The Red Hand Commando (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. The Red Hand Commando carried out shootings and bombings, primarily targeting Catholic civilians. As well as allowing other loyalist groupings to claim attacks in their name, the organisation has also allegedly used the cover names “Red Branch Knights” and “Loyalist Retaliation and Defence Group”. 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’.
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.”
The Red Hand Commando was the only major loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland not to have its ranks heavily penetrated by a so-called supergrass or informant during the early 1980s, this was attributed to the group’s secrecy (described as an “enigma”) and opaque structure. However an alleged senior member of the organisation from East Belfast was charged with membership in 1983 after boasting to UVF man (and later supergrass) John Gibson that he was second-in-command in the area.
The RHC is a Proscribed Organisation in the United Kingdom under the Terrorism Act 2000. The Red Hand Commando made a failed application in September 2017 to be removed from the list of proscribed organisations in the UK.
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. Membership was high in the Shankill, east Belfast, Sandy Row and Newtownabbey areas as well as in parts of County Down. A cell was also allegedly based in County Tyrone, near Castlederg. 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. 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.
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.