Brian Keenan: Reflections on an Irish revolutionary.


Whilst many on the Irish and UK Left would know of, and possibly hold
in high regard anti imperialist soldiers such
as Che Guevara, Houari Boumédiène, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Abu Iyad,
Robert McBride, Abu Jihad and Tomas Borge, along
with other freedom fighters who came to their attention due
to the rise of the world’s National Liberation Movements in the period
that followed World War Two. Most would know very little about who
Brian Keenan was, beyond the most minor details gleaned from the media
over the years and from the Obituaries that appeared in sections of the press
after his death.

Yet Brian Keenan ranks along side those I have mentioned above as a
Revolutionary anti imperialist fighter, for he fought the United
Kingdom State tenaciously for four decades, and in the process helped build close links between his own
organization Óglaigh Na hÉireann; and the PLO, ANC, Sandinista’s,
FARC, PCC (Partido Comunista de Cuba) and various other progressive
Movements and governments around the globe.

Brian Keenan was born in Belfast in 1941, although he spent his first
years in County Derry after being evacuated there due to the bombing
Belfast suffered at the hands of the Nazis in World War Two. He
later returned to Belfast and on leaving school at 15 he gained an
engineering apprenticeship, but due to Skilled jobs in the North then being the preserve of the Protestant
working classes he decided to move to England to complete his training.

It was there that his radical politics began to take root, he joined
the Electrical Trades Union, (ETU) at the time one of the more
left-wing UK trade unions, * where
he came into contact with members of the Communist Party of Great
Britain (CPGB) and its off shoot the Connolly Association. An
organization whose newspaper the Irish Democrat reflected in its pages
the anti-colonial struggle’s then taking place across the world.

Like many a young working class socialists who grew up in the British
Isles,* * Brian Keenan was influenced by books such as The
Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, he also read the Communist Party’s
Daily newspaper, The Daily Worker, in which he read not only about
workers struggles for better living standards within the UK but also
about national Liberation movements like the ANC and the Việt Cộng, becoming an
Internationalist in the process.

Later he was also greatly influenced by two books written by a
stalwart of the Connolly Association, the Anglo-Irish writer C.
Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly and Liam Mellows
and the Irish Revolution, both were published by the CPGB publishing
House, Lawrence and Wishart. For any working class lad with an
interest in socialism and the completion of the Irish revolution, who came of age in the often traumatic but
invigorating days of the 1960s, when the worlds National Liberation
Movements were at their zenith. To have a working class revolutionary
of the calibre of James Connolly brought to his attention came as a
revelation. For here was a man who had not lived in some far off land;
but a man whose life experiences were not that dissimilar to Brian Keenan’s own.
Like many a worker before him and since, Keenan on finishing the last page of the Life and Times of James
Connolly, went out in search of all and every thing written by and about James
Connolly and the period he lived through.

As with many other working class socialists, Brian Keenan was
inspired into action after finding in Connolly, a revolutionary
Socialist who had very little formal eduction yet had managed to educate himself and
who wrote eloquently of societal problems. Especially as they
adversely effected the working classes. An internationalist to the
core who fought ferociously as a trade union organizer and revolutionary socialist on two
continents A man who rejected Capitalism and reactionary ruling class dogma that
was, and still is the order of the day; and who campaigned
with all his might against the imperialist conflagration that was WW1; and went on to be as
Commandant of the Dublin IRA Brigade in effect the military leader of
the 1916 Easter Rising. In James Connolly Brian Keenan had found his
role model for life.

On returning to Ireland with his new wife Chrissie whom he had met and
married in England, he found work at Grundig’s Belfast plant, where he
became a Shop Steward and Trade Union activist. He also became active
in the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement; and in 1968 he took the
most important decision in his life when he joined Óglaigh Na hÉireann, just as the
‘troubles’ were breaking out. He inevitable sided with the
Provisionals when the split in the Republican Movement occurred and
quickly moved through the ranks of the Belfast Brigade and it is said
he was the Brigade’s Quartermaster when internment was introduced in
August 71. Whatever his position Keenan managed to avoid the British
internment net. (although he was arrested in the south of Ireland in
1974 where he served a 12 month stretch)

After their internment in Long Kesh, leading members of the Belfast
Brigade such as Ivor Bell, Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adams drew up
plans to reorganize the IRA into a cell structure, which they hoped
would make it harder for the British security services and RUC Special
Branch to infiltrate the organization. As Keenan was one of the few
senior members of the Belfast Brigade to remain free on the outside,
he was tasked by Bell and Adams to persuade the IRA Army Council to
accept the reorganization. Which consisted of a new cellular
structure, covert cells attached to GHQ and two separate IRA commands
to cover the island of Ireland, one for the North and one for the
south of Ireland.

