IRELAND-OBITS-L ArchivesArchiver > IRELAND-OBITS > 2008-05 > 1211803801
From: "Peter McCrae" <>
Subject: [IRELAND-OBITS] KEENAN: Brian Keenan 2008
Date: Mon, 26 May 2008 13:10:01 +0100
Last Updated: 8:52PM BST 21/05/2008
Mastermind of IRA bombing campaigns who became the organisation's negotiator
Brian Keenan, who died on Wednesday aged 66, was a linchpin of the IRA and
one of the most ruthless and formidable members of its leadership; during
the 1970s he masterminded some of the worst terrorist atrocities in Northern
Ireland and on the British mainland, but in the later stages of the peace
process he became a key negotiator in talks over decommissioning.
Keenan's background was an unconventional one for a republican terrorist.
His father had been decorated for his wartime service in the RAF, and
Brian's 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.
Keenan joined the Provisional IRA in the late 1960s at the start of the
"Troubles". By 1971 he had become quartermaster of the so-called Belfast
Brigade, and over the next few years he masterminded a campaign of bombings
in the province. A factor in his promotion was his fluency in Arabic, which
enabled him to attend training camps in the Middle East and to buy arms,
explosives and ammunition from terrorist organisations and rogue states
worldwide. He made contacts with the PLO, with the Stasi in East Germany and
with Colonel Gaddafi's Libya. He arranged the first arms shipment from Libya
In 1973 he took charge of the IRA's operations on the British mainland and
became the organisation's Quartermaster General as well as organising armed
robberies and kidnappings in the Republic. He became a close confidant of
Gerry Adams and was instrumental, while Adams was interned at Long Kesh, in
persuading the IRA's Army Council to accept Adams's plan for the
restructuring of the organisation to facilitate an extended terrorist
operation, with the use of covert cells and the establishment of two
Keenan detested publicity. Indeed, but for a drunken argument with a
cigarette machine at Corby, Northamptonshire, in the 1960s, he might have
remained unknown to this day. That argument caused him to leave his
fingerprints on the machine. In December 1975, after a bombing campaign on
the mainland in which nine people died and more than 100 were injured in 18
incidents, an IRA unit was arrested in London following the Balcombe Street
Seige. In follow-up raids police discovered crossword puzzles in Keenan's
handwriting and his fingerprints on bomb parts. A warrant was issued for his
arrest, but he remained on the run until March 1979 when RUC officers
stopped two cars travelling to Belfast from Dublin.
In the meantime, according to the police informer Sean O'Callaghan, Keenan
was instrumental in giving the go-ahead to the "Kingsmill massacre" of 1975,
when 10 Protestant workmen were mown down by the Provisional IRA in
retaliation for the earlier Loyalist murders of five Catholics in the same
area. "The only way to knock the nonsense out of the Prods is to be 10 times
more savage," Keenan was reported to have said.
Keenan's arrest was a severe blow to the IRA which promptly, but
unsuccessfully, tried to rescue him by helicopter. In his pocket was an
address book containing a list of contacts including Palestinian activists
in the United Kingdom, as well as a series of notes in code which led the
security forces to a network of IRA listening posts - which had been
eavesdropping on the security forces, including the private number of the
In 1980 Keenan, defended by Michael Mansfield QC, stood trial at the Old
Bailey accused of masterminding the IRA's bombing campaign on the mainland
and of being implicated in the murders of eight people, including Ross
McWhirter and the cancer specialist Professor Gordon Hamilton-Fairley. He
was found guilty and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
While Keenan was serving his time, his uncompromising commitment to the
armed struggle lost ground to the more pragmatic nationalism of Gerry Adams
and Martin McGuinness. After his release from jail in 1993, however, the
hardline element reasserted itself as Keenan challenged Adams's "tactical
use of armed struggle" strategy (he was said to refer to Adams and
McGuinness as "those two fine f------ Catholic boys").
When the peace process stalled over the issue of decommissioning, Keenan,
now on the IRA Army Council, was said to have been instrumental in
authorising the Docklands bombing which killed two people in 1996. "The only
thing the republican movement will accept," Keenan declared at a public
ceremony, "is the decommissioning of the British state in this country."
After the IRA resumed its truce in 1997, Sinn Fein helped negotiate a 1998
peace accord that proposed the total disarmament of the IRA by mid-2000.
Keenan, who replaced Thomas "Slab" Murphy as the IRA's chief of staff in
1998, quickly ruled out this prospect, arguing that the group would disarm
only in co-operation with a future all-Ireland government.
None the less the following year he was appointed to represent the IRA in
secret talks on decommissioning with General John de Chastelain.
What appears to have made the difference was the hardening of American
public opinion in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and
revelations in 2001 that IRA members had trained Marxist Farc guerrillas
conducting a terrorist campaign against the government of Colombia, a US
Keenan's own position was weakened by the fact that he was publicly fingered
as the IRA's link man with the guerrillas ("What can you do with a man like
Brian?" was the line reportedly used by Adams and McGuinness to furious
American officials as the fiasco unfolded), and by the onset of cancer which
forced him to step down from the Army Council in 2002.
Although the IRA carried out its disarmament in 2005, Keenan (who remained
impervious to the sartorial gentrification that swept the leadership of Sinn
Fein), appeared to regard the move as a pragmatic calculation that could be
reversed at a later stage. He wondered aloud whether the IRA could have
broken British determination by employing greater levels of violence and in
an interview with the Sinn Fein newspaper An Phoblacht earlier this year,
said: "I would do it all again, but not make the same mistakes."
Brian Keenan was born at Sawtragh, County Londonderry, in 1942 and brought
up in Belfast. The family was Catholic, but with no tradition of
republicanism. When Brian was born his father, Harry, was serving at RAF
Packlington where he won a commendation for bravery after he and a colleague
saved the crew of a bomber which had crashed on take-off. After his return
to Northern Ireland, Harry Keenan involved himself in community politics and
After leaving school Brian Keenan moved, aged 18, to England, where for a
time he worked as a television repairman at Corby, in partnership with his
brother. While in England his political radicalism developed partly, it was
said, as a result of contacts with members of the British Communist Party.
He was said to have studied foreign terrorist movements, particularly the
PLO, and acquired an easy familiarity with the revolutionary literary canon.
Amongst IRA members, Keenan was said never to be at a loss for an apt
quotation from Bakunin, Gramsci or other sages.
He returned to Northern Ireland when the Troubles began and found work at
the Grundig factory in Belfast where he became a radical union shop steward.
Later on, there were some who expressed surprise that Keenan had chosen to
hitch his star to the Provisionals rather than the "Official" IRA, a more
avowedly Marxist faction committed to uniting the Protestant and Catholic
working class against their oppressors. It seems that Keenan was astute
enough to recognise that revolution would only be achieved - if at all -
from working with the grain of sectarian hatreds.
Brian Keenan is survived by his wife, Chrissie, and by six children.
|[IRELAND-OBITS] KEENAN: Brian Keenan 2008 by "Peter McCrae" <>|