Remembering Sheena Campbell

On 16 October 1992., a young mother was shot dead in the York Hotel on Botanic Avenue in Belfast. The killing was carried out by a lone UVF assassin, who had strolled casually into the hotel bar, his face covered by a scarf, a hat pulled low over his eyes. He looked around the room before calmly walking over to a table where three young people were sitting talking, unaware of his approach. He produced an automatic machine pistol and fired it at 29-year-old Sheena Campbell, striking her several times in the chest and throat.

Sheena fell to the ground, mortally wounded. The gunman fired a final shot into her head before turning his attention to the two friends who had been sitting with her, injuring both, though not seriously. He then made good his escape, disappearing into a waiting blue Ford Fiesta, later found abandoned in the unionist Sandy Row area. It was a calculated and precise act. Sheena Campbell was dead only a month before her 30th birthday. Sheena was not shot simply because she was a Catholic - although that might have been reason enough for those who sent the trigger man that day. Nor was she shot by chance, a twist of fate having placed her in the `wrong place at the wrong time'.

The reality was that Sheena Campbell was a formidable opponent, a determined Sinn Féin activist of unsurpassed skill and tenacity, and a woman who consistently managed to do the impossible. The people responsible for her death didn't just want to kill someone. They wanted to kill Sheena Campbell. And it is very unlikely that the UVF acted without the assistance of state forces.

Two years earlier, in November of 1990, Sinn Féin had found itself in the midst of a crucial by-election in the Torrent ward of Dungannon, County Tyrone. The poll had been called after former Sinn Féin Councillor and IRA Volunteer Martin McCaughey was debarred from Dungannon District Council for non-attendance of meetings. McCaughey was shot dead by the SAS a short time later in a shoot-to-kill stakeout. The SDLP already held two seats in the district, unionists held a third, and all were desperate to thwart the return of a Sinn Féin candidate. The SDLP even canvassed unionist voters for second preferences in an attempt to ``keep Sinn Féin out''.

Against this backdrop of concentrated abuse by political opponents and lethal intimidation by state forces, it was decided that Francie Molloy should be the person to contest the seat on behalf of Sinn Féin. The monumental task might have seemed laughable had Sheena Campbell not been put in charge. ``Martin McCaughey had just been murdered by the SAS,'' recalls Molloy, ``and people were feeling very low. There was a real air of depression. The campaign was moving very slowly and I was asked what I thought might help. I said, `Give me someone like Sheena Campbell'.

``So they did. Sheena came in and took charge. She not only provided good management, her presence also freed me up so I could actively campaign myself.''

In organising Molloy's campaign, Sheena restructured Sinn Féin's entire approach towards elections and election canvassing.

Before long, she had everyone working together professionally, in a methodical and systematic approach. She planned everybody's timetable in detail, helping workers to record their findings and complete their tasks effectively by breaking the work down into small, manageable batches. This enabled people to remain focused without feeling overwhelmed by the size of their assignments and to foster friendly competition between election workers, with each striving to account for their batch of ballots.

More importantly, it also allowed Sinn Féin to target, fight, and account for each and every available vote. ``She made people feel a part of things,'' says Molloy. ``She brought them along with her and although she led by example, she always saw herself as one of the group. She was a constant inspiration.'' Sheena's plan later became known as the Torrent strategy, and it changed the way Sinn Féin approached election work forever. The system is still in use today, a lasting legacy of Sheena's insight, commitment and discipline.

The Torrent by-election was a close and hard-fought contest. When the results were finally returned, Francie Molloy emerged victorious by only six votes.

``It was incredible,'' says Molloy, ``and everybody could claim those six votes. If someone had managed to get a family who didn't usually vote out to the polling station, or if another had registered a few new voters, they could honestly say that their efforts had made the difference. That was what Sheena Campbell could inspire. I was glad we had done it. We had proved the new system worked and that the people of Tyrone would still return a Sinn Féin vote after Martin's death.''

Sheena's own death, in the lounge of the York Hotel just a few years later, came just as she was beginning her legal studies at the Law faculty of Queen's University.

She was the first student from Newry to be accepted into the faculty and had even been told by the Career Guidance people at the university that she ``hadn't a hope'' of being accepted. But as usual, she had beaten the odds.

The teaching staff at Queen's described her as ``a brilliant student, with tremendous academic ability'' but Sheena was not interested in financial gain as a result of her studies. She believed that law was meant to benefit humanity.

``She encouraged and pushed without seeming to do so,'' says her partner Brendan Curran, ``and was always there when needed. She could jump up on a chair at the sight of a mouse and then go out and take on a Land Rover full of RUC who were harassing someone she didn't even know. Her greatest strength was her love of life and people.''

Last year, in a commemorative booklet marking the tenth anniversary of her killing, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams noted that Sheena Campbell remains deeply missed by all who had the privilege of knowing her. ``Sheena was cheerful, positive and outgoing,'' wrote Adams. ``She was very articulate in promoting republican politics, and she was very effective. It was she who turned our electoral theory into practice.

``I have no doubt that, had she not been killed on that dark day in the autumn of 1992, she would have been one of the prominent leaders of our party. Her contribution to our struggle was immense. She was an activist's activist.

``She was young. She was a woman. She had skills and an abundance of talent. She was the future. That is why she was killed. They feared Sheena because they fear the future.''

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© 2003 Irish Republican News