Whilst these changes where partially successful in the short term,
within them lay the germs of the failure of the PRM’s military
campaign. For the establishment of two separate commands was to play
an enormous role in moving the war northwards, especially in
personnel, organizational and propaganda terms. This allowed the
southern government to marginalize the Republican Movement and portray
it as a spill over from the problems within the north of Ireland. Thus
making it all the more difficult for republicans to convince people in
the southern State that removing the British presence from Ireland was
the responsibility of all those who lived within Ireland. It also
helped the British in their propaganda war which was designed to
convince people that the bloodshed in the north was a grubby religious
turf war fought between northern Protestants and Catholics with the
British State as an impartial referee.

The cellular structure was to eventually become the Achilles heel for
the Republican Movement, for the Adams leadership eventually became
extremely, if not criminally complacent and failed to continually
rotate the personnel in some of the most essential departmental cells
of the Republican Army, not least internal security. This enabled the
British intelligence agencies to either recruit informers or place
agents of influence within these vital cells; who they would then
attempt to manipulate into senior or crucial positions within the said
IRA departments.

For example the outed informer Freddie Scapiticci,
remained an influential member of IRA internal security for
approximately two decades, as did other volunteers. The importance of
this is highlighted if you consider that IRA internal securities role
was to hunt out informers, interrogate them, and vet all new members
of the IRA.

It seems Brian Keenan was successful in his mission to convince the
IRA of the necessity to restructure, as the new system of organization
was implemented throughout the organization. Units within areas such
as the South Derry, and East Tyrone and South Armagh were particularly
keen, as it gave them more autonomy from GHQ and Northern Command.
These areas were made up of volunteers who had known each other most
if not all of their lives, thus they welcomed the need to know only
aspect of the reorganization.

It was during this period that it is said Keenan built up links with
National Liberation Movements and their supporters in the Soviet
Block, who in turn passed him on to contacts of their own within
southern Africa, the middle east and possibly south America. To say he
was a very busy revolutionary during this period would be an
understatement, for he was also involved with the IRA’s English
department that organized attacks within England.

Indeed when he was finally arrested in 1979 it was on the basis of a
warrant issued in 1975 after Brian Keenan’s finger prints and
handwriting were allegedly on documents etc that were found by the
Metropolitan police in follow up raids after an IRA unit was arrested
after a police siege of a flat in Balcombe Street, London, in which the
tenants of the flat, John and Sheila Matthew’s were held hostage for
six days.

Like much from this period it is difficult to glean fact from fiction
due to the security services love of muddying the waters. However the
circumstances of Keenan’s arrest by the RUC near Bambridge on
March 1979 are still controversial, just before his arrest he had met
Martin McGuinness on the Bambridge Road, the two men are said by all parties
involved to have had a short conversation then gone in opposite
directions. A short way down the road Keenan was stopped at a RUC
Road-block and arrested. The official PRM explanation for Keenan’s
arrest was that McGuinness had a security service tab on him who
witnessed his meet with Keenan and radioed in Keenan’s presence in the
area to the RUC and he was subsequently arrested.

Perfectly logical and this may well be what occurred, although some
republicans have posed the question if this was so; and taking into
account McGuinness was IRA chief of Staff at the time, why only arrest
Keenan, why not both men. Who knows what actually occurred that day
but for a number of years after his arrest the word within some IRA
circles was that Keenan was pissed off with McGuinness.

What ever happened on the Bambridge Road, shortly after his arrest
Brian Keenan was flown to England, charged with organizing the IRA’s
bombing campaign in England and being implicated in the deaths of
eight people and was eventually found guilty in June 1980 and
sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. It is said that during his time in
prison Keenan continued to build contacts which could be of use to the
Republican movement, not least with a well know north London crime
family, one of whose members Keenan spent time with on a prison wing,
and built up a relationship of mutual respect and self interest.

Keenan was released from prison in 1993 and he again returned to
active service, becoming a member of GHQ and eventually the Army
Council. The Republican movement he returned to was different to that
which existed when he was arrested in 1979 and as Keenan was a man who
held his cards very close to his chest it is difficult to know what he
thought of the peace process that led to the signing of the Good
Friday Agreement and the decommissioning of the IRA’s arsenal.

On his death, Gerry Adams and his leadership coterie have made much of
Brian Keenan’s support for the Peace Process, indeed that is about all
they ever say about the man, over and again, but it was not always so.

“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…Everybody’s saying: ‘The
prisoners are being released, what’s your problem?’ Well, there’s no
prisoner was ever in jail to be let out to sell out the struggle and
I’m sure none of them would want to be let out if this struggle wasn’t
going the whole way.” (Keenan speech made in 1998)

The unanswered question is did Brian Keenan come to support the peace
process whole heartedly and thus move away from his above quoted
position to one of accepting decommissioning. Whilst it is true he
publicly accepted a position which in effect made him Adams link-man
with the Independent International Commission on Decommission. However
by that time Keenan had been diagnosed with the Cancer that was to
eventually kill him and we do not know what actual role he played in
the decommissioning process or indeed whether he was well enough to
play any role.

