking the ocean. He picked the tiny apples scattered about the green and took them back to the barracks to make jam. He grew rhubarb too, in the yard behind the station.

“He was very quiet, but you see if he was out for a night in a group, he’d keep you laughing all night with jokes,” Rosemary says.

Joe loved his dog. Franz was one of the first Hungarian Vislas to set paw on Irish soil. The dog took priority over children when it came to seating, especially in the car. He could drive, he’d learned during training at Enniskillen, but was so bad at it that he refused. If he wanted to get anywhere, he asked to be driven, usually by Rosemary. This was so often the case, the joke went that Rosemary was as much the sergeant’s constable as his wife.

Joe and his wife Rosemary. Photo: Bryan Meade

Because he didn’t drive, Joe patrolled Cushendall’s streets on foot, more slowly after the stroke. His front door was never locked and the telephone line at his home was shared with the police station.

“If something happened, it didn’t matter if it was 2 o’clock in the morning, they would come and knock on our door. Or just open it!” Mandy remembers.

“I used to wake up some mornings to go to school and find there was a couple of old farmers from up the next Glen who’d got too scared to walk home at night. They believed in the ghosts in the trees so they’d come and sleep on our sofa.”

When Dr McSparran, known locally as Doc Al, took over from his father as the local GP in 1972, he formed a close relationship with the sergeant.

“There were occasions where he would draw my attention to people who needed attention, who needed help. He was very stoical. He was also astute. He was just a very lovely man. I’ll tell you a story about him,” Dr McSparran says.

“There were young fellas misbehaving in the way young fellas misbehave. They were robbing a place, but to get out of the place they were robbing they had to climb over a barbed wire fence. Joe knew immediately who it was and challenged him. The fella said no it wasn’t me, and Joe said, ‘Oh? And how did you get that great rip in your trousers then?’ Joe said to him, ‘Go home now and behave yourself’.

“He wasn’t going to nick the young fella. He wouldn’t take him to court knowing the parents couldn’t afford the solicitors and the lawyers. This was his pragmatic approach. He was gentle, and he was very, very funny.”

Randal McDonnell, vet and pub owner was a friend of Joe’s. Photo: Bryan Meade

One night, a bank manager Cushendall knew was threatened and extorted.

“He said to me about a quarter to ten, ‘Will you take me a short journey’. And I said, ‘Yeah no problem’,” Rosemary remembers.

“We drove about a mile and a half up the road on a dark, dark winter’s night, and there was a mini pulled up alongside the road: lights on and the driver had a newspaper up over his face. He asked me to read out the number plate, which I did and he wrote it down.

“We drove to where the money was supposed to have been near the forest in Parkmore, and there was a spade out on the road. He said we’re not stopping, but just slow down as you pass it. Oh god, I was waiting to be found out. We drove on to the shop in Cargan, I got out and bought two bars of chocolate. What the hell I got that for I don’t know. We turned around and went home and he never said another word about it. That was it.”

Joe never talked about his policework. When they became engaged, he told Rosemary that his job was none of her business and that he would never tell her about his cases or anything he was involved with.

“And he didn’t, and I think that’s right,” she says.

“People came to this house and I would be put out so that he could speak to them and advise them. He did have a different way. Even for people who really disliked policemen, he could still manage to talk to them.’

Randal McDonnell, the local vet, also ran a bar in the neighbouring village of Cushendun, The Blue Room, which he opened and closed when he felt like it. The bar still exists, marked by Randal’s goat Arlene Foster, whom he keeps tethered outside. The bar still opens and shuts according to Randal’s mood.

Joe was fond of the place and of McDonnell. He and Pat Donaghy liked to visit when they were off duty. They sat in his kitchen and chatted, often about family history. The Campbells and McDonnells had been rival clans. If there was something on Scottish television that he wanted to watch, McDonnell would head to the Cushendall police station where the television picked up Scottish networks. But Joe would never gossip.

“I had the impression that Joe knew a lot, understood a lot about what was going on. But he never told me anything,” McDonnell says.

“I remember once someone was up at one of the big houses, presumably thieving. He fell from one of the upstairs windows and was killed. I’d heard about all this and asked him, who did you find around there? Sergeant Campbell says to me ‘My dog ate his sock’. I said don’t tell me about your dog, I don’t want to hear about your dog.

“‘Well your local revolutionary is no more,’ he said. It wasn’t really a revolutionary, but the body was there and it was dead and that was fine because Joe knew who it was and there had been some question over this gentleman extorting money out of people.”

Then, one evening, McDonnell and his elderly aunt were held-up at gun point and robbed. They didn’t steal much McDonnell says because there wasn’t very much in the family home to steal. They mostly took booze.

“But they were threatening, cheeky and troublesome. They had no reason to be violent but they had guns and as far as I was concerned, whatever they wanted they could have,” he says.

