The Enigma of Brian Keenan

Observing on television the funeral of the late IRA leader Brian Keenan, who died after a lengthy battle with cancer, the only thing it is possible to be certain about that was not part of the game plan was the moving emotion expressed by Keenan’s daughters as they heartbreakingly kissed and caressed his coffin.

Provisional funerals these days are so stage managed that it is difficult to read them. They are political funerals in the sense that they are positioned so as to make a political point or gain a political advantage. Often who attends a funeral or what is said at one is to be considered only on where it fits into the range of strategic or tactical objectives that those behind the organisation of the event hope to achieve. That the eulogy might genuinely reflect the sentiment felt towards the deceased is often coincidental. When it is said that Paisley only became the leader of the Stormont executive because Brian Keenan and his colleagues made it possible, there is the ring of the self serving to it. It read eerily like ‘blame Brian.’

While he went along with it all, Paisley presiding over an internal solution while a major blow for republicanism must have been a triple punch to the solar plexus of Brian Keenan. In addition to partition being underwritten on the same terms as before, the consent principle, there was the added insult to Keenan’s secularism with Provisional acquiescence in the appointment of a theocrat as first minister. On top of that his professed Marxism must have had difficulty reconciling itself to the right of centre administration his movement was now propping up to the point of inviting the leader of world capitalism to Stormont.

For this reason Brian Keenan remains an enigma, someone not easy to be definitive about. He was certainly a very committed member of the IRA and was president of the army council at the time of his arrest in 1979. Some of those critical of him today retain respectful memories of a man who took the same risks as the volunteers he commanded.

Perhaps his willingness to embrace a non republican, non socialist, non secular outcome to the struggle he give so much of his life to lay in his own self professed pragmatism. He argued after the first ceasefire in 1994 against internal critics that had the IRA been able to sustain its campaign in England and been financially solvent to the point of being in a position to fund its own existence the ceasefire need not have been called. Recently in an interview with An Phoblacht/Republican News he appeared to allude to this. He also contended that he wished the Provisional movement was in a better place, an unwitting concession of sorts to the criticism that the place it is in hardly warms the republican soul. It was also a much more honest observation than being told that another gigantic step towards a united Ireland has just taken place or that Ian Paisley is perhaps the Wolfe Tone of our times doing more to bring a united Ireland about than republicans opposed to Sinn Fein.

Aside from whatever pragmatic considerations Brian Keenan judged necessary, he was also regarded as a Stalinist in the organisational sense. He favoured hierarchical structures, the undisputed hegemony of a leadership line imposed on the rank and file via democratic centralism which invariably means more centralism than democracy. Dissent was anathema to him. For someone with a strict sense of organisational loyalty this would have meant going along with the line even if it came up against his own set of beliefs. So it is possible that Brian Keenan had difficulties with the peace process strategy but agreed to be bound by democratic centralist convention.

A more compelling explanation is that he was constrained by factors other than pragmatism or democratic centralism from developing a strategy more consistent with his natural republican, socialist and secular leanings. What such a constraint may have been is a matter for conjecture, but if it existed it certainly gave others a lever with which to prise open his grip on any preferred strategic atenatives. It is dubious proposition that either pragmatism or democratic centralism could lead a man with the strength of conviction Brian Keenan is said to have had to a position so fundamentally at odds with those convictions.

He certainly told enough people at different stages of his misgivings. At one point he urged activists to mobilise to block an Adams appointee being selected as a MLA. On occasions this approach reportedly led to vociferous disagreements between him and others in the movement who felt he argued outside army council meetings against the policy being pursued, but never confronted those council members most in favour of the project when the council was in session. At times his public pronouncements ran so bizarrely against the grain of the reformist and partitionist terminus the Provisional movement was heading to it seemed inconceivable that he would allow himself to be held captive by the peace process without trying to break out.

In 1998 he made the prediction that:
I can categorically state the only time the IRA will decommission, we will decommission in agreement with a government of national democracy, a government that derives from the first Dáil. That's when we will decommission—never, ever before.

Keenan was assumed to believe what he did for his own reasons. He was not considered as one of the types who believe anything so long as it is whispered to them. Despite the imprudence of allowing himself to become a hostage to fortune, when such undertakings went unfulfilled the voice of Brian Keenan did not wax critical. For those hoping for a switch of direction it seemed that at each turning point Keenan inexplicably was not for turning.

Without question he was equipped with the intellect to see that his fellow leaders had already sold the pass on the weapons issue at the very time he was predicting decommissioning would never happen. When the arsenal was given up Keenan fiercely resented the use of the term at Provisional meetings, insisting that whatever the IRA had done with its guns it had not decommissioned them. His republican critics revelled in what they hoped was his discomfort.

Decommissioning eroded Brian Keenan’s ability to act as a foil against charges of sell out levelled against the leadership. In the early days of the peace process when activists were suspicious on hearing Gerry Adams talk of alternatives to armed struggle, Martin McGuinness was held up as the immovable rock against which would flounder any attempt to dilute the core tenets of republicanism. When he took on the persona of the suit, activists looked to Gerry Kelly. As he quickly morphed into a pebble Brian Keenan with his granite like reputation came to be relied upon. On one of Martin Meehan’s early paroles I expressed reservations about the path we were pursuing. Meehan’s response was that he had spoken to Keenan and that there was no way Keenan would support a peace process unless it delivered a victory. Therefore, if Keenan supported the ceasefire it looked a safe bet. Meehan was not alone in viewing matters through this prism.

Although his acceptance of decommissioning made him appear as a less reliable anchor, there was no one that could really step into his shoes. Others heavily associated with the military campaign had a reputation for being either politically limited, blind faith adherents or place seekers. They could hardly play to the armed struggle gallery with the same powers of persuasion as Keenan.

Unlike many of his colleagues Brian Keenan escaped the charge from republican opponents that he was tailoring himself in order to better embrace the establishment. He was not a suit. Any time I saw him he always seemed as poor as a church mouse. He preferred Rock Bar pints to junket wine. While some stingy comments have been made that he benefited from the Provisional movement having paid for his cancer treatment, if true, it was one of the better things it did with its money.

Having been a target for Keenan’s wrath and his ostracism I bore him no ill will and regretted his passing. I find no consolation in the view that if we sit on the banks of the River Ganges long enough we will see the ashes of our opponents come floating by.

In a time when social pressure to conform is so great that even atheists have been known to receive church burials, Brian Keenan in a personal capacity remained true to a much overlooked element of the republican tradition since the time of Tone – secularism. He had no need for priestcraft and went to the end without any of it.

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