Brian Keenan (1942-2008)

And so it’s farewell to veteran Belfast republican Brian Keenan, who has died after a struggle with cancer. Brian was 66, which kind of surprised me as he seemed to have been around forever, and which is a sobering thought when much of our political class is of a similar vintage.

In republicanism, as in all movements and organisations, there are people who inspire spontaneous affection and there are people who command respect. It’s been said of Brian, and doubtless will be more in the days to come, that he was widely respected. That’s really a bit of a euphemism – it would be more accurate to say that he was feared. Early on he won a reputation as a hard case, and that’s a reputation that stood him in good stead for many years.

It also stood his organisation in good stead, bearing in mind that Brian’s ferocious loyalty was specifically to the Provisional movement rather than historic republican dogma. In that he was a typical product of West Belfast. Brian’s intrasigence was more a matter of his demeanour than his politics, and that meant he was often read wrongly.

Grizzly, of course, profited from this reputation on more than one occasion, in the same way that in times of trouble the late Joe Cahill would be wheeled out to deliver his “I stood at the foot of the gallows for Ireland” speech, a highlight of many ardfheiseanna. Brian, or a few other people analogous to him, played a similar kind of role in Machiavellian terms. Brian’s endorsement of a new departure would often reassure sceptics. Alternatively, he might set himself up as a sceptic, encouraging others to show their hand, then defecting back to the leadership. And this was helped along no end by a media that always read Brian as a “hardliner”, or even a “Marxist”, when he was hardly ever significantly out of step with the leadership. Given that Brian’s ultimate allegiance was never in any doubt, this is some commentary on those who were taken in on multiple occasions.

Still, Brian chose his path and stuck to it, and always remained a republican by his own lights. Slán.

7 Comments

  1. Ed Hayes said,

    May 26, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Did you actually know ‘Brian’ or is this just a bit of an ego trip? How about an asscessment of the effect of the Kingsmills massacre on south Armagh? According to some the late great Mr. Keenan knew a bit about that. He also gave quite a graveyard oration to a young fella killed in a scrap over land and smuggling there in 2003. Chancers.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 26, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    I knew him mostly by reputation – he spent a long time inside, and wasn’t the most sociable person anyway. It’s actually quite hard to think of anything to say about him, in that he was a very significant figure but his main significance was that everyone was shit scared of him. Not the sort of character who gets to be prominent in modern suit-wearing Provodom.

  3. WorldbyStorm said,

    May 26, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Not sure that’s fair Ed, and atypical of you imo, splintered clearly did come across him and the analysis is spot on as ever. I thought of mentioning his passing on the CLR, but then thought that he didn’t cross my radar at any point even tangentially, and the marxist/socialist thing seemed a bit pro forma, unlike Ivan Barr.

  4. Ed Hayes said,

    May 27, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Exactly the type of character who made ‘modern suit-wearing provodom’ possible though? By telling the troops that nothing had been decommisioned and that it was all a con to fool the Brits and the unionists? Or by intimidating the ones who did question? If Moloney is right about Kingsmills then Keenan did have questions to answer. I’ll read AP/RN for the uncritical obits.

  5. WorldbyStorm said,

    May 27, 2008 at 8:03 pm

    I’d be far from uncritical of Keenan, Ed. But… as you’ll know there’s a ‘but’ in this sentence… was his role as you characterise it? I simply don’t believe that the changes in SF or PIRA can be simply laid at the ‘big lie’ door, I think some much more subtle and non-too subtle dynamics were at work (btw I’m not saying for a second that there wasn’t massive fudging on these issues, there was, and an awful lot of self-deception too). As for Moloney, always interesting, but not entirely without a line…

    And finally, if he did play the role you suggest then he may well have done us all some service. At least in clarifying the real nature of the problems rather than simple refuge in old nostrums… And I think splintered is absolutely right, that like it or not, he considered himself a good Republican until the end. That again may indicate an heroic level of self-deception or be indicative in itself that that term was undergoing a shift in meaning…

  6. Garibaldy said,

    May 27, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    Around Easter I was talking to some people who remember Keenan from before 1969. They said he did consider himself more left-wing than the movement at the time, and was snobbish about them. They came across him because of family connections. None of them remember him being involved from 1968 as he claimed, though I note Adams, who certainly was, repeated that at the funeral. I think that his going with the Provos might well say something about how superficial or otherwise his self-perceived socialism may have been.

    I have to say I’m with Ed on this one. We should remember what the Provos were doing while people like him and Brendan Hughes were leading lights in Belfast. And some of the media coverage has been ridiculous. After all, the man was in goal for over a decade and a half, rendering him a marginal figure at best for much of the period.

    I think that his reputation was one that was in some senses a single transferable bogeyman reputation. I remember at the start of the process McGuiness was the hard man the militants trusted as opposed to the slippery Adams; then it was Kelly; then others from Belfast and the Border regions for a brief period before they settled on Keenan. The reality is that they were all on board the Adams project. Even more in Belfast than everywhere else, you have to be to get anywhere.

  7. Ed Hayes said,

    May 28, 2008 at 7:24 am

    I suppose my point is a broader one about the tone of Splinter’s obit; the SWP, who for all their stupidity have to my knowledge never killed anyone, get ridiculed (often rightly so) yet a man whose politics we know nothing about except that he was a leading provo when the provos were killing all around them is respectfully sent off. If you hate ‘new Sinn Fein’ then understand; without Keenan and Slab theres no new Sinn Fein. And thats saying something.


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