At the time of Keenan’s death, Gerry Adams claimed in a public
Statement,”There wouldn’t be a peace process if it wasn’t for Brian
Keenan” taking into account Mr Adams track record when it comes to
telling the truth, it is worth looking in a little more detail about
the claims Mr Adams makes in this statement. For what could possibly
Have made Brian Keenan become such a strong advocate for Mr Adams
strategy in the
last years of his life? How could a man whom British PM Tony Blair’s
chief of staff, Jonathan Powell once described him as having once been
“the greatest single threat to the British State,” have become a
willing tool of the said same State, and to such an extent he helped
oversee the decommissioning of the Óglaigh Na hÉireann armory.

When making a judgement about this question it is worth remembering
above all else Keenan considered himself to be a revolutionary Irish
republican solder, to understand his mindset it is worth repeating a
conversation that Keenan allegedly had in an English prison with a
London criminal whose associates had been giving some of the IRA
members in the prison a hard time. It is said Keenan approached him
and quietly sat down next to him, they chatted for a while about the
different worlds they lived in outside the jail, Then Keenan said the
difference between you and us is this, when you want something done
you have to call a favor in, bribe, bully or encourage the individual
you have chosen to carry out the task. Whereas we just issue an order
and it is done, if the first person is not successful then someone
else will be issued with the same order and so on until the task in
question is carried out. He then handed the London criminal a piece of
paper on which his families address was written, plus the school his
granddaughter went to along with other personal details about the man,
his family and business interests. Keenan then got up and walked off
down the wing. Life quietened down on the wing after that.

Whether the story is true I have no idea, my point is he was an
Organization and military man right or wrong, he understood that historically
Óglaigh Na hÉireann had taken wrong turns, but in time had always
returned to the true path of the struggle for a thirty-two county
socialist republic. He may have well thought with the Peace Process
the Republican movement was passing through such a phase. If so he
would have seen it as his duty to help sustain the organization until
times changed. It is highly relevant that Gerry Adams was unable to
stand the Army Council down and thus the army whilst Keenan lived.

In 2008 not long before he died Brian Keenan was interviewed by the
Sinn Fein Weekly newspaper An Phoblacht in which he concluded with the
following words

“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. 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. 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.”

The PRM has become used to its leaders making public statement of the
type that Mr Adams made when addressing mourners in Ballymurphy before
Keenan was cremated at Roselawn, such words are little more than spin
and are directed at the British government and the northern unionist
politicians.

Whereas Keenan’s above statement was clearly directed at the
membership of Óglaigh Na hÉireann. Just before his death Yassar Arafat,
a revolutionary of Keenan’s generation, made a similar statement when he was asked what he, the PLO and
the Palestinian people could do during the current period, he replied “endure
and await better days”. Could perhaps the above quote from Brian Keenan
have been his message to the Republican movement “endure and await
better days.”

If so, as far as the Republican Army was concerned I fear he was being
over optimistic, due to his long illness he can be forgiven this
lapse. However Bernard Fox the man who replaced Keenan on the Army
Council, on taking office and gaining ‘a look at the books’, soon
realized the scale of the deceit that the rank and file had been fed by
the Adams leadership; and resigned not only from the A/C but the
organization itself. Presumably because he had concluded it was no
longer fit for purpose as a vehicle which could lead the nation to
political re-unification and a thirty-two county democratic socialist
republic.

In death there was to be no alter-bar biting for Brian Keenan, he
gave firm instructions to his family and closest comrades that there
was to be no Requiem Mass for this revolutionary Irish republican
socialist. He became the second Irish republican leader in recent
weeks to practice what he preached, even in death. For like his fellow
freedom fighter and Óglaigh Na hÉireann volunteer, Brendan Hughes, who
died a few weeks before him; Brian Keenan was cremated after a secular
service. Both men went to their graves as working class socialist
militant’s, unreconstructed Irish republicans and indefatigable
enemies of British and American imperialism.

Brian’s Keenan. 1941-2008.

* Around the time that Keenan joined the ETU there was a scandal over
ballot rigging, which enabled the right-wing within the union and
their supporters in the media to implement a witch-hunt against
communist party members which resulted in many being expelled from the
ETU.

* * Whilst I realize the term British Isles may be unacceptable to some
people who live in Ireland, it is still in use as to date nothing
acceptable has been brought in to replace it.

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Filed under Brian-Keenan, Ireland/Politics/Republicanism/UK/north of Ireland/inde, Organized Rage

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