The UDA killer nicknamed ‘Top Gun’ behind a dozen sectarian murders

Known to few outside loyalist circles, Stephen McKeag left a trail of death behind him

A  woman pushes her pram past a memorial to Stephen ‘Top Gun’ McKeag in west Belfast. One of his victims was 17-year-old Catholic Damien Walsh, who was shot dead in 1993. Photograph: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

A woman pushes her pram past a memorial to Stephen ‘Top Gun’ McKeag in west Belfast. One of his victims was 17-year-old Catholic Damien Walsh, who was shot dead in 1993. Photograph: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

 

The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Marie Anderson, did not name the killer of 17-year-old Catholic teenager Damien Walsh in her long-awaited report into the so-called 1993 Dairy Farm killing. However, the “dogs in the street”, as one well-informed source in West Belfast put it this week, know that a loyalist killer, Stephen McKeag, was the one with blood on his hands.

Between 1990 and 2000 the Ulster Defence Association held an annual macabre awards ceremony, a sort of loyalist “Oscars”. Virtually every year McKeag won the “Top Gun” honour as the UDA’s most prolific killer. It became his nickname. He was responsible for about 12 killings, most of them sectarian murders of Catholics. Some of the loyalists who hero-worshipped him say he killed far more.

McKeag was one of Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair’s team, a senior ranker in the UDA’s C Company on the Lower Shankill Road, which inspired fear, or respect, or both. Adair had great regard for his chief lieutenant, but he later became jealous of him because McKeag was so popular within elements of loyalism for his hitman status.

McKeag modelled himself on Adair, wearing the same tight T-shirts, the baseball cap worn back to front, the gold necklace, with a specially commissioned pistol-shaped pendant. Proud of his nickname, he had “Top Gun” tattooed on his breast. Typical of many others in the UDA, he was into body-building, motorbikes, drink, drugs and women.

Stephen McKeag, who died in 2000, ran the notorious ‘C Company’ on the Shankill Road, as Johnny Adair’s chief lieutenant. Like his hero, Adair, McKeag wore tight T-shirts with his cap on backwards
Stephen McKeag, who died in 2000, ran the notorious ‘C Company’ on the Shankill Road, as Johnny Adair’s chief lieutenant. Like his hero, Adair, McKeag wore tight T-shirts with his cap on backwards

His fame in loyalist circles was increased after he helped deliver his child in a garage forecourt after one of his partners went into early labour during the height of a loyalist killing campaign.

When he died from a drugs overdose in 2000, aged just 30, he was buried in Roselawn Cemetery in Belfast, the name “Top Gun” proudly inscribed by his colleagues on his headstone.

Damien Walsh, aged 17, was a trainee worker at the Dairy Farm shopping complex in West Belfast in March 1993 when the killers struck. He had changed his shift so he could take his girlfriend to the cinema later.

Psychotic excitement

In the book Mad Dog: The Rise and Fall of Johnny Adair and ‘C Company’, a loyalist source told journalists David Lister and Hugh Jordan about the murder. They described a type of psychotic excitement felt by the killers. McKeag was “elated” as the UDA gang drove away, listening and singing along to rave music on the car radio. The getaway driver shouted, “Is it a hit? Is it a hit?” A pumped-up McKeag shouted back, “Aye – go, go!”

The gang quickly scrubbed down to remove forensic evidence. Later, the gang was given a “few hundred quid” to “go and get full” – that is, to get drunk in a bar and be seen by as many witnesses as possible.

McKeag, though unknown to most, figures prominently in Lister and Jordan’s book, and also in UDA: Inside the Heart of Loyalist Terror by journalists Henry McDonald and Jim Cusack.

One of his most notorious killings was that of Philomena Hanna, a 26-year-old mother of two children gunned down while she worked in a pharmacy on the Springfield Road.

He shot her as she worked on a window display. When she fell, he fired several times more. Walking from the shop, he was taken on the back of a motorbike into loyalist Shankill, through Lanark Way.

As they went, witnesses said the killers were singing Follow the Yellow Brick Road from The Wizard of Oz. In McKeag’s world, Lanark Way and others like it were “the yellow brick roads”, offering quick escapes.

Later, the UDA claimed Philomena Hanna was a sister of Richard McAuley, the then Sinn Féin press officer and close friend of Gerry Adams. There was no such connection.

McKeag also is believed to have used the Lanark Way escape run after the murder of Seamus Sullivan, who was shot dead at a council depot in west Belfast in September 1991.

