From the files of the DIB…Butcher of Bombay Street

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), News, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 17

John McKeague with his mother c. 1970. She was burned alive on 9 May 1971 when the UDA petrol-bombed the family shop. (Pat Langan)

John McKeague with his mother c. 1970. She was burned alive on 9 May 1971 when the UDA petrol-bombed the family shop. (Pat Langan)

McKEAGUE, John Dunlop (1930–82), loyalist activist, was born at Messines Cottage, Bushmills, Co. Antrim, one of six children of Thomas McKeague and his wife, Isabella. The family operated a guesthouse in Portrush before moving to Belfast, where they opened a stationer’s shop on the Albertbridge Road; it was inherited by McKeague and in the late 1970s became a confectioner’s shop and café. In the late 1960s McKeague was active in the Free Presbyterian Church and was linked to William McGrath and the revived UVF of the mid-1960s. On 30 November 1968 he participated in a banned demonstration by supporters of Ian Paisley against a civil rights march in Armagh city. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s McKeague published a magazine, Loyalist News, full of anti-Catholic rhetoric and gossip, sectarian rhymes, Protestant religious material, and illustrated lessons in the use of firearms. He took part in the bombing campaign of 1969 that led to the downfall of the prime minister, Terence O’Neill.
In 1969 McKeague and his associates took over the nascent Shankill Defence Association (SDA). Despite his outsider status and eccentricities—he was given to strutting around wearing a helmet and brandishing a stick—he was seen as offering communal defence against a perceived Catholic threat. In August 1969 he orchestrated mob attacks on Catholic enclaves in Belfast, including Bombay Street. He boasted of these activities, becoming a figure of hate for Catholics. In October 1969 he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion, but was cleared in February 1970. McKeague testified before Mr Justice Scarman’s tribunal, appointed to inquire into the unrest; in the course of his evidence he exulted over the August 1969 riots and the tribunal’s report condemned him by name. He later further enraged Catholics by calling the events of Bloody Sunday in January 1972 ‘Good Sunday’ in a television interview.
McKeague’s eccentricity and unwillingness to participate where he could not command doomed his political ambitions. In the 1970 Westminster general election he won only 441 votes in North Belfast. In 1971 McKeague and two associates were prosecuted under the new Incitement to Hatred Act for publishing a Loyalist songbook, which included verses (probably composed by McKeague) revelling in the murder of Catholics. The defendants pleaded that the book was purely a historical record and their acquittal vitiated the act. After McKeague quarrelled with the newly formed UDA, which was created by a federation of the SDA with other local vigilante groups, his elderly mother was burned alive when the UDA petrol-bombed the family shop on 9 May 1971.
Early in 1972 McKeague was expelled from the SDA. He founded the Red Hand Commandos (RHC), centred on east Belfast and north Down, which perpetrated numerous sectarian murders. As RHC leader McKeague allegedly participated in murders involving torture and mutilation. He aligned the RHC with the UVF in 1972 and in February 1973 was one of the first loyalist internees. He was subsequently imprisoned for three years for armed robbery; he always asserted his innocence of this charge. During his imprisonment he assumed a leadership role among loyalist prisoners, undertaking two short hunger strikes in protest against the Special Powers Act and prison conditions. Until his death McKeague was co-chair of the Ulster Loyalist Central Co-ordinating Committee, a paramilitary umbrella group established in 1974. On 6 October 1975 a Catholic customer was killed and McKeague’s sister severely injured when his shop was bombed by the IRA.
From the mid-1970s McKeague advocated negotiated independence for Northern Ireland, arguing that this could accommodate republican anti-British feeling and unionist fears of a united Ireland. In his last years he was chairman of the Frank Street–Cluan Place–Stormont Street Housing Association. He lobbied for a security wall to shield this Protestant district of Belfast from the Catholic Short Strand on which it bordered; construction of the wall began just before his death. John McKeague was shot dead by the INLA at his shop on the Albertbridge Road on 29 January 1982. McKeague had accepted that he would die violently and said that, if loyalists killed him, ‘I want . . . to be left in the Republican area so that they’re blamed’. Shortly before his death he was linked to the sexual abuse of teenage boys at Kincora Boys’ Home in east Belfast. He had apparently been an informer to the security forces, and it is sometimes suggested that his murder was part of an official cover-up. HI

Patrick Maume is an editorial assistant with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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