In the late 1970s (c.1979 I think) John McKeague, the former leader of the Red Hand Commando, granted the Limerick Echo an interview. The interview was re-printed in two parts by the UVF newspaper Combat. The interview is fascinating and provides an insight into McKeague’s thinking on Ulster independence, federalism, a ‘Troubles amnesty’ and the interference of the church in people’s lives. The two parts were kindly scanned and given to me by Balaclava Street around a year and a half ago. Today I transcribed the interview and have reproduced it here.
As a Northern Loyalist, what do you think caused the troubles in 1969?
It was the result of the failure of leading politicians on both sides…they failed to recognise that change was necessary. We needed a new parliament, and there was a need for more give and take in parliament…Catholic politicians were accepted and they were equally to blame as the Unionists…We were told we had no civil rights…well I ask the question to-day; what rights have we now…that we hadn’t got in ’69…We were told we must have one man one vote…now it is Proportional representation.
To-day what we can do is to set up a Government which will eradicate the fears of both sides of running to Dublin or running to Westminster…therefore we call for two intents…one for Britain to say they intend to withdraw from Northern Ireland over a negotiated time, and for the Dublin Government to say we are not going to interfere…then the Northern people will have no where to run to…and they must come together…and form a new society, in which we could live together.
On the religious aspect, Mr McKeague said that no matter what one was, the right was there to attend religious services.
If the North had just politics then there would be no problem. However in the new Constitution being talked about for the North, no right of place will be given to any church, party nor organisations.
On the question of why was the Northern State so anti-minority, was it because the Catholic people looked to Dublin and this made the Protestant majority suspicious, Mr McKeague’s answer was:
If you look through history you will find that it was a Protestant that at all times fed Rebellions…but the Protestant had a great fear that with the Roman Catholic majority in the South that he would lose his identity and that fear has come to pass…in the South, the minority has diminished, yet in the North the Roman Catholic has increased.
However Mr McKeague believes that the religious differences are not really that great and feels it is a matter first for the leaders of the Churches to resolve their differences before the people can come together. He says that the leaders of the Churches must recognise that they are teaching different ideologies.
But yet these leaders can sit so piously and say that they are trying to deliver God’s words…and it is the same in politics.
It is alright for a man to live in a swanky house in the Malone Road and for another to live in a hovel in the Shankill or the Falls…and then tell him to be content.
But I am not content. I too must have a decent house to live in…a decent wage and a decent environment around me to go freely where I want. The only way we can do that at the moment is by saying that we recognise there are differences…but how do we solve them. In my opinion we have got to get two intents…one from Dublin and one from Westminster, that they are not going to interfere. The people of Northern Ireland to sit down and say honestly, how are we going to live to-gether? Through either Independence or a Federation, that the two peoples in the North can come together to live…and who knows in the future decades that there could not be a united Ireland, but under an entirely different concept than we have to-day.
Is the Protestant backlash there, if the British withdraw?
If the British leave Northern Ireland without the consent of the Protestant people such as we propose in Independence, negotiated through Federalism, there will be a backlash…the Northern Ireland Protestant will become to-day what the Provo is now and will not recognise the Dublin Government…the Protestant would find himself in that position…and the Republic as it then would be, would have a million and a half people on the rampage.
To make sure that a war of that kind does not come, there must be negotiated terms that suit the welfare of all the people of Northern Ireland. And the only way I see it, it is by Independence and Federalism and a general amnesty after a cessation of violence for a period of three years. The records of the present conflict would have to be destroyed and we will also be calling for a re-establishing of the whole political scene.
Then Northern Ireland can be seen, outwardly, to be pleasing the minority nor a majority, but pleasing the majority of the people in Northern Ireland.
The first time I met Loyalist leader John McKeague was in his printing shop in Belfast’s Albertbridge Road. The area of East Belfast has all the scars of the Northern war and yet only a few hundred yards away from the bombed out buildings, life goes on as normal, in the Park Avenue Hotel, set amid the secure and safe homes of the wealthy. It was here, a few years ago, that John McKeague represented the Loyalist paramilitaries. In Long Kesh he established a unique political system, and there was contact between Loyalist and Republican prisoners.
