By Ciarán MacAirt.

Jean Smyth-Campbell was shot dead in a car in a layby on the Glen Road, Belfast, just before midnight on 8th June 1972. Only for her family, she may have become another forgotten victim of our dirty war.

Jean was a 24-year-old single mother of a six-year-old girl called Sharon. She worked in the local Bass Brewery to provide for herself and her daughter.

On the night of her murder, Jean and her boyfriend, John Carlin, had enjoyed a couple of drinks in a local pub and were returning home when they pulled into a bus terminus on the Glen Road, close to Oliver Plunkett School. Then, their car was attacked for absolutely no reason and Jean was killed.

The family was given scarce information by the police except being told that Jean was killed by a local unit of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and no doubt because the IRA mistook the car as an undercover British Army vehicle. 

There was no evidence for this, though. In fact, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) did not even secure and examine the bus terminus where Jean was murdered. Police record that a single bullet hit the car but there was no evidence in the scant case papers to indicate what type of weapon was used in the attack. RUC ballistic tests then proved insufficient to detail even the type or calibre of the ammunition used.

This alleged lack of ballistic evidence troubled Jean’s family as they heard machine-gun fire when Jean was shot, and actually witnessed the bullet-ridden car – Jean’s father, William, was picked up in it by the survivor after Jean was laid in a taxi to be taken as quickly as possible to hospital.

She never reached the hospital as the taxi was stopped and taken into Andersonstown Police Station. No explanation has been given for this.

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) again reported in 2008 that the car was only hit with one bullet based on an undated report by an RUC Scene of Crime Officer (SOCO). Nevertheless, photographs taken of the car at the time had disappeared from police files, along with the post-mortem examination results. 

The family remained adamant that the car was riddled with bullet holes.

Archive discovery

From 1972 to 2014 Jean’s family did not know who killed her or why, but the police – both past and present – led them to believe that she was murdered by someone from their local community. For 42 years, the family believed that they were living beside the killers and may have met them on the streets.

Around the anniversary of her death in 2014, I accessed files in the National Archives, Kew, which provided confidential information regarding Jean’s murder from British Army Headquarters Northern Ireland. The secret military files contained contemporaneous reports from army regiments and RUC divisions throughout the north written in an operations log in real time as they were reported. 

Several reports recorded that the car in which Jean was murdered was indeed machine-gunned, just as Jean’s family testify. One from the British Army reported: “MRS JEAN SMITH [sic] was passenger in a car travelling through A Town [Andersonstown] and was at a roundabout when it was machine gunned.”

There was even a report to the same effect from the RUC recording the testimony of the survivor that “there was a burst of fire which hit the car.”

The car had been examined and photographed by the RUC by this time. 

But the only report of a number of bullets being expended in the area was a retrospective record which noted that a covert unit of the Military Reaction Force (MRF) fired 10 bullets from a car at alleged targets behind a hedge in that very area (a few hundred metres short of the school) two hours later.

Even though it was pitch-black, the covert unit was travelling in a car and the targets were hiding behind a hedge, the MRF claimed a hit and reported that one had a rifle: “0140 hrs MRF travelling W[est] along GLEN RD 300 metre short of OLIVER PLUNKETT School E[ast] and they saw 2 gunmen hiding behind a hedge. Patrol fired 10 x 9mm rounds and claimed 1 hit. 1 gunman had a rifle.”

Within the very same Serial, in that very area, the logs record that “women [were] accusing SF [the security forces] of Murder”, as we believe that Glenveish is Glenveagh, directly opposite the bus terminus. 

At no point in the HET report does it mention that these accusations were raised and that the MRF were in action that night.
The retrospective report by the MRF is incongruous to the preceding records as no other regiments report its burst of fire at that time and there were no casualties admitted to hospital which could be tied to the account.  

This in itself does not prove anything, however suspicious it may be except we have proof from the same file that the British Army Brigade Major on duty in Headquarters Northern Ireland that night connects Jean’s murder to a shooting by the British armed forces.

