John McKeague was a leading member of the Shankill Defence Association.
In June 1970 he was approached by a group of young loyalists who had witnessed republicans attack the annual Orange Whiterock parade. The young men had met in Rosevale Street in the Oldpark Road area of North Belfast on the evening of 27 June and verbally agreed the founding principles of the group which would later become known as the Red Hand Commando, or Red Hand. Thereafter they linked up with McKeague and the SDA and McKeague became the figurehead of the RHC.
In June 1970 McKeague unsuccessfully stood as an independent candidate in the Westminster election, gaining a paltry 441 votes.
In May 1971 McKeague was at a Red Hand Commando training camp on the North Coast when news reached him of a fire in his flat on the Albertbridge Road. His elderly mother Isabella who suffered from poor mobility was killed in the fire and it is believed that fellow loyalists attacked the property in an attempt to diminish McKeague’s profile.
Although small and secretive the Red Hand Commando grew steadily throughout late 1971 and early 1972 with units formed outside the Shankill. The Village RHC in South Belfast was integrated with the Shankill ‘A’ Company and was comprised of around six men altogether. In July 1972 a number of Woodstock Tartan members were sworn into the organization.
In the summer of 1972 McKeague stated in an interview with academic W.H. Van Voris:
At the moment there is polarization. The republican element has taken its stand and we have taken our stand, but we ask ourselves honest questions. Do we discriminate against Roman Catholics? Who is being discriminated against?
Perhaps we can get the two populations together someday, and the only way to do this is to stop the segregation of schools. But Rome must do this.
In January 1982 John McKeague was killed in the shop he kept below his flat. Various theories abound about who killed him and why he was killed. The following article was published in the UVF Combat magazine shortly after his death.
More information about the Red Hand Commando and John McKeague will feature in my forthcoming book.