Red Hand Commando

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Red Hand Commando (RHC)
Participant in the Troubles
Red Hand Commando Badge.jpg
RHC badge
Active1970 – 2007/2009 (declared ceasefire in October 1994, ended armed campaign in May 2007, disarmed by 2009)
IdeologyBritish unionism
Ulster loyalism
Group(s)RHC Youth (youth wing)
Progressive Unionist Party (political representation)
LeadersJohn McKeague,
Winston Churchill Rea,
William "Plum" Smith,
"Brigade Staff"
Area of operationsNorthern Ireland
Republic of Ireland
Allies Ulster Volunteer Force
Opponent(s) Irish nationalists

The Red Hand Commando[1] (RHC) is a small secretive Ulster loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland, which is closely linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Its aim was to combat Irish republicanism – particularly the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – and to maintain Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom.[citation needed] The Red Hand Commando killed 13 people during The Troubles, 12 civilians and one of its own members. However, it is known to have carried out assassinations and to have allowed other loyalist groupings to claim these in their name.[citation needed] It is named after the Red Hand of Ulster, and is unique among loyalist paramilitaries for its use of an Irish language motto, Lamh Dearg Abu, meaning 'red hand to victory'.[2][3][4]

Writing in early 1973, Martin Dillon characterized the Red Hand Commando thus: "the composition of this group was highly selective, and it was very secret in its operations. Its membership was composed in the main of Protestant youths – the Tartans who roamed the streets at night looking for trouble. These youths longed for action, and (the group founder John) McKeague let them have it."[citation needed]

To date the Red Hand Commando is the only loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland not to have had a supergrass or informant in its ranks; this is believed to be due to its secretive and disciplined nature.[citation needed]

The RHC is a Proscribed Organisation in the United Kingdom under the Terrorism Act 2000.[5] The Red Hand Commando made a failed application in September 2017 to be removed from the list of proscribed organisations in the UK.[6]



Much of the group's past is unknown. The RHC was formed in June 1970 among loyalists in the Shankill area of west Belfast, by John McKeague (who was also involved with Tara), William "Plum" Smith and colleagues from the Shankill Defence Association.[7] Membership was high in the Shankill, east Belfast, Sandy Row and Newtownabbey areas as well as in parts of County Down. The RHC agreed in 1972 to become an integral part of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). It kept its own structures but in operational matters agreed to share weapons and personnel and often carried out attacks in the name of the UVF.[8] It was proscribed by William Whitelaw, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on 12 November 1973. According to Jim Wilson, chairman of the Reach Programme with association of the Red Hand Commando, the RHC numbered well over one thousand members during its campaign, and as of 2017 membership numbers were in the small hundreds who are engaged in community work.[9]

A RHC publicity photo showing masked and armed RHC members

Progressive Unionist Party formation[edit]

A number of senior Red Hand Commando members played an integral part in the formation of the Progressive Unionist Party in 1979. The beginnings of the party were in the compounds of Long Kesh, where members such as William Smith and Winston Churchill Rea joined members of the UVF in taking a new political direction.

RHC publicity photo

Paramilitary campaign[edit]

The RHC waged a paramilitary campaign from 1972 until the loyalist ceasefires of 1994. According to the Sutton database of deaths at the University of Ulster's CAIN project, the RHC has allegedly killed 13 people, including 12 civilians, and one of its own members. However, it is known that it killed and allowed other loyalist paramilitary groups to claim the deaths in their name.[10]

RHC mural in Ballybeen housing estate with the Irish slogan Lámh Dhearg Abú, which roughly means "red hand to victory"
RHC Mural, Rathcoole
RHC Mural
RHC Grave - Stevie McCrea

The following is a timeline of RHC attacks that resulted in deaths, and attacks in which RHC members were killed:


  • 8 February 1972: The RHC claimed responsibility for killing a member of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen's Association in a drive-by shooting on Crumlin Road, Belfast.[11]
  • 31 October 1972: The RHC shot dead a Catholic civilian at his workplace on Lisburn Road, Belfast.
  • 11 November 1972: The RHC shot dead a Catholic civilian at his shop on Crumlin Road, Belfast.
  • July 1974: In what was described as a "no warning bomb spree", the RHC bombed 14 Catholic-owned pubs in 14 days. One man was killed and 100 people were wounded.[12]
  • 12 April 1975: Strand Bar bombing The RHC claimed responsibility for a gun and bomb attack on Strand Bar, Anderson Street, Belfast. Six Catholic civilians were killed.[13]
  • 19 December 1975: Donnelly's Bar and Kay's Tavern attacks A car bomb exploded without warning at Kay's Tavern in Dundalk, County Louth, Republic of Ireland. Two civilians were killed and twenty wounded. A short time later, there was a gun and bomb attack on the Silverbridge Inn near Crossmaglen, County Armagh. Two Catholic civilians and an English civilian were killed in that attack, while six others were wounded. Members of the "Glenanne gang" were believed to have been involved in these attacks. The RHC claimed responsibility for both.
  • 2 May 1976: The RHC shot dead a Catholic civilian near his home in Thistlecross, County Louth.
  • 2 June 1976: The RHC shot dead a Protestant civilian at a house in Comber, County Down. A Catholic man was the intended target.
  • 28 October 1976: The RHC and "Ulster Freedom Fighters" claimed responsibility for killing former Sinn Féin vice-president Máire Drumm.[14] She was shot dead by gunmen dressed as doctors in Mater Hospital, Belfast. She had retired a short time before her killing and had been in the hospital for an operation. A UVF member (formerly a soldier), who worked as a security officer at the hospital, was among a number of men jailed.[15]
  • 8 March 1978: The RHC shot dead an Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) volunteer in Portadown, County Armagh.


  • August 1981: According to Micheal Stone, the RHC planned a bomb attack aimed at Charles Haughey’s yacht, the Taurima II, while it was berthed at Dingle Harbour, County Kerry. According to Stone the RCH operative planned to “wire Haughey’s boat with five pounds of commercial explosives. … [he] would attach the bomb to the on-board radio using an electrical detonator. Once the radio was switched on, the bomb would explode”. The operation was aborted after two RHC operatives were arrested a week earlier for a robbery and the explosives became volatile in transit from a quarry in Scotland. Allegedly elements of British intelligence provided a dossier on Haughey to the RHC.[16]

1990s and 2000s[edit]

  • 10 August 1991: The "Loyalist Retaliation and Defence Group" (believed to be linked to the RHC) shot dead a Catholic civilian at his shop on Donegall Road, Belfast. It was targeted for selling republican newsletter An Phoblacht.
  • 28 September 1991: The Loyalist Retaliation and Defence Group shot dead a Catholic civilian at his shop on St James Road, Belfast. It was targeted for selling An Phoblacht.
  • 9 October 1992: The RHC shot dead a Protestant civilian at his workplace on Mersey Street, Belfast. It claimed he was an informer.
  • 1 January 1993: The RHC claimed responsibility for shooting two Catholic civilians on Manor Street, Belfast. The two men were cleaning a car when they were shot at from a passing vehicle. The RHC claimed it was retaliation for the killing of a British soldier in the area two days before.[17]
  • 17 February 1993: The RHC claimed responsibility for shooting into the home of a Catholic man in Newtownabbey. There were no injuries.[18]
  • 7 May 1993: The RHC carried out an arson attack on a GAA club at Ballycran, County Down.[19]
  • 30 May 1993: The RHC shot dead a Catholic civilian at his home in Dundonald, County Down.
  • 10 August 1993: The RHC carried out an arson attack on a GAA club at Portaferry, County Down.[19]
  • 25 August 1993: The RHC announced that it would attack bars or hotels where Irish folk music is played. Following widespread criticism the RHC withdrew the threat a day later.[20]
  • 1 September 1993: The RHC claimed responsibility for shooting two Catholic civilians in Shore Crescent, Belfast.[19]
  • 13 September 1993: The RHC shot dead a Protestant civilian outside his girlfriend's home in Carrowdore, County Down.
  • 17 February 1994: The RHC shot dead a Catholic civilian in his relatives' home on Skegoneill Avenue, Belfast.
  • 7 April 1994: A Protestant woman was found dead at the back of an abandoned house on Donegall Avenue, Belfast. She had been beaten and then shot by a group of RHC members, who assumed she was a Catholic.
  • 28 September 1995: The RHC shot dead one of its own members in Bangor, County Down, in an internal dispute.
  • 17 March 1999: The UVF shot dead an expelled member of the RHC as he walked over waste ground off Malvern Way, Belfast, in an internal dispute.[21]
  • 13 September 2002: The RHC shot dead a member of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) as he sat in a car in Newtownards, County Down. The killing was part of a loyalist feud.
  • 8 May 2003: A member of the RHC was shot dead in at his home in Crawfordsburn, County Down. The killing was believed to be part of a loyalist feud.
RHC Memorial Garden