The record by the Brigade Major (BM) who was in charge of British military operations at HQNI on the night states: “Police are dealing with the dead girl found in the taxi. It is known that the SF [Security Forces] claimed a hit in the KP19 shooting”.

KP19 was Key Point 19 in military parlance, a sangar and/or the area covered by the sangar overlooking the bus terminus on the Glen Road where Jean Smyth-Campbell was murdered.

The family took this new evidence to Niall Ó Murchú of Kinnear and Co. Solicitors, along with the failed HET report, and thus began the family’s legal battle against the police which culminated in a historic win against the state in March 2017.

Judicial review

The family’s judicial review centred on:

  • The failed HET review of the murder of Jean Smyth-Campbell and its review of other MRF killings;
  • The ongoing failures of the Chief Constable, the Department of Justice and Northern Ireland Office’s handling of the case;
  • The failure of the Chief Constable and PSNI to produce historic inquest files.

The family also fought to ensure that the PSNI’s Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB) would not lead any investigation into Jean’s murder as the police had failed to offer an independent investigation that was compliant under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Justice Maguire provided a searing indictment of investigations by both RUC and PSNI: “For the investigation to go forward now under the auspices of the LIB would be wrong as in the circumstances the PSNI would not be perceived as passing the test for independence for this purpose.”

He concluded that, “the proposed investigation by the LIB… conflicts with the requirements of Article 2 ECHR as the LIB lack the requisite independence required to perform an Article 2 compliant investigation in respect of this death”.

But in yet another vexatious move, the PSNI appealed the ruling and put the family through another two years of re-traumatisation by the state, during which time the case became the leading Article 2 case upon which other similar cases rested.

By then, the scene of crime photographs mysteriously reappeared in police files but a photographic expert testified that they had been tampered with – the photographs that would have shown the side of the car that was attacked were missing. Therefore, the photographs that would have proved multiple bullet-holes – or indeed a single point of entry if the state was to be believed – were lost and no explanation was given.

Members of Jean Smyth-Campbell’s family with Niall Ó Murchú (Kinnear and Co. Solicitors) left, the author Ciarán MacAirt, third from left, and Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh (barrister) second from right, outside court following their victory on 19 March 2019.

Nevertheless, the Paper Trail archives that proved Jean was murdered by the British Army were recognised by the court as constituting new evidence and meant that European human rights legislation applied.

After almost five years in court, the Court of Appeal supported the family while issuing a fierce critique of the police. It noted that the Chief Constable’s team had done nothing in those five years to expedite a fair and just investigation, and concluded: “The Chief Constable is obliged to conduct the further investigations into the death of Jean Smyth in a way which satisfies the state’s procedural obligation under Article 2 ECHR.”

The Court of Appeal also stated: “The Chief Constable is bound to promptly take steps to secure the practical independence of the investigators so that they have the capacity to carry out an Article 2 compliant effective investigation into the death of Jean Smyth.”

Jean’s sister, Margaret McQuillan, said: “The PSNI have contributed to the cover-up just like their predecessors in the RUC did before them. The PSNI’s HET lied to us in 2008 about who killed Jean. Now the court agrees with us.”

The family now await whether the Chief Constable will appeal this damning judgement of police cover-up in the Supreme Court and re-traumatise the family again.

In the meantime, scores of families have registered the importance of the case for their own campaigns as they too do not trust the PSNI’s management of investigations of legacy cases. These families include those killed and injured by the MRF around the same time and my own family in the McGurk’s Bar Campaign. All of us have the Campbell family to thank for their perseverance in the face of state murder and cover-up as they fought in the memory and name of Jean, sister and mother.

Ciarán MacAirt is an author and activist with the McGurk’s Bar Campaign. He is founder and manager of the charity, Paper Trail (Legacy Archive Research), which advocates for victims and survivors of the conflict in the north of Ireland. Jean’s story features in his soon-to-be-published book, Trope: Collected Articles and Essays. Follow him on Twitter @ciaranmacairt and visit his website here.

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