McMichael, John (1948–87), loyalist paramilitary and politician, was born in Lisburn, Co. Antrim, son of John and Annie McMichael. He was educated locally. He worked as a security guard, and later owned a public house and established his own security firm. In the early 1970s he was active in the Lisburn Defence Association, one of the local groups which formed the UDA, and the Lisburn branch of the Vanguard Service Corps, which ostensibly provided security guards for William Craig's Vanguard organisation. He was a founder member of the Old Warren Young Loyalist Band. McMichael became UDA commander in Lisburn, helped to organise the loyalist strike in 1977, and was appointed UDA brigadier for south Belfast (including south Antrim and north Down) in 1979. It is alleged that he murdered three catholics by his own hand.
In January 1978 McMichael joined as secretary the New Ulster Political Research Group (NUPRG), established by activists associated with the loyalist strikes of the 1970s. In November 1978 it published Beyond the religious divide, advocating an independent Ulster with safeguards for minorities. McMichael was responsible for diluting ‘cross-community’ elements in this manifesto, making it more specifically unionist; like many loyalist paramilitaries, he despised existing unionist politicians as hypocritical, unrepresentative, and incompetent. McMichael came to dominate the NUPRG, some of whose founders claimed that they were sidelined by him and smeared as ‘protestant Sinn Féiners’. By 1980 he had become the UDA's deputy leader and chief political spokesman, regularly appearing in the media and at conferences to represent the loyalist viewpoint. As part of the campaign for Ulster independence he promoted the ‘Cruthin’ theory (that the inhabitants of Ulster descended from a pre-Celtic population) and called for the historic site of Eamhain Macha to be protected from quarrying. Although the NUPRG was founded as a think tank, McMichael saw it as an embryonic loyalist political party, and in May 1981 he established the Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party (Ulster Democratic Party from 1989). McMichael suffered political humiliation as ULDP candidate in the South Belfast by-election for Westminster (4 March 1982), receiving only 576 votes (2 per cent).
McMichael's carefully cultivated image of a reasonable loyalist spokesman coexisted with another role – as UDA military commander, planning and approving sectarian assassinations. He believed republicans could be made to compromise by intensifying loyalist violence. He re-formed the UDA, imitating the cellular structure adopted by the IRA from the mid-1970s, and targeted high-profile republicans. The UDA claimed responsibility for the murders of the H-block activists John Turnly (qv), Miriam Daly, Ronnie Bunting (qv), and Noel Lyttle, and the attempted murder of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. It was frequently suggested that these operations could not have been perpetrated without the participation of the security forces. (McMichael's associates acknowledge they received information from security force personnel but maintain that the killings were carried out by a small gang – including Ray Smallwoods (qv) – specially trained at McMichael's behest.) In 1983 McMichael established an elite military group, the Ulster Defence Force (UDF) (some of whom became prominent loyalist killers in the late 1980s and early 1990s); he also recruited freelance assassins such as Michael Stone. He was remanded (1982–3) on terrorist charges, but never tried.
After the signing in 1985 of the Anglo–Irish agreement McMichael renewed his efforts to establish a loyalist political force, apparently believing that the impotence of unionist politicians left a leadership vacuum which loyalists could exploit. He allegedly spoke of a coup and drew up a list of politicians to be ‘invited’ to join a provisional government. In his Lisburn fiefdom the UDA petrol-bombed catholic homes during anti-agreement protests, and he organised the fire-bombing of shops in the Republic of Ireland. McMichael helped to establish the Ulster Clubs (an umbrella protest movement) and its shadowy military wing, the Ulster Corps, and he cooperated with other loyalist paramilitaries in securing weapons from South Africa.
As attempts to overthrow the agreement through mass protests fizzled out and unionist politicians once again drew back from loyalism, McMichael renewed his efforts to publicise the loyalist case. On 29 November 1987, after discussions with politicians, intellectuals, and constitutional experts (including David Trimble, who belonged to the same Apprentice Boys' club as McMichael), he launched Common sense, proposing an independent Northern Ireland with a power-sharing government, a bill of rights, and a written constitution. This received extensive, often favourable, publicity from commentators, including Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich (qv). But at the same time as these initiatives were in progress, McMichael was allegedly planning assassinations of prominent republicans in retaliation for the bomb blast at Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday, 8 November 1987, which killed eleven people.
McMichael was killed on 22 December 1987 at his home in Lisburn by a booby-trap bomb attached to his car by the IRA, allegedly in retaliation for the UDA's attempt in 1984 to murder the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams. His killing was widely condemned: Harold McCusker (qv) described him as the only person who had been prepared to develop an alternative to the Anglo–Irish agreement, while nationalist and catholic church spokesmen praised McMichael for engaging in dialogue with nationalists. Sinn Féin complained that such comments gave the impression that he was ‘the Gandhi of Northern Ireland’ (quoted in Wood, 129). Michael Stone's attack of 17 March 1988 on the funerals of IRA members killed at Gibraltar was intended as retaliation for McMichael's death.
Many loyalists believed that only collusion could have allowed the IRA to penetrate the tight security surrounding McMichael. In October 1988 James Pratt Craig, a senior UDA racketeer, was killed by loyalists who claimed that Craig had helped the IRA to kill McMichael because the latter had launched an anti-racketeering investigation which exposed Craig's corrupt practices and his contacts with republicans. This version of events is widely accepted, though some claim that the animosity between the two men was retrospectively exaggerated. McMichael had accepted a loan of £20,000 from Craig to shore up the finances of his own public house (and pay for his divorce settlement), and he allowed Craig to continue his activities in south Belfast after the west Belfast UDA had expelled him from their area. McMichael's opposition to racketeering should not be overstated: the employees of his own security firm allegedly intimidated business competitors.
McMichael's death, followed by the arrests and resignations of other UDA leaders, brought about the disintegration of the established UDA leadership and the emergence of younger, more volatile and militaristic leaders from the UDF. The new leadership established a cult of Brigadier John McMichael as lost leader and inspiration; murals and songs celebrated him, and the UDP continued to cite Common sense.
McMichael married twice. His first marriage (which ended in divorce) produced one son, Gary (b. 1969), who became the leader of the UDP, a Lisburn councillor, and a participant in the peace talks. In February 1986 John McMichael married Shirley McDowell; they had one son, Saul. Despite his violent and shadowy activities, some commentators believe that McMichael paved the way for loyalist involvement in peace negotiations. His family generally downplayed his involvement in violence. In 1999, however, Gary McMichael told the journalist Peter Taylor: ‘My father was no angel. He was a leader in a paramilitary organisation At the same time he was also making a contribution to trying to push not just loyalism but everyone beyond conflict’ (Taylor, 169).