Loyalist Defence 1971

The below article is taken from the book Tartan Gangs & Paramilitaries – The Loyalist Backlash. Author Dr Gareth Mulvenna.  Liverpool University Press 2016

The Red Hand Commando was one of the Loyalist Groups active on the evening of Internment 9th August 1971. One former member recalls in detail the manner of their briefing and mobilisation on the streets of Belfast where Protestant and Catholic working-class communities abutted one another :

On 9th August we rushed down to the Bricklayers Arms. John McKeague was kept informed about the overall situation. Most activity centred around Horn Drive at Lenadoon, Oldpark & Ardoyne, Malt Street off the Grosvenor Road and other flash points. We had about a dozen young men or so, two cars and not a great amount of firearms. McKeague organised two carloads of four men in each, equipped with old rifles and a couple of handguns. Four others were given semi-automatic pistols and revolvers and told to make our way on foot to the designated points. ‘Defend the areas and shoot to ward off any attacks by the republicans’ That was John mcKeague’s order. John called me to the side and handed me his personal .32 seven-shot automatic pistol and a box of 25 rounds of ammunition.

The foot patrol of the RHC members walked to the nearby Heathfield and Torrens area between the Oldpark and Cliftonville roads where isolated protestants lived: ‘Heathfield was a small protestant enclave facing Ardoyne Avenue and was under severe threat. The front of the Oldpark Road was marked by the Finiston School wall and railings, directly facing the barricade at Ardoyne Avenue. On arrival the RHC members were greeted by a group of young loyalists who directed them to a small house in the Torrens area, where a local character and known loyalist named Patsy Gallagher lived :

Inside sat an elderly man with grey hair and poor eyesight. He was the boss of the area. I explained who sent me and gave him my name. He greeted me warmly and said he had been expecting me. The house was filled with relatives of the old man, friends and eager young men who wanted to play their part in defence of their small tight-knit area.

The issue of the arsenal available was then discussed, along with strategies for defence :

He asked what weapons we had. I embarrassingly told him we had only four handguns between the four of us. He called in one of his relatives and asked what weapons they had. I was told they had several shotguns between them. He then instructed his relative to load up and take further orders from me. The group left the house and the old man said to me, ‘Make sure those bastards know the area is armed and make sure they do not attempt to attack our area’. I gave him my word but told him that under no circumstances would we fire the first shot until our mobile support arrived.

Instructions were  then given by the Red Hand member in charge to the young loyalists who lived in the area :

I engaged with all the men with firearms and instructed them to take up positions at the school wall facing Ardoyne Avenue. I left one local man and told him to keep the eager young men back from the Oldpark. They were making petrol bombs and wanted action, which concerned me. a couple of hours passed quietly. In the background I could see the flames of cranbrook Gardens, Velsheda Park and Farringdon rise into the sky. Gunfire was constant albeit in the distance. I watched the movement of young men and others around the barricade facing the school, shouting could be heard but I realised that they too were in defensive mode just as we were. Several times some of our young men moved onto the Oldpark and threw stones and bottles at their barricade. I shouted to get them back and the local guys moved them back waving their shotguns. I had to go and tell the guys we could not attack until our cars arrived in the area. Within minutes I heard an almighty cheer from Torrens. Then seven or eight men armed with rifles ran around the corner and told me they were ready. Much relieved, I told them to take up positions at the school front. I sent word to the old man that we were going to let the rebels know that the area was armed and to expect some gunfire. Once in position I instructed every man to wait on my command. The young lads were excited and I told them to stand back because I expected return fire.

The assembled loyalists decided to shoot at the Catholic barricade in order to make it known that the Heathfield and Torrens area was not going to be given up :

Apart from the noise of distant gunfire and the noise from the lit up flaming Ardoyne streets at the back there was an eerie silence. ‘Fire’ was shouted and immediately eight rifles, four handguns and several shotguns opened up. I could see people scramble behind cover at the barricade facing us. Then came the expected fire in return. Bricks on the gable wall smashed and shared beside us. We fired another volley or two and they returned the compliment. After some time all went silent. ‘Ceasefire – shoot only at identifiable targets’ was instructed. I called the riflemen together and told them that I was satisfied that there would be no incursion into the area now that we had made our presence felt. The eight men in two cars drove onto the Cliftonville Road and went about their business for the rest of the night. The area was again left with four visiting gunmen and a few locals with shotguns. I reported to the old man. He stood up and shook my hand. He was satisfied that the area was safe for the night. The small group of RHC men had played a small but necessary part in the defence of several loyalists areas that interment night.




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