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The long reach of the Red Hand

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

John McKeague, a former supporter of the Rev. Ian Paisley, founded it in the early 1970s. A sectarian fanatic and predatory homosexual, McKeague had just been forced out of the Ulster Defense Association because of a dispute over missing money. His organization began murdering Catholics in February 1972, when it shot dead Bernard Rice as he walked along the Crumlin Road in North Belfast. The murder of Rice was the first of the so-called “motiveless murders,” the term the police used to describe the loyalist killings of Catholics in the early 1970s.
The RHC was responsible for several bombing attacks on pubs, including one in Dundalk and at least one gruesome torture murder. McKeague was one of the first loyalists to be interned without trial in 1973. Six days before Christmas in December 1975, the RHC bombed a pub in Dundalk killing two people, injuring 20, and destroying part of the town center. A few hours later another three people died in an RHC bomb attack on a Catholic pub in Silverbridge, South Armagh.
After McKeague’s arrest, the RHC became less active. At some point the organization came under the control of the larger Ulster Volunteer Force. McKeague himself was never trusted by the UVF or the UDA. He had crossed both organizations in the past. They regarded him as a dangerous maverick. What they did not know that was from the early 1970s McKeague, had been working for British military intelligence as an informer, a career that he resumed upon leaving prison. It is thought that this may have been a factor in the decline of his organization, which seems to have vanished from the paramilitary scene as an independent entity.
The McAllisters would come unto the RHC’s radar screen in early 1982. On Jan. 29 that year two gunmen belonging to the Irish National Liberation Army walked into the printing shop McKeague owned in East Belfast and shot him dead. One of the gunmen was Rabbie McAllister, the brother of Malachy. Rabbie McAllister was arrested a few days later. This was the beginning of a saga during which McAllister disclosed he had been working for the police Special Branch for several months, turned supergrass, but ended up serving a life sentence for five murders. One of those who ended up behind bars because of his testimony was Malachy, his brother.
For several years, the Red Hand Commandos were not much heard from. In 1985 it claimed to have placed a bomb in Castlewellan following the banning of an Orange parade. Three years later, it carried out the gun attack on the McAllister family home in the Lower Ormeau area of South Belfast, forcing the family to flee to Canada and then the United States.
During the upheavals of the late 1980s and early ’90s, when there was a resurgence of loyalist activities, the RHC reemerged, carrying out a series of murders in Belfast. In 1991, it murdered two Catholic shopkeepers in West Belfast. Larry Murchan, the second of them, went down in the history of the Troubles as the conflict’s 2,000th victim. The following year it murdered an informer in the east of the city. In the spring of 1994, a young Protestant woman named Margaret Wright was drinking in a small loyalist club on the Donegal Road when RHC members became suspicious that she was an officer from the drug squad. Wright was an epileptic, and suffered from bouts of alcoholism and depression. While she was high on of drugs and alcohol, RHC members tortured her, before murdering her and dumping her body in a garbage bin. The killing caused revulsion even among other loyalist groups. The RHC later killed Billy Elliott, one of its members, who, it alleged, had taken part if Wright’s murder.
Eight months after the Good Friday agreement was signed in April 1998, the RHC became the first paramilitary organization to carry out an act of decommissioning. Only a few weapons, and those mostly out of date, were put out of use. The gesture was soon exposed as a publicity stunt. Members of the Red Hand Commandos continue to carry out killings in the drug wars and feuds that flare up between the loyalist groups, now little more than criminal gangs. In a volatile situation, with the peace process suspended, and loyalist groups struggling for dominance, the RHC remains a dangerous maverick with the capacity to kill.

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