When the robbers left, McDonnell immediately phoned Joe at home. He told him that he’d been held up.

“I didn’t ring 999, I rang Joe. It was three in the morning but he told me not to worry and he and Pat Donaghy came out instantly. Their immediate thought was to get on and make a cup of tea for us.”

By the time the robbers returned to their home, having passed through an army checkpoint without being stopped, Joe’s police were positioned at the bottom of their garden and the men were arrested.

“My aunt was a decrepit old woman and she made a great spectacle walking up to the witness box, she was a wonderful looking victim. The guy got seven years for it,” McDonnell says.

A robbery

Cushendall was unusually peaceful, in large part because of how Sergeant Campbell ran things, but like everywhere in Northern Ireland it had its fair share of deprivation and crime. And then, as now, crime and paramilitarism were close companions. The police barracks were blown up in 1973 while Joe and Pat were at the Blue Room. In April 1974, Catholic judge Garrett McGrath, a friend of Joe’s, was shot and very nearly killed at his holiday home in Cushendall.

In January 1974, two hotels in Cushendall were blown up on the same evening, the Glens and the Thornlea. Joe had been walking past one at the time and was thrown over a wall sustaining a head injured that triggered his stroke. While he was away in Derry recuperating, the bank and the post office were robbed repeatedly. These were the institutions where locals kept their savings.

At 11:15 on Monday 25th November 1974, a bank clerk at Northern Bank in Cushendall was serving a customer when he looked up to find a man with black nylon stockings pulled over his face pointing a gun at him. The masked man gave the clerk a white sack and told him to open the safe and fill it with money or else the lady customers would be hurt. He took a total of £3,048.

Fifteen minutes later, Sarah McKay was sitting in a back room at Knocknacarry Post Office, four miles north of Cushendall, when a masked man burst in holding a small gun. He pointed the gun at her and demanded all the money she had, which was £145.

On 18th November 1975, the Northern Bank at Cushendall was held up again and robbed of £2,563.

“Apparently, they went in and made everyone sit down,” McDonnell says.

“When they came out, the car was stuck in gear. They had to go and get people who were working down the road to come up and push the car to get it going again. It was like Keystone Cops.”

In 1980, at Castlereagh Police Station, Anthony ‘Tony’ O’Doherty, an IRA man with a long history of criminality, admitted to carrying out these robberies. But he also told his interviewers he hadn’t been working alone. He had been robbing with his RUC Special Branch handler, a detective sergeant named Charles McCormick.

Joe knew everybody in Cushendall, and everybody knew him. There was nothing that went on in the village he wouldn’t find out about at some point. And if he learned anything of significance, Joe would pass the information on to RUC Special Branch in Ballymena, often to Detective Sergeant Denis Murray.

“Joe Campbell was very, very close to the community down there. He was very much accepted as part of the community and interacted with the community, which wouldn’t have been the norm,” Murray says.

“In other areas police were what you could describe as isolated from the public, because of the political situation. But Joe didn’t fall into that.”

Joe knew all about Charlie McCormick and as early as 1975 had told Murray that he suspected McCormick and O’Doherty were responsible for the crime spree in Cushendall.

“He didn’t trust him,” Rosemary recalls. “He thought some of the behaviour of the police was terrible. He didn’t have to tell me that he didn’t like what was happening.”

And what was happening was more than robberies and extortions. Joe found out that weapons were being shipped in to Cushendall, boat-loads of guns were arriving from Scotland into Red Bay, a quiet cove on the outskirts of the village, and were then being stashed at an arms dump. He told Murray about the boats and the arms dump. He also told him his suspicions that McCormick was involved in the operation.

To accuse a single police officer of criminality was risky, but to report that a Special Branch detective was suspected of smuggling arms into Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles became an altogether more far-reaching and dangerous allegation.

“It was Joe that got the information about that arms dump. I’m not going to speculate, but unfortunately whatever way Joe disseminated that information, it got into the wrong hands,” Murray confirms.


In the weeks before his death, Joe was uncharacteristically sombre. He was remote, even spurning advances from his beloved Franz.

“He had actually been very quiet for a while. It was obvious he was worried about something,” Rosemary says.

“He was agitated. I wouldn’t say that in front of me he was grossly agitated but he was disquiet,” Dr McSparran agrees.

Rosemary was also worried. She had been receiving threatening phone calls. They always seemed to call after Joe and Pat Donaghy had been called out for work, usually when she was alone in bed.

The Campbell home in Cushendall Photo: Bryan Meade

“They told me exactly what they were going to do, on many occasions,” Rosemary says.

“I think it was a Good Friday night, Joe and Pat had been called out to something in Cushendun and a voice called me by my name. The voice sounded very familiar and I said, ‘Oh, hello Tony’. And the other voice said, ‘Oh for God’s sake, she knows who you are.’ But I thought it was Tony our neighbour, a fellow who used to live about three or four doors down.