Today John McKeague is very much to the fore in advocating an Independent Ulster and his loyalty is to that State, not to Britain.
He has spoken to the Limerick Echo about the future of the North and how he sees the political developments affecting the lives of the people who have suffered for ten years.
Why don’t you want to be part of a United Ireland, John McKeague was asked, and his answer, was basically that the British way of life was good.
I was brought up a British subject, and I feel that the British way of life is good, if it was not, why do so many Irishmen go to Britain for work…it can’t be all that bad.
Mr McKeague said that in the future he could foresee a Federation of the British Isles, where Ireland may be divided into two, the Independent or Federated State, and the Republic. He could also see Wales and Scotland federated. However he feels that the EEC could become a disaster. He fears Germany rising and taking over and dominating other countries.
You would favour independence rather than the link with Britain, but why is the link so important to many Northern people?
They believe, as I did once, that stability is with Great Britain. However as we look at Great Britain today what is stable about it? It takes the four nations to make the British Nation and if England stands alone she is doomed. And it is wrong of the British Parliament to put out this concept that the Englishman is the British nation.
To the question, would you talk to Catholic politicians, Mr McKeague said, “We have done, will do and continue the dialogue we have at the moment.” He revealed that he had met Paddy Devlin and had a great respect for him, in that he stepped out of the SDLP and told them not to be so naïve that there could not be power-sharing.
“We say no to power sharing, but yes to community government, with representatives that people elect, not select,” said Mr McKeague. He felt that if Independence came, the Unionism and the Nationalism would be swept away and new parties would emerge.
Is there any solution in sight?
I would say tonight that if about two dozen people go around the table the solution could be formulated immediately. The concepts that have been keeping people apart are those conjured up by politicians…in their minds what they think the people think…I just wish the politicians would come thinking what the people think and act on the peoples (sic) instructions.
He paid tribute to the Peace Movement in bringing together people of different faiths. This showed the Catholic and Protestant people that they could come together. He said that the Loyalist paramilitaries also saw this and made no objection. Only the Provos objected said Mr McKeague, who added that the Loyalist people have no fear. “We want them to have their freedom and their democracy, to go and march on the streets when they want to…not someone saying, this is our area you can’t come into it.”
Mr McKeague, in answer to the question were politicians guided by the paramilitaries, said that there must be a political solution, and the paramilitaries must be stood down and never again allowed rise. He said they only arose out of the ashes of incompetency of Northern Ireland’s politicians.
“We have got to move with the times” said Mr McKeague. “A working man does not want a low wage. He wants a good decent salary, a good environment so that he can bring up his children…and we want no church, no matter who, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Hindu or Moslem telling us how we are going to conduct our own morals.”
A major task Mr McKeague said before Independence was to prove to both communities that they could live together. The Catholic of the North has looked to Dublin for help, but what help did Dublin give them…none. The British Army came in to aid the minority and today it is ironic that they have turned on their protectors. It is not the Protestants who are shooting British soldiers…it is the people that they came to protect.
The crisis might have been averted, if there had been more talking, said Mr McKeague. “And, I possibly was one of those who would not have talked but I see the error of that now.”
“If we talk there is a solution. If we go on the rampage and act dogmatically we are still going to have wars.”
Have the last ten years taught people in the North to talk?
It has taught people in the North not only to talk but to think, and to take notice politically. Our thinking was done for us. Today we are asking questions as to why do we not have the rights of a British citizen. Our parliament has been taken away…our Governor has been taken away…we are told we are British…but everytime we look for something we are told we are not British, that we must have a different way of electing people…so therefore we say – Right, call it a day…give us our Independence…let the Irish rule the Irish in Ireland and then we may see some solution.
Why John McKeague are you talking to the Limerick Echo?
You came to me through a good friend of ours, Paddy Harte. He came to listen and went home amazed, and started to talk to politicians in Dublin as to what we were saying…and now he has created for us a situation where talks can take place with anybody. Today I am willing to talk to the press as long as they are willing to print what I say…not what they think I have said.
John McKeague left the meeting, it was early evening and dusk fell around the city. He was a Loyalist, alone, in the South…and he went unrecognised through the crowded footpaths…in his mind a possible solution to the troubles of his land…more people should listen.