John Dunlop McKeague (1930 - 29 January 1982) was a prominent Ulster loyalist who founded the paramilitary group the Red Hand Commando in 1972. Authors on the Troubles in Northern Ireland claim that McKeague, a homosexual, was a paedophile who abused young boys during the Kincora Boys' Home scandal and was a long-time agent of the British government. He was shot dead by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) in Belfast in January 1982.
McKeague and Ian Paisley
A native of Bushmills, County Antrim McKeague, who long had a reputation for anti-Catholicism, became a member of Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church in 1966. McKeague and his mother moved to east Belfast in 1968, where he became a regular at Paisley's own Martyrs' Memorial Church on the Ravenhill Road and joined the Willowfield branch of the Ulster Protestant Volunteers. Before coming to Belfast he had already been questioned in relation to a sexual assault on two young boys although the charges were dropped after the intervention of some friends who held prominent positions in Northern Irish society.
McKeague split from Paisley in late 1969 under uncertain circumstances. Rumours that a young man with whom McKeague was living was his boyfriend had been rife and, whilst McKeague did not discuss the details, he stated only that he had been summoned to a meeting by Paisley where he was told he was an "embarrassment" and would have to leave the Free Presbyterian Church. Whilst giving evidence to Lord Justice Scarman as part of his tribunal investigating the 1969 riots Paisley stated that he and other Ulster Constitution Defence Committee leaders had agreed to expel McKeague from the UPV in April 1969 after he breached Rule 15 of the group's code, which banned members from supporting "subversive or lawless activities". Whatever the circumstances, the two became bitter enemies, with McKeague frequently criticising Paisley in print.
Early loyalist involvement
McKeague's relationship with William McGrath's Tara, a partially clandestine organisation that sought to drive Roman Catholicism out of the island of Ireland and re-establish an earlier Celtic Christianity which it claimed had existed on the island centuries earlier, has been the subject of some disagreement. According to Tim Pat Coogan McKeague was a founder member of Tara of 1966 although he does not eleaborate on the details. Chris Moore, in his investigation into the Kincora scandal, insists that McKeague was never a member of Tara but that he and McGrath had met to discuss trading weapons between their two groups and that following these meetings McKeague had become a regular visitor to Kincora, where he was involved in several rapes of underage boys living at the home. Although making no comment on his membership or otherwise of the group Jim Cusack and Henry McDonald insist that McKeague shared the far right conspiratorial views advanced by McGrath and UPV leader Noel Doherty.Martin Dillon also makes no comment on McKeague and Tara but insists that he was one of a number of shadowy figures, along with McGrath, who played a leading role in the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1966 and in helping to direct its strategy for the rest of the 1960s.
In late 1969 Thomas McDowell, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church who held dual membership of the UPV and UVF, was killed after a bungled attempt to blow up the power station at Ballyshannon led to him suffering severe burns. Investigations by the Garda Síochána, who found UVF insignia on McDowell's coat, led them to question his associate Samuel Stevenson who named McKeague as a central figure in a series of UVF explosions that had been carried out at the time, many involving UPV members. The case went north, where the previous explosions had taken place, and on 16 February 1970 the trial opened at which McKeague, William Owens, McKeague's 19 year old flatmate, Derek Elwood, Trevor Gracey and Francis Mallon were charged with causing an earlier explosion at Templepatrick. The case collapsed however after serious doubt was cast on the character of Stevenson, whose evidence was the main basis of the prosecution's case.
In 1968 McKeague became a regular figure amongst groups of locals who every night congregated in large groups in the Woodvale area close to Ardoyne after a series of incidents between the loyalist and republican communities during which flags from both sides had been forcibly removed. Having split from the UPV due to its perceived inaction in May 1969 McKeague addressed a meeting of loyalists in Tennent Street Hall at which he called for organisation against Catholic rioters. From this meeting he founded the Shankill Defence Association (SDA), with the proclaimed intention to defend the Shankill Road from Catholic rioters. However, in contrast to similar Protestant vigilante groups such as the Woodvale Defence Association which were for the most part reactive, the SDA played a leading role in fomenting trouble during the Northern Ireland riots of August 1969, leading attacks on Catholic homes in the Falls Road and Crumlin Road. He became a notorious figure locally, usually prominent in the rioting, carrying a stick and wearing a helmet.
