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 Albertbridge Road; it was inherited by McKeague and in the late 1970s it became a confectioner's shop and café.
In the late 1960s McKeague was active in the Free Presbyterian Church and the Willowfield branch of the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV). He was linked to William McGrath (qv) and the revived UVF of the mid-1960s, and he publicised the claims of Gusty Spence that the police had framed him for the murder of a Catholic barman. On 30 November 1968 he participated in a banned demonstration by supporters of Ian Paisley (qv) 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 which led to the downfall of the prime minister, Terence O'Neill (qv), and stood unsuccessfully for Belfast corporation in 1969 as a protestant unionist. McKeague, who never married, was a promiscuous homosexual; his paramilitary recruitment of young men had homoerotic overtones and his violence contained elements of sexual perversion.
In 1969 McKeague and his associates took over the nascent Shankill Defence Association (SDA), which had been formed to oppose a destructive redevelopment scheme. McKeague became its chairman and 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; the organisation acquired 1,000 members. 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. The sentence was reduced to three months on appeal. 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 sought publicity and power, but his 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. He was expelled from the UPV after being prosecuted in February–March 1970 over the loyalist bombing campaign of 1969, even though he was acquitted. Ian Paisley and McKeague exchanged bitter invective and McKeague subsequently supported William Craig's Vanguard movement. In 1971 McKeague and two associates were prosecuted under the new Incitement to Hatred Act for publishing a Loyalist song book, 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 he 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. Later, in December 1981, he acted as an intermediary during a loyalist prison protest. On his release in 1975 the RHC split and thereafter McKeague denied any connection with the organisation, threatening to sue newspapers that linked him with it. 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: ‘the days of the Orange card are gone forever’, he said (Sunday World, 31 January 1982). He was a founder and deputy leader of the minuscule Ulster Independence Association, and suggested that the ‘Londonderry Air’ become Ulster's national anthem. In talks with nationalists and republicans he told the catholic priest Des Wilson that a united Ireland would be acceptable to protestants, provided ‘we enter as a free people, even if we're only independent for five minutes’ (Wilson, Fourthwrite, no. 2, 2002). But McKeague's record was an insuperable barrier to these initiatives.
In his last years McKeague 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 Albertbridge Road on 29 January 1982. Shortly before his death he had been linked to the rape and prostitution 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. He was buried in Bushmills, with Church of Ireland rites.
John McKeague exemplifies the social deviant who can gain prominence during political instability, projecting and legitimising his hatreds and obsessions through extremist politics. In his last years McKeague accepted that he would die violently. He said that if loyalists killed him: ‘I want . . . to be left in the Republican area so that they're blamed’ (Sunday World, 31 Jan. 1972).