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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Brian Keenan, IRA hardliner who was 'all things to all men'

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

Brian Keenan wasn't one for soft talking. A Belfast republican who met him a year after the IRA's first ceasefire recalls: "We were both unhappy at the political situation. 'We're going back to war', Brian announced.

"I thought it unlikely – Albert Reynolds had just said his republican sources were sure the ceasefire was solid. 'F**k Albert Reynolds and f**k whoever told him that', Brian declared."

The IRA did go back to war but for only a brief, tokenistic campaign. When the ceasefire was restored, to the surprise of many it had the support of Brian Keenan, which proved invaluable for the Adams' leadership.

Keenan had a strong reputation among many grassroots. "He was very hands-on from his days as quartermaster general in the 70s. He'd head down the country to spend time with the lads there," says an ex-colleague.

"The likes of Frank Hughes and Dominic McGlinchey, who distrusted other Belfast figures, loved Keenan. He'd spend the day sunbathing with them on the roof of a shed in south Derry. Whatever gear they wanted, he'd deliver."

He ran training camps in the Wicklow Mountains. A female IRA member who attended one says: "I remember thinking we'd die from the cold after he had us hiking all over the mountains. Keenan developed pleurisy afterwards."

"Brian had demonic energy," says an ex-colleague: "He was a very intense, authoritarian man. The IRA's hierarchical structure suited him." Keenan built excellent international contacts which helped arm the IRA. However, on a 1972 trip to Tripoli, his drinking and general behaviour didn't impress some. The Libyans told the IRA not to send him again, according to a former senior IRA source.

Keenan was arrested in 1979 and served 16 years imprisonment for bombing England. Released into peace process Northern Ireland, his words were often fierce but his actions weren't those of a diehard. In 1996, he declared the only decommissioning would be "the decommissioning of the British state in this country". He ended up as IRA go-between with the international decommissioning body.

"He became all things to all men," says a Belfast republican. "He adopted very different positions very quickly. 'Those bastards are going to decommission', he said in one republican house in Andersonstown. He later told a house in Ballymurphy that decommissioning hadn't happened, that it was a con."

Fellow Army Council member, Brian Gillen, "would regularly visit Keenan for help explaining documents during the peace process", a source said. Keenan disliked Gerry Kelly, the source claimed: "He called him a tosser who shouldn't have become senior in the IRA".

His greatest hostility was to dissidents: "He argued for them to be shot," says an ex-colleague. "After the Omagh bomb, he visited dissident homes in south Armagh issuing death threats." In recent years, Keenan moved from his west Belfast home to a modest house in Cullyhanna, south Armagh, where he lived with a local woman.

"He was always the loudest in company, the one you noticed in the bar. I remember him being told a restaurant kitchen was closed. He flourished a £10 tip in front of the chef and ordered four steak dinners," a source says.

Keenan's portrayal as a hardline Marxist thinker was fantasy. But his lifestyle didn't become more lavish like that of other senior Provisionals. He would relax in a house situated at the entrance of the laneway leading to Gerry Adams' holiday home in Gortahork, Co Donegal. It was ramshackle in comparison to Adams' abode.

He dressed like a man returning from work. Phil Flynn helped with his bills for private medical treatment for cancer. Despite his ruthless reputation, Keenan had a soft spot – his white terrier. A sympathy noticed stated he would be missed by his "beloved Snowy".

May 24, 2008

This article appeared in the May 24, 2008 edition of the Sunday Tribune.



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