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.