|Longest-serving IRA Chief of Staff Kevin McKenna – born June 25th 1945, died June 25th 2019|
Kevin McKenna, who has died in Cavan Regional Hospital, was the longest-serving Chief of Staff of the modern IRA, serving from 1983 to 1997. He both oversaw some of the bloodiest episodes of the campaign, and was instrumental in ending it, by overseeing the delivery of the IRA for the peace process. After his tenure as Chief of Staff, he became Quartermaster and secured the dumps to ensure those who wished to fight on could not access IRA weaponry.
His careful preparation was key to the IRA's 1997 Army Convention supporting the ceasefire and the peace process. He ensured a key ally was chair. The vote went against those who went on to become the Real IRA.
Throughout his life, McKenna kept a low profile. He was little known outside IRA circles. As far as is known, there is only one photograph of him dating from his IRA days.
McKenna was not ideological, but guided by loyalty to the IRA. He left broad political policy to be developed by others. However, he was a master of IRA internal politics.
When necessary, he could act decisively. He purged the IRA's West Fermanagh Brigade in the late 1980s after it carried out a series of blatantly sectarian killings. He also oversaw the importation of arms from Libya.
McKenna was born in the Brantry in 1945, a hilly and predominantly Catholic area of south-east Tyrone, away from main roads. He was one of five children to Patrick McKenna and his wife Mary (née Stuart). The family were strong farmers, his father being widely known for the quality of his cattle.
He was educated at the local primary school. In the mid-1960s he joined the IRA. He participated in some early Civil Rights marches, then moved to Canada. He worked as labourer in oilfields in the north. It was heavy work in tough conditions.
When internment was introduced in 1971 he came home and joined the Provisional IRA. The Provisional IRA in Tyrone mixed teenagers who wanted to fight but didn't know how with ageing veterans of past campaigns who were too well known to the security forces. McKenna bridged those generations.
From Canada he brought enough money to buy a car. He was single, with time to move about. He was not known to the security forces. He helped pull the poorly-organised Tyrone IRA together.
Because it was close to the Border, the Brantry was a staging post for men and weapons. McKenna showed he was more than another IRA fighter, but had logistical abilities. He became known to the leadership as a 'safe pair of hands'.
It took almost 18 months for the Northern security forces to realise his importance and intern him. He was held in Long Kesh internment camp for almost two years. On release, he moved to Monaghan. There, he was again imprisoned for IRA membership. In 1975 he spent 48 days on hunger strike, first in Portlaoise prison, then in the Curragh Military Hospital, seeking better prison conditions.
He became Chief of Staff in 1983 when the IRA was facing major difficulties. His predecessor had been imprisoned on the word of a 'supergrass' who was adjutant of the IRA's Belfast brigade. The IRA in Belfast was being shaken by a series of 'supergrasses'. McKenna's appointment was seen as a bridge between the Belfast IRA and the country units. He was a countryman, but supportive of the political lead coming from Belfast.
Divisions in Republicanism about strategy meant he had many opponents. These, though, accept he never used the IRA to enrich himself, or forge a political career. For much of his life, he lived very modestly. In later life, he ran a country pub in Co Monaghan.
Paradoxically, he had a great liking for the poetry of Tyrone Presbyterian minister WF Marshall, who was fiercely Unionist and wrote of the people from whom McKenna sprang, the common country people.
⏭ Anton McCabe is a journalist and author.