The violence of the SDA was accompanied by equally violent rhetoric from McKeague as he boasted that the group possessed "hundreds of guns" and vowed that "we will see the battle through to the end". His militant stance won him the public support of Ronald Bunting who, like McKeague had earlier been associated with Paisley but had since broken from him. In November 1969, McKeague was cleared of a charge of conspiracy to cause explosions. He was however sentenced to three months imprisonment for unlawful assembly. McKeague's absence on remand for the initial charges saw his stock fall on the Shankill, where he was already mistrusted due to being from east Belfast (east and west Belfast natives traditionally holding each other in mutual contempt) and where his name had been further blackened by supporters of his former friend turned critic Ian Paisley. Leaving the Shankill he attempted to set up a group similar to the SDA but was declared persona non grata by the head of an existing local Defence Committee, who was a loyal Paisleyite. This, combined with a whispering campaign that McKeague was a "fruit", saw him abandon all initiatives in the west and south of the city and concentrate on his native east Belfast. The SDA continued in his absence until 1971 when it merged with other like-minded vigilante groups to form the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
McKeague was a candidate for the Protestant Unionist Party, the forerunner of the Democratic Unionist Party in a Belfast Corporation by-election for the Victoria ward in the east of the city in 1969 but was not elected. He then stood as an independent Unionist in Belfast North in the 1970 UK general election, but polled only 0.75% of the vote. He also began producing Loyalist News. Much of the content of the magazine was of a low-brow nature, containing jokes and cartoons in which Catholics were portrayed lazy, unwashed, stupid and alcoholic or, in the case of Catholic women, highly promiscuous.
In 1971 he was tried for incitement to hatred after publishing the controversial Loyalist Song Book. The first man to be tried under the Incitement to Hatred Act, McKeague's book included the line "you've never seen a better Taig than with a bullet in his head". After the jury disagreed at his trial a retrial was ordered at which he and a co-defendant were acquitted. Dillon argues that it was around this time that Special Branch first recruited him as an agent, allegedly using information they had obtained about his paedophile activities to force him to agree. He was handed over to Military Intelligence by Special Branch the following year.
His mother, Isabella McKeague, was killed on 8 May 1971 by a loyalist incendiary bomb attack on the shop below her flat in Albertbridge Road, Belfast. Reporting on her death in Loyalist News, McKeague stated that she had been "murdered by the enemies of Ulster". In fact the petrol bomb attack had actually been the work of the UDA, who had tired of McKeague both for his loose cannon attitude in launching attacks and starting riots without consulting their leadership and due to his promiscuous homosexuality with teenage partners. According to Ed Moloney a dispute over money had also been central to the schism between McKeague and the UDA.
As such McKeague broke fully from the UDA and established the Red Hand Commando in the summer of 1972, recruiting a number of young men primarily in east Belfast and North Down. McKeague had already been involved in organising the "Tartan gangs", groups of loyalist youths who were involved in rioting and general disorder, and used these as the basis of his new group. Following various attacks by his paramilitary organisation, in February 1973 he became one of the first loyalist internees and was later imprisoned for three years on an armed robbery charge (a conviction he disputed). He started two hunger strikes in protest against the Special Powers Act and prison conditions while in jail. In his absence he lost control of the Red Hand Commando, which became an integral part of the UVF. UVF leader Gusty Spence however contended that he had secured McKeague's agreement that the running of the Red Hand Commando should be taken over by the UVF not long after McKeague established the movement.
According to British military intelligence and police files McKeague was believed to have been behind the sadistic murder of a ten-year-old boy, Brian McDermott, in South Belfast in September 1973. The killing, which involved dismemberment and the burning of the body in the Ormeau Park, was so gruesome that the local press speculated that it might have been carried out as part of a Satanic ritual.
On 3 October 1975, Alice McGuinness, a Catholic civilian, was injured in an IRA bomb attack on McKeague's hardware shop on the Albertbridge Road. She died three days later. McKeague's sister was severely injured in the same bombing.
McKeague became a leading figure in the Ulster Loyalist Central Coordinating Committee (ULCCC), and in 1976 publicly endorsed Ulster nationalism in his capacity as an ULCCC spokesman. The aim of the group, which McKeague chaired, was to co-ordinate loyalist paramilitaries with the aim of founding a unified "Ulster army" although this premise did not prevent a loyalist feud between the UDA and UVF continuing following its foundation.
With John McClure he contacted Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Joe Cahill of Sinn Féin and initiated talks in an attempt to find a common platform for an independent Northern Ireland. This collapsed after Conor Cruise O'Brien discovered and revealed the activity. McKeague also met with Gerry Adams briefly to discuss the independence option but the meetings were unproductive and indeed convinced Adams that such clandestine discussions with loyalists were a waste of time. The contact between McKeague and his allies and the republicans, which was not endorsed by the wider ULCCC, saw the group fall apart as both the UDA and Down Orange Welfare resigned from the co-ordinating body when it came to light.
