Brian Keenan, one of the foremost strategists of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) for more than three decades, and an outstanding leader of the Irish revolution, died at the age of 66 on 21 May 2008 following a long battle with cancer. West Belfast came to a standstill on Saturday 24 May as thousands of mourners turned out for his funeral procession.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, one of Keenan’s oldest and closest friends and comrades commented:
“Brian was a formidable republican leader over 40 years of activism. He was a deeply committed socialist and trade unionist who was enormously influenced in his youth by the writings of [James] Connolly and [Liam] Mellows.
“Brian Keenan’s strong endorsement of the Sinn Fein peace strategy was crucial in securing the support of the IRA leadership for the series of historic initiatives which sustained the peace process through its most difficult times. His working-class politics and his republican and socialist principles were his constant guide.”
Indeed, Keenan was drawn into republican activism not by nationalism, but rather by his active trade unionism and his study of Marxism Leninism.
As an apprentice electronics engineer he experienced sectarian harassment from what was largely a loyalist workforce, and he emigrated to England, taking up work in Luton. He attended his first trade-union conference as a delegate when he was just 17.
As he explained in a major interview he gave to the Sinn Fein newspaper An Phoblacht/Republican News (AP/RN) shortly before his death:
“To me, republicanism is an ideology which should be firmly fixed socially and economically.
“To me, the enemy was capitalism and the system of exploitation.
“To me, the national question was always a class question.
“Most republicans see it in terms of British troops occupying the North. I see it in those terms as well but I also apply a socialist analysis.” (Quoted in ‘The Brian Keenan interview’, 27 March 2008)
Moving back with his young family to Belfast in 1963, Keenan earned a reputation as a militant trade unionist and, when the civil rights struggle developed into a renewed struggle for national liberation, he joined the IRA in 1968.
Shortly afterwards, he went ‘on the run’ and spent the next 27 years, including 16 in jails in England, away from his wife, children and grandchildren.
The IRA’s operations in England were one of Keenan’s key areas of responsibility:
“The IRA leadership knew we could not defeat the British Army militarily but we could bring them to a point where they knew they could not defeat the IRA. We aimed to exhaust their patience through war in the six counties and subsequently the campaign in England. You have to be able to bring the struggle to their front door …
“It is arguable that had we been able to sustain a bombing campaign in London a lot earlier by using Canary Wharf-type bombs then we might have changed the course of the war decisively in the IRA’s favour.” (Quoted in ‘The Brian Keenan interview pt 3: Revolutionaries have to be pragmatic – wish lists are for Christmas’, AP/RN, 10 April 2008)
Nevertheless, such was his success and leadership ability, that Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, once described him as “the single biggest threat to the British state”.
It was his reflections on what was needed to take the struggle forward that led him to become not only a brilliant military leader but also a staunch supporter of the peace process. An obituary in The Times noted:
“Although he endorsed the peace process, and was a key player in decommissioning negotiations, he remained an unrepentantly militant Irish republican and Marxist, who believed the ballot box, as opposed to the bullet, to be a temporary means to achieving a united Ireland.”
In his AP/RN interview, he concluded:
“I would prefer we were somewhere else but we are not and that is it as far as I am concerned. Revolutionaries have to be pragmatic – wish lists are for Christmas. I can understand the widespread concerns by republicans about the manner in which the IRA handled its weaponry. But revolution is not about guns; it is about intent.
“At a time of great change we need to constantly lay out the republican vision. We need to constantly remind people we are for ‘equality, liberty, fraternity’. We are against exploitation and inequality.
“Those who continue to use armed struggle need to hear that message. They also need to be faced with the consequences of their campaign. There is no revolutionary logic to their activities. But I’m not a prophet when it comes to the future use of armed struggle in this or any other country. Historians in 50 years’ time will tell us whether the right path was chosen or not. Of course mistakes have been made along the way, but we have to look to the opportunities that are there to move the struggle forward to reunification and independence.”
An obituary carried in the Daily Telegraph, largely couched in the offensive terms one would expect from that reactionary newspaper when assessing a revolutionary, nevertheless made some important points, noting that his “involvement in republican extremism owed little to inherited Irishness or Catholicism. Instead he seems to have been inspired by a fanatical commitment to revolutionary Marxism, to which he had been converted in the 1960s. He was a formidable political animal – highly intelligent, fluent in at least four languages, and he possessed organisational and technical skills of a high order.”
A staunch internationalist, Keenan was a comrade-in-arms of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and he personally built close fraternal links with numerous other national-liberation movements, as well as with socialist and progressive countries throughout the world.
Addressing mourners at the funeral ceremony, Gerry Adams said:
“Even in the face of great illness, he never gave up, never stopped plotting and planning and arguing and looking to how republicans could best develop our policies and advance our struggle.”
The Belfast Telegraph reported: “There was no religious element during the funeral ceremony after which the lifelong republican socialist’s remains were taken to Roselawn crematorium.”