The list of deaths linked to McKeag goes on, including a Christmas 1991 attack on the Devenish Arms off Finaghy Road North, where 22-year-old Catholic civil servant Aidan Wallace was killed. An eight-year-old boy, Christopher Lawless, was shot in the eye as he sat eating crisps and nuts when the killers walked in. Even his own supporters say McKeag shot the boy because he was wearing a Glasgow Celtic top.

Betting shop

McKeag is blamed, too, for the November 1992 gun and grenade attack on James Murray’s betting shop on the Oldpark Road in north Belfast, frequented by Catholics and Protestants. There, three men were killed, Francis Burns, Peter Orderly and John Lovett, a former British soldier who had survived torture in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during the second World War.

He is also blamed for the murder of 21-year-old student Sean Lavery, shot during an attack on the home of his father, Belfast Sinn Féin councillor Bobby Lavery, in north Belfast in December 1992.

Police believed they had a good case against McKeag for the murder of 40-year-old Catholic Sean Hughes, killed in Carryduff hairdressing salon in south Belfast in September 1993. However, he got off when doubt was cast on a witness identification.

One of his last victims was 31-year-old Catholic civil servant Eddie Treanor, killed on New Year’s Eve 1997 in north Belfast in revenge for the INLA’s killing of Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy Wright in the Maze.

Shortly afterwards, McKeag’s life went into a spiral. He was seriously injured in a motorbike accident in 1998 when he collided, ironically, with a car driven by an Ulster Volunteer Force member.

The crash nearly killed him, and required pins to be inserted in a number of limbs. McKeag began taking strong painkillers, which played a role in his death later.

McKeag’s reign of terror could have been ended years before his death, Marie Anderson’s report implicitly makes clear

In 2000 he fell into rows on the Shankill after he intervened in a number of violent quarrels. Johnny Adair was already jealous of him because McKeag was viewed as more popular and effective.

Soon, he was banished to north Belfast. However, he was brought back later that year when Adair needed him in a feud with the UVF. McKeag refused to get involved. Adair was eventually forced to go to Scotland.

By now, McKeag was addicted to cocaine and prescription drugs. In September 2000 he was found dead at his home in north Belfast with apparent violent injuries. A cross-bow bolt was lodged in a wall close to his body, giving rise to suspicions that he had been attacked by the UVF or by former UDA colleagues. However, a later inquest blamed painkillers and cocaine.

McKeag’s reign of terror could have been ended years before his death, Marie Anderson’s report into the killing of Damian Walsh implicitly makes clear. Pointing to a litany of failings by police and British military intelligence in her 108-page report, the ombudsman said just three of the seven people suspected of being involved in Damien Walsh’s killing were arrested. Just one was questioned.

Earlier opportunities

Anderson found no evidence that the Royal Ulster Constabulary were involved, or had advance knowledge of the attack, but they had failed to capitalise on a series of earlier opportunities to trap the killers. Shortly before the murder, the shopping centre was under police and British military surveillance as it was suspected the IRA was storing bomb-making fertiliser there. Meanwhile, police were conducting surveillance of Johnny Adair and his C Company who were targeting people in the west Belfast area for murder, but this surveillance stopped three days before Walsh was killed.

Stopping the surveillance of C Company allowed the UDA gang to operate without the same “levels of constraint” that had previously applied, said the ombudsman.

Meanwhile, some British soldiers had witnessed the killing, but this was never made known to the RUC officer leading the investigation, the ombudsman found in her report, published on Wednesday.

Four days before Damien Walsh’s murder, an IRA bomb exploded in Warrington near Liverpool, claiming the lives of three-year-old Jonathan Bell and 12-year-old Timothy Parry. The Warrington bombing prompted global outrage, but it meant that Walsh’s killing was quickly overshadowed, as pointed out by his uncle Dr Sean McLoughlin in a letter to The Irish Times.

“Most people in Northern Ireland, including Damien’s family, were profoundly shocked by the Warrington atrocity and the deaths of the two children,” he wrote. Prayers were said for the Warrington families at his funeral, “[yet] Damien’s family received no plane-loads of flowers from the Republic, nor from England.

“In their understandable reaction to Warrington people in the south of Ireland should be careful to remember those other dozens of children and young people murdered in the north of Ireland,” he wrote then.

Damien’s mother, Marian, who knew about her son’s killer before the publication of the ombudsman’s report, found some relief in its findings. However, her son’s life had been “stolen from him”.

Saying she was exhausted “physically and mentally”, she was content that her suspicions about the actions of the RUC and the British Army had been confirmed.

Nevertheless, justice is still outstanding. The proposals by Northern secretary Brandon Lewis to ban all prosecutions for Troubles killings are “totally immoral”, she argued.