“They said ‘Well how’s the wee man doing, does he still go to the Thornlea? Does he still go to the golf club?’ And then they said, ‘Well you should speak to him, because we don’t want to see you crying when we put a bullet in his head’.”

Rosemary didn’t mention the threats to Joe, it would not have been the sort of thing he wanted to discuss. Occasionally she would simply tell him she had received a strange call and she says he knew exactly what that meant. It was only when Pat Donaghy’s wife Moira got a call that Joe reacted.

“I answered the phone and it was Moira Donaghy crying and screaming. She said ‘Rosemary, I just got a phone call and the person said to me to tell the wee man that he better watch what he’s doing, he’s getting involved in too much and if he doesn’t soon stop, we’ll stop him’.

“Joe could hear her crying on the phone and he said, ‘For God’s sake, go up to her, go and talk to her’. So I did go up to her and then it hit me that the Donaghy’s had our old phone number.’

A few days before he was shot, Rosemary remembers Joe had a falling out with McCormick. She has no idea what the row was about, but she noticed and she remembered it because it was unlike Joe to argue with anyone.

“If he had a row with somebody, he wouldn’t do much at the time. There would certainly be no force or anything like that, but I don’t think he would forget it,” she says.

“People here make him sound like an angel. He wasn’t an angel any more than anybody else, I just can’t say anything bad about the man. I really can’t.”

On February 25th, 1977, Sergeant Joe Campbell received two phone calls at his home, the second came at 8.20pm. His family believe the caller had phoned their house many times before but whatever was said on this occasion, it prompted Joe to put on his gun and head directly to the barracks. Before leaving the house, Joe called an officer he liked at Ballymena station but the officer’s wife answered, his friend was not at home.

One of Joe’s sons, Joe Campbell Jr was at the barracks that evening being interviewed about a bust-up he’d had at a dance the weekend before. The officers at Cushendall had needed to phone Ballymena headquarters to request the extended opening hours because the station was only part-time and was meant to close at 7pm. Joe surprised his son and the interviewing officer by arriving to see them off the premises. He wasn’t on duty, but he told them he would lock-up the station that night.

“Dad walked me to the gate. He was a bit lame because he was still recovering from the stroke. He said to me, “Now go you back home quickly’,” Joe Jr says.

Minutes later Sergeant Joseph Campbell was found by Malachy Delarghy dying on the ground by the gates of the barracks, a large section of his skull blown off by a single bullet shot through the side of his head.

“This bit of forehead, about the size of my hand, was missing. You don’t forget something like that,” says Delarghy.

He hasn’t spoken about what he saw that night for 45 years and is still struggling to understand what happened.

“Joe Campbell wasn’t a policeman he was a community man who served in the police. He was so well-liked. Who would do that to him?” he asks.

The PSNI and the UK government claim they don’t know and will probably never know. Too many years have passed, too many witnesses have died, too much has been forgotten, too much evidence has been lost.

Joe Campbell’s murder is one of 1200 unresolved killings sitting with the PSNI’s legacy investigations branch. Each of those cases contain a multitude of tragedies that for the victims’ families can only be healed by truth they are being denied. But Sergeant Campbell was an unusual police officer and for the UK government, his murder is unusually problematic. It implicates the uppermost levels of its security establishment and exposes some of the secrets it least wants told.

The UK government wants an amnesty. It says legacy cases like the murder of Joe Campbell can no longer be resolved in court.

“Her majesty’s government will prioritise support for the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and institutions, including through legislation to address the legacy of the past,” Prince Charles told the House of Commons on May 10th, when he delivered the Queen’s Speech on behalf of his mother.

The government briefing paper elaborated further. This year, it plans to push through the Northern Ireland Troubles Legacy and Reconciliation Bill, which it says aims at ‘moving away from a focus on criminal justice outcomes and ending the cycle of investigations that has failed both victims and veterans.’

“More than two thirds of deaths from the Troubles occurred over 40 years ago. The passage of time means that ultimately, for those cases that get as far as a trial, there is a high likelihood of ‘not guilty’ verdicts or trials collapsing,” the UK government points out.

The bill will effectively remove any possibility of criminal and civil prosecutions in unsolved legacy cases. The Campbell family feels its window for justice rapidly closing.

Dr McSparran has spent 45 years ruminating on the unsolved murder of his friend. Unlike the UK government, McSparran thinks the case can still be solved in the way a difficult prognosis is solved, through a process of elimination.

“It’s like doing medicine. You reach a diagnosis by saying if those ones don’t fit, well it has to be that. Who told Joe there was somebody after him? Somebody did. It wasn’t covered up here in Cushendall, so where was it covered up?

“You need to put the jigsaw puzzle together. Only the truth will fit.”

Next: “You don’t touch the Special Branch”. Part 2 – Police