The two young men who called to Jim Campbell’s Belfast home on 18 May 1984 had the familiar, furtive, look of many callers to the house.
The Belfast bureau chief of the Sunday World worked from home and often received paramilitary, and even police, contacts there.
- January 17, 2018
- January 3, 2018
- December 19, 2017
For several months, he had been running stories about a Loyalist terrorist he nicknamed ‘The Jackal”.
The Jackal led an Ulster Volunteer Force gang which was bombing and shooting nationalists with seeming impunity in the Mid-Ulster murder triangle.
Campbell’s articles hinted at security force collusion with the murder gang, an allegation subsequently upheld by several criminal investigations.
But when he bluntly stated that The Jackal, real name Robin Jackson, was a former British army NCO. who was being directed by British military intelligence, Campbell overstepped the line.
He had been warned Jackson had vowed to silence him, but he was well used to such threats.
The possibility that the two young men at the door were The Jackal’s assassins crossed his mind but the thought was quickly eliminated.
‘It’s one of those things – you just think it won’t happen to you,’he says.
The men pumped five bullets into him and left him bleeding to death in front of his wife and children.
Within 10 minutes, he was on the operating table of the nearby Mater Hospital, where a top surgical team had just finished a lengthier-than-expected operation.
Campbell ‘died’on the operating table, but was revived after several minutes of frantic resuscitation.
Within six months, he was back at his desk, now in a suite in the much-bombed Europa Hotel, and with one inoperable bullet still lodged in his spine.
Colleagues claimed the shrapnel made him cranky on wet days.
Police admitted any side to the Northern Ireland conflict could have wanted to kill the impartial journalist.
Jackson, who later died of cancer, was replaced by Portadown UVF leader Billy Wright, and Campbell quickly dubbed him ‘King Rat”.
Wright enjoyed his notoriety and the respect it earned him in the hard-line Loyalist ghettos.
Using the pseudonym, he even gave newspaper interviews in which he admitted killing up to 12 Catholics.
But when the Sunday World alleged that he was financing his terror gang by drug trafficking, death threats were issued against Campbell and his team.
In October 1992, two gunmen burst into the paper’s new office and held up staff at gunpoint.
They primed a bomb in a hold-all, which was placed in the doorway, causing journalists to jump over the bomb to escape.
On the following Sunday, armed Loyalist gangs hijacked distribution vans and took bundles of the paper from shops and burned them.
In a statement, they blamed the paper’s campaign against Wright.
Reporter Martin O’Hagan, another hate figure for Loyalists, was temporarily transferred to Cork for his own safety. Campbell, who had already moved his family across the Irish border, was forced to quit Northern Ireland and relinquished his post as bureau chief.
He commuted between his family home in the Republic and a small apartment in Belfast.
His vast network of well-placed contacts continued to supply him with a wealth of exclusive stories and juicy items for his weekly column.
Wright, who was to set up the breakaway Loyalist Volunteer Force, was eventually sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment on terrorist offences.
But his sentence was ‘commuted’in 1997 by an Irish National Liberation Army prisoner who scaled an interior wall in the Maze Prison and shot him dead.
When Campbell’s close friend and colleague Martin O’Hagan was gunned down by the LVF in 2001, he stepped up the pressure on the organisation to an unprecedented level.
For the past six years, his column has targeted the O’Hagan suspects with an extremely accurate weekly account of their activities.
But last week, he announced that he had written his last column for Sunday World. Campbell reaches retirement age next month and negotiations between management and the NUJ on a severance package failed to include his weekly column.
It is unlikely, however, that this veteran journalist, who set the bar for fearless reporting, will remain silent for long.