The Red Hand Commando is one of Northern Ireland’s smallest and most secretive paramilitary organisations. Other minor groups which sprang up before and during the Troubles, such as Saor Uladh, the Irish Peoples Liberation Organisation, the original Orange Volunteers, mostly fell by the wayside, either forced out of existence or simply fading away. The “Red Hand” endured however, its survival aided by an early alliance with the powerful Ulster Volunteer Force.
Much of the group’s past is a mystery. Even the date of its founding is not known for certain – some sources say 1972, others 1971, while the organisation itself has issued commemorative badges bearing the year 1970. Some facts are in the public domain: it was founded by a group of young loyalists in west Belfast and at some point linked up with John McKeague (one-time leader of the Shankill Defence Association) who became the group’s figurehead, it is controlled by a single commanding officer holding the rank of brigadier, and is confined largely to Belfast and North Down (with particular strength in Bangor). It was proscribed by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw on the 12th November 1973.
During the Troubles some reporters dismissed it as a mere cover name, others even described it as a rival and opponent of the UVF! Kevin Myers however correctly described it as having “cadet relationship” with the UVF (in the sense of “cadet branch”, rather than youth wing). Writing in early 1973, Martin Dillon characterised the Red Hand 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 McKeague let them have it”
McKeague was a known homosexual with a preference for younger men, and Dillon (somewhat bitterly) later wrote of the RHC as if it existed merely to supply catamites for its founder.
Following his kidnapping by the UVF whilst on parole in early July 1972, Gusty Spence moved to consolidate and expand the UVF by launching a recruitment drive. To this end Spence made contact with McKeague to forge an alliance between the two groups, which would result in time with the Red Hand being almost absorbed by the UVF. In Roy Garland’s excellent but rather cagey biography of him Spence recounts the meeting:
“I was behind the barricades that had been erected in the Witton Street area of the Shankill. I was staying in a safe house when there was a high-level meeting between the UVF and the Red Hand Commando. John McKeague and I made an agreement that the RHC would become an integral part of the UVF. Each retained their separate command structure, but in operational matters they took their lead from the UVF. Firearms and security matters would be shared and they would be looked upon as part of the one organisation”
The book then reproduces the first part of the agreement. The full text is transcribed here for the first time.
The ULSTER VOLUNTEER FORCE/ RED HAND COMMANDO agreement (1972)
Senior Officers of Red Hand Commando and Officers of the Ulster Volunteer Force Brigade Staff sat in discussion of various points relating to the UVF and RHC in July 1972, in which the following points were agreed.
1/ Red Hand Commando, shall be aligned to the Ulster Volunteer Force and shall work hand in hand in a joint effort to aggregate all resources of both groups and devote all their energies to the war against the IRA.
(a) This alignment is taken because;
(i) Red Hand were in complete agreement with UVF policy on all matters
(ii) The UVF recognises the right of Red Hand units to retain their own separate identity, as a regiment with its own prides and particular style of internal organisation.
(iii) It is deemed desirable that both groups become aligned in order to provide assistance and support to each other, politically, physically, financial or materially.
2/ Consistent with this agreement, Red Hand shall retain its own command structure of Red Hand personnel, appointed from within Red Hand, to legislate and administer to the internal affairs of Red Hand.
(i) Only a Red Hand Officer can give an order to Red Hand personnel.
(ii) No Red Hand officer can be appointed or ‘stood down’ except from a more senior Red Hand Officer.
(iii) Wherever UVF policy requires specific action to be taken, the UVF senior officers shall liaise with senior RHC officers in order to have both UVF and RHC working in conjunction in accordance with UVF policy.
(iv) Wherever it is decided that disciplinary action is to be taken against Red Hand personnel, this must be done by Red Hand Officers. However, if UVF officers request that an observer is present during disciplinary action, then so be it. The opposite can also be agreed to, allowing an observer from Red Hand to witness the carrying out of disciplinary action, in specific cases, where an observer would be required.
3/ Red Hand prisoners shall be housed along with UVF prisoners, under a joint structure of command from senior UVF and RHC officers. Both sets of prisoners shall be regarded as one body of men and will be under the umbrella grouping of the Ulster Volunteer Force. No disagreement between UVF and RHC outside shall be allowed to affact the good-relations and oneness of UVF and RHC prisoners.
4/ All members of Red Hand Commando shall be administered the oath of allegiance from the senior Red Hand Officer. This oath of allegiance shall be an exact oath, as that taken by UVF personnel, with the exception of three words thus; “Red Hand Commando” as opposed to “Ulster Volunteer Force”. No other oath shall be recognised by Red Hand other than that adopted from the UVF oath.
The above agreement was made in July 1972 in Belfast and was established with the will and sanction of representatives of Red Hand Commando and representatives of the Ulster Volunteer Force.
Signed (Gusty Spence)
ULSTER VOLUNTEER FORCE (BRIGADE STAFF)
Signed (John McKeague)
RED HAND COMMANDO