Ceasefire and decommissioning[edit]

In October 1994, the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) declared a ceasefire on behalf of all loyalist paramilitary groups. The RHC, along with all major Loyalist groups, supported the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and maintained a ceasefire from 1994 until (arguably) 2005.[22] Galway-Jackson argues that the RHC declares its ceasefire remained intact from 1994 until full and final decommissioning in 2009.[23] On 3 May 2007, the RHC declared it was officially ending its armed campaign, following recent negotiations between the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and with Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde. The RHC made a statement that it would transform to a "non-military, civilianised" organisation.[24] This was to take effect from midnight. It also stated that it would retain its weaponry but put them beyond reach of normal volunteers. Its weapon stockpiles were to be retained under the watch of the RHC leadership.[25][26][27]

2007 official statement[edit]

Following a direct engagement with all the units and departments of our organisation, the leadership of the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando today make public the outcome of our three year consultation process.

We do so against a backdrop of increasing community acceptance that the mainstream republican offensive has ended; that the six principles upon which our ceasefire was predicated are maintained; that the principle of consent has been firmly established and thus, that the union remains safe.

We welcome recent developments in securing stable, durable democratic structures in Northern Ireland and accept as significant, support by the mainstream republican movement of the constitutional status quo.

Commensurate with these developments, as of 12 midnight, Thursday 3 May 2007, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando will assume a non-military, civilianised, role.

To consolidate this fundamental change in outlook we have addressed the methodology of transformation from military to civilian organisation by implementing the following measures in every operational and command area.


All recruitment has ceased; military training has ceased; targeting has ceased and all intelligence rendered obsolete; all active service units have been de-activated; all ordinance has been put beyond reach and the IICD instructed accordingly.

We encourage our volunteers to embrace the challenges which continue to face their communities and support their continued participation in non-military capacities.

We reaffirm our opposition to all criminality and instruct our volunteers to cooperate fully with the lawful authorities in all possible instances.

Moreover, we state unequivocally, that any volunteer engaged in criminality does so in direct contravention of brigade command and thus we welcome any recourse through due process of law.

All volunteers are further encouraged to show support for credible restorative justice projects so that they, with their respective communities, may help to eradicate criminality and anti-social behaviour in our society.

We call on all violent dissidents to desist immediately.

We ask the government to facilitate this process and remove the obstacles which currently prevent our volunteers and their families from assuming full and meaningful citizenship.

We call on all violent dissidents to desist immediately and urge all relevant governments and their security apparatus to deal swiftly and efficiently with this threat.

Failure to do so will inevitably provoke another generation of loyalists toward armed resistance.

We have taken the above measures in an earnest attempt to augment the return of accountable democracy to the people of Northern Ireland and as such, to engender confidence that the constitutional question has now been firmly settled.