McKeague was subsequently a leading figure in the Ulster Independence Association, a group active from 1979 in support of an independent Northern Ireland. McKeague served as deputy to George Allport's leadership of the group.
In January 1982 McKeague was interviewed by detectives investigating Kincora about his involvement in the sexual abuse. Fearful of returning to prison McKeague told friends that he was prepared to name others involved in the paedophile ring in order to avoid a sentence. However on 29 January 1982, the INLA shot McKeague dead in his shop on the Albertbridge Road, East Belfast. It has been argued that following McKeague's threats to go public about all of those involved in Kincora his killing had been ordered by Military Intelligence as many of those who could have named were also agents, and a number of them more productive than McKeague, who by that time was highly peripheral to loyalism. To support this suggestion it has been stated that of the two gunmen who shot McKeague one was a known Special Branch agent and the other was rumoured to have Military Intelligence links.
- WD Flackes & Sydney Elliott, Northern Ireland A Political Directory 1968-1993, The Blackstaff Press, 1994, p. 222
- Northern Ireland - development of loyalism
- Martin Dillon, The Dirty War, p. 200
- Martin Dillon, The Shankill Butchers (1989), p. 23, ISBN 0-09-973810-4
- Henry McDonald, The Observer, 13 August 2000, "Rough justice for Ulster's 'paedophiles'"
- Revised and Updated Extracts from Malcolm Sutton data at CAIN website
- Ed Moloney, Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat?, Poolbeg, 2008, p. 152
- Moloney, Paisley, pp. 152-153
- Moloney, Paisley, p. 154
- Patrick Marrinan, Paisley: Man of Wrath, Anvil Books, 1973, pp. 198-199
- Moloney, Paisley, p. 159
- Tim Pat Coogan, The Troubles, Hutchinson, 1995, p. 156
- Chris Moore, The Kincora Scandal: Political Cover-Up and Intrigue in Northern Ireland, Marino Books, 1996, p. 86
- Jim Cusack & Henry McDonald, UVF, Poolbeg, 1997, p. 67
- Martin Dillon, The Trigger Men, Mainstream Publishing, 2003, pp. 106-107
- Cusack & McDonald, UVF, pp. 28-31
- Cusack & McDonald, UVF, p. 31
- Cusack & McDonald, UVF, p. 33
- Cusack & McDonald, UVF, p. 35
- Thomas Hennessy, Northern Ireland: The Origins of the Troubles, Gill & Macmillan, 2005, p. 254
- Henry McDonald & Jim Cusack, UDA - Inside the Heart of Loyalist Terror, Penguin Ireland, 2004, p. 11
- Hennessy, Northern Ireland, p. 268
- Peter Taylor, Loyalists, Bloomsbury, 2000, p. 77
- CAIN website, "Abstracts on Organisations - 'S'"
- McDonald & Cusack, UDA, p. 15
- McDonald & Cusack, UDA, p. 15
- Flackes & Elliott, Northern Ireland, p. 223
- Steve Bruce, ''The Edge of the Union, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 62
- Moloney, Paisley, p. 153
- Dillon, The Trigger Men, p. 109
- The Age, 8 May 1971
- CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths 1971
- Cusack & McDonald, UVF, p. 94
- Dillon, The Trigger Men, p. 109
- History Ireland, "Butcher of Bombay Street", p. 66 (article by Patrick Maume) July 2009
- Roy Garland, Gusty Spence, Blackstaff Press, 2001, p. 151
- Martin Dillon, The Shankill Butchers, p. 23
- Dillon, The Trigger Men, p. 104
- CAIN website data
- History Ireland, July/August 2009, p. 66 ('Brief Lives' article by Patrick Maume)
- McDonald & Cusack, UDA, pp. 100-101
- Irish Republican Information Service No. 21 from Republican Sinn Fein (available as archive only)
- Patrick Bishop & Eamonn Mallie, The Provisional IRA, Corgi, 1994, p. 389
- Flackes & Elliott, Northern Ireland, p. 334
- CAIN: Abstracts of Organisations
- Dillon, The Trigger Men, pp. 118-119
- Dillon, The Trigger Men, p. 119
- Jack Holland & Henry McDonald, INLA - Deadly Divisions, Torc, 1994, pp. 199-200