Military Wiki
Red Hand Commando (RHC)
Participant in The Troubles
RHC mural in Bangor, County Down
Active 1972 – present (declared ceasefire in October 1994, ended armed campaign in May 2007)
Ideology British unionism,
Ulster loyalism
Leaders John McKeague,
Winston Churchill Rea,
Billy Elliot,
"Brigade Staff"
Headquarters Belfast
Area of
Northern Ireland
Republic of Ireland
Strength Small
Allies Ulster Volunteer Force
Opponents Irish republicans, Irish nationalists

The Red Hand Commando[1] (RHC) is a small and very secretive Ulster loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland, which is closely linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). It is named after the Red Hand of Ulster.



The RHC was formed in 1972 in the Shankill area of west Belfast by John McKeague (who was also involved with Tara) and colleagues from the Shankill Defence Association such as William "Plum" Smith.[2] Membership was high in the Shankill, east Belfast, Sandy Row, Newtownabbey areas as well as in parts of County Down. In 1972 the RHC agreed to become an integral part of the Ulster Volunteer Force. It kept its own structures but in 'operational' matters agreed to share weapons and personnel and often carried out military operations in the name of the UVF.[3] The group was declared illegal in 1973.

Progressive Unionist Party formation

A number of senior Red Hand Commando members played an integral part in the formation of the Progressive Unionist Party. The early beginnings of the party began in the compounds of Longkesh where members such as William "Plum" Smith and Winston Churchill Rea joined members of the Ulster Volunteer Force in a new political direction.

Paramilitary campaign

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 they killed and allowed other loyalist paramilitary groups to claim in their name, namely the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).[4]

RHC mural in Ballybeen housing estate with the Irish slogan Lámh Dhearg Abú, which roughly means "red hand to victory")

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


  • 8 Feb 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.[5]
  • 31 Oct 1972: The RHC shot dead a Catholic civilian at his workplace on Lisburn Road, Belfast.
  • 11 Nov 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.[6]
  • 12 Apr 1975: The RHC claimed responsibility for a gun and bomb attack on Strand Bar, Anderson Street, Belfast. Six Catholic civilians were killed.[7]
  • 19 Dec 1975: 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 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 Jun 1976: The RHC shot dead a Protestant civilian at a house in Comber, County Down. A Catholic man was the intended target.
  • 28 Oct 1976: The RHC and "Ulster Freedom Fighters" claimed responsibility for killing former Sinn Féin vice-president Máire Drumm.[8] 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.[9]
  • 8 Mar 1978: The RHC shot dead an Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) volunteer and a Catholic civilian in Portadown, County Armagh.

1990s and 2000s

  • 10 Aug 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 Sep 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 Oct 1992: The RHC shot dead a Protestant civilian at his workplace on Mersey Street, Belfast. It claimed he was an informer.
  • 1 Jan 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.[10]
  • 17 Feb 1993: The RHC claimed responsibility for shooting into the home of a Catholic man in Newtownabbey. There were no injuries.[11]
  • 30 May 1993: The RHC shot dead a Catholic civilian at his home in Dundonald, County Down.
  • 13 Sep 1993: The RHC shot dead a Protestant civilian outside his girlfriend's home in Carrowdore, County Down.
  • 17 Feb 1994: The RHC shot dead a Catholic civilian in his relatives' home on Skegoneill Avenue, Belfast.
  • 7 Apr 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 Sep 1995: The RHC shot dead one of its own members in Bangor, County Down, in an internal dispute.
  • 17 Mar 1999: The UVF shot dead a member of the RHC as he walked over waste ground off Malvern Way, Belfast, in an internal dispute.[12]
  • 13 Sep 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.

Ceasefire and decommissioning

In October 1994, the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) declared a ceasefire on behalf of all loyalist paramilitary groups. The UVF and RHC supported the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and maintained a ceasefire from 1994 until (arguably) 2005.[13] Galway-Jackson argues that the RHC declares its ceasefire remained intact from 1994 until full and final decommissioning in 2009.[14] On 3 May 2007 the RHC and UVF declared it was officially ending its armed campaign. The organisation stated that it would keep its weapons but put them "beyond reach" and "under the control of the UVF/RHC leaderships, but not accessible for use by members".

2007 official Statement

"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.[15] 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 a Latin motto as is common with most other Loyalist groups.

To date the Red Hand Commando are the only Loyalist Paramilitary group in Northern Ireland not to have had a supergrass in its ranks.


  1. "Red Hand Commando (RHC), Cain: Abstracts of Organisations". Retrieved 2012-08-11. 
  2. Peter Taylor, Loyalists, Bloomsbury, 2000, p. 80
  3. Garland, p. 151
  4. "CAIN Index of Deaths". Retrieved 2012-08-11. 
  5. Taylor, Peter. Loyalists: War and Peace in Northern Ireland. TV Books, 1999. p.105
  6. The Milwaukee Journal, 13 August 1974
  7. The Age, 14 April 1975
  8. Star-News, 30 October 1976
  9. McKittrick, David. Lost Lives, p.684
  10. "Loyalists claim more victims than IRA". The Independent. 2 January 1993
  11. "The Irish Emigrant - The Irish Emigrant - February 22, 1993". 2008-03-07. Retrieved 2012-08-11. 
  12. "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths". Retrieved 2012-08-11. 
  13. "UVF ceasefire no longer recognised - Hain". 2005-09-14. Retrieved 2012-08-11. 
  14. Interview with member, by J Galway-Jackson PgD (UU) BA (Hons)
  15. "UVF calls end to terror campaign, BBC News, Thursday, 3 May 2007". BBC News. 2007-05-03. Retrieved 2012-08-11. 

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