In doing so we reaffirm the legitimacy of our tactical response to violent nationalism yet reiterate the sincere expression of abject and true remorse to all innocent victims of the conflict.

Brigade command salutes the dedication and fortitude of officers, NCOs, and volunteers throughout the difficult, brutal years of armed resistance.

We reflect with honour on those from our organisation who made the ultimate sacrifice; those who endured long years of incarceration and the loyal families who shared their suffering and supported them throughout.

Finally, we convey our appreciation for their honest forthright exchange with officers, NCOs and volunteers throughout the organisation over the past three years which has allowed us to assume with confidence the position we adopt today.

For God and Ulster. Captain William Johnston, Adjutant.

The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) stated that this was unacceptable.[27] In June 2009, after talks with the IICD, it was announced that the RHC and UVF had decommissioned their weapons before independent witnesses.

The group is noted for using an Irish language motto, Lámh Dearg Abú (Victory to the Red Hand), as opposed to using a Latin motto as do most other Loyalist groups.


  1. ^ "Red Hand Commando (RHC), Cain: Abstracts of Organisations". Retrieved 11 August 2012.
  2. ^ Mulvenna, Gareth. Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash. Oxford University Press, 2016. p.215. Quote: "Ronnie McCullough adopted the motto 'Lamh Dearg Abu' for the RHC – an Irish phrase which means 'Red hand to victory'".
  3. ^ De Brun, Fionntan. Belfast and the Irish language. Four Courts Press, 2006. p.157. Quote: "UVF members learned the Irish language while in jail and the RHC adopted the Irish motto 'Lamh Dearg Abu' ('red hand for ever')".
  4. ^ "Red Hand Commando flags with Irish language slogan flown". The Irish News. 23 July 2018.
  5. ^ "Terrorism Act 2000". Schedule 2, Act No. 11 of 2000.
  6. ^ "Loyalist Red Hand Commando applies to be legalised". BBC News. 12 September 2017. Retrieved 12 September 2017.
  7. ^ Taylor, Peter (2000). Loyalists. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 80. ISBN 0747545197.
  8. ^ Garland, p. 151
  9. ^ "12/09/2017, The Nolan Show - BBC Radio Ulster". BBC. Retrieved 12 September 2017.
  10. ^ "CAIN Index of Deaths". Retrieved 11 August 2012.
  11. ^ Taylor, Peter (1999). Loyalists: War and Peace in Northern Ireland. TV Books. p. 105. ISBN 1575000474.
  12. ^ The Milwaukee Journal, 13 August 1974
  13. ^ The Age, 14 April 1975
  14. ^ Star-News, 30 October 1976
  15. ^ McKittrick, David. Lost Lives, p.684
  16. ^ Joseph de Búrca (21 February 2018). "Britain: Profile: The Men who tried to Murder Haughey". Village.
  17. ^ Kelsey, Tim (2 January 1993). "Loyalists claim more victims than IRA". The Independent. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  18. ^ "The Irish Emigrant - The Irish Emigrant - February 22, 1993". 7 March 2008. Retrieved 11 August 2012.
  19. ^ a b c Peter Heathwood Collection of television programs: 1993. Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN).
  20. ^
  21. ^ "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths". Retrieved 11 August 2012.
  22. ^ "UVF ceasefire no longer recognised - Hain". 14 September 2005. Retrieved 11 August 2012.
  23. ^ Interview with member, by J Galway-Jackson PgD (UU) BA (Hons)
  24. ^ "UVF statement in full". BBC News. 3 May 2007. Retrieved 29 July 2009.
  25. ^ "UVF decision on weapons welcomed". RTÉ. 3 May 2007. Retrieved 29 July 2009.
  26. ^ "UVF to clarify future intentions". BBC News. 3 May 2007. Retrieved 29 July 2009.
  27. ^ a b "UVF calls end to terror campaign". BBC News. 3 May 2007. Retrieved 29 July 2009.

Works cited