Keenan, Brian Paschal (1941–2008), republican paramilitary, was born on 17 July 1941, in Dysert, Draperstown, Co. Londonderry, one of six children of Henry Keenan, an accountant, and his wife Jean (née McAlea). During the second world war Keenan's father served at Pocklington air base (East Yorkshire) as a warrant officer and received a commendation for wading through spilled aviation fuel to save the crew of a fully loaded bomber which crashed on take-off. (Forty years later, Brian Keenan was an inmate in Full Sutton prison, which was located on the site of another wartime RAF aerodrome several miles from Pocklington.) Meanwhile, Jean and the children remained in Northern Ireland. After the family home was bombed by the Luftwaffe during the 'Belfast blitz' of April–May 1941, the Keenans were evacuated to Swatragh, Co. Londonderry, where Brian attended the local primary school. This experience laid the basis for a lifelong fondness for and knowledge of the countryside and assisted him in working with rural republicans. As an adult Keenan kept and bred dogs; his IRA colleagues nicknamed him 'the Dog' and some of his published messages from prison were signed 'Pow-wow'.
After the war the family returned to Belfast and lived on the West Circular Road, where Harry Keenan was involved in community politics, chairing a local tenants' association in the early 1950s. Although an uncle had been an IRA member in the 1920s, the family was not particularly republican; Brian Keenan's brother was later active in the boilermakers' union. Keenan recalled that his mother had expressed some hostility to early signs of his interest in the republican movement, and recalled political arguments with his father. Towards the end of his own life, however, Keenan spoke of his father as 'a man of integrity … who did things according to his own lights' (An Phoblacht, 27 March 2008). Keenan became an enthusiastic member of St Gall's GAA club, and suffered sectarian abuse while crossing the loyalist Shankill and Springfield Road areas, carrying his hurley en route to the GAA grounds at Corrigan Park on the Falls Road.
Leaving school at 16 to train as an apprentice engineer, at a time when engineering in Belfast was dominated by protestants, he recalled sectarian harassment at work. In 1958 he emigrated to Luton where he continued his apprenticeship at a firm making guided missiles. Here he developed strong Marxist views through contact with members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; at the age of 17 he became an activist in the Electrical Trades' Union (ETU), then controlled by communists. Keenan became an enthusiastic autodidact, well-versed in Marxist and anarchist literature, and his strong sympathy for the Palestinian cause led him to learn Arabic. (He also spoke French and Spanish.) For a time he lived in Corby, Northamptonshire, where he worked as a television repairer and installer in partnership with his brother. By 1962, according to Keenan himself, he had become an Irish republican-Marxist, reading the writings of James Connolly (qv) and Liam Mellows (qv). Throughout his later career he was regarded within the republican movement as someone whose primary intellectual allegiance was to Marxism; he spoke dismissively of 'nationalism' (i.e., the view that national independence was an end in itself and automatically solved all other social problems). He appears, however, to have accepted the 'stages' theory of C. Desmond Greaves (qv), whereby nationalism/republicanism was an indispensable preliminary for proletarian revolution.
In 1963 Keenan returned to Belfast to work in the Grundig electronics factory, where he acquired a reputation as a radical activist and was involved in several strikes. He subsequently worked as a foreman (i.e., on the managerial side) at Grundig, where by his own account he was pressurised to acquiesce in preferential treatment for loyalist jobseekers. In 1964 Keenan was caught up in the disturbances surrounding the Divis Street riots. According to Keenan, he and a friend were charged with assaulting police officers who had assaulted them as they returned home after a night out. Keenan was sentenced to three-months' imprisonment or a fine of £85 and spent two weeks in prison before the fine was paid.
By 1966 Keenan was involved in the civil-rights movement and advised the Belfast IRA on trade-union issues, although he did not formally join the organisation until 1968. He later claimed that the first time he carried a gun was when he and other IRA members escorted his parents to safety after they were forced from their home by loyalist mobs in 1969. Despite his Marxism, Keenan sided with the Provisional IRA rather than the more Marxist-oriented Official IRA, in part because he felt the latter had neglected the need to defend the Northern catholic population (especially in Belfast). He also believed that the republican movement's tradition of hostility to the state and armed struggle contained latent social-revolutionary elements which could be developed by appropriate leadership.
From 1968 until 1995 Keenan did not live with his family, leaving his wife Christine 'Chrissie' (née Campbell) (they married in England in 1960) to raise their four daughters and two sons alone. Chrissie's ability to bring up the family under these highly stressful conditions (underpinned by her own political commitment) was widely respected by republicans.
Keenan's abilities were rapidly recognised by the nascent Provisional leadership. He travelled Ireland acquiring arms, organising and building up a network of personal contacts which he maintained for the rest of his life. By August 1971 he is believed to have become quartermaster-general of the Belfast brigade of the Provisional IRA, and he became QMG of the entire organisation in 1973, also assuming responsibility for the IRA's activities in Britain. It is believed that Keenan played a significant role in establishing contacts between the IRA and sympathetic regimes in the Eastern bloc and the Middle East, in particular the Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi, and is alleged to have first visited Libya to arrange an arms shipment in 1972. He became one of the IRA's principal strategists, playing a key 'John the Baptist' role in persuading the IRA leadership to accept proposals developed by internees (some of whom later took on high-profile leadership roles) that the organisation should be rebuilt around a cellular structure geared towards a 'long war' strategy. Several commentators describe Keenan (with particular reference to his activities in the 1970s) as the IRA's most capable military operative, and his obituarists emphasised the view of Jonathan Powell (chief of staff (1997–2007) to Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Northern Ireland peace process) that Keenan had once been the single biggest threat to the British state.
Keenan is also often described as particularly ruthless and responding angrily to disagreement. Sean O'Callaghan, a high-level Garda informant within the IRA, claimed that Keenan ordered the January 1976 Kingsmills massacre (in which ten protestant workmen were killed) on the grounds that only ruthless retaliation against protestant civilians could make loyalist paramilitaries end their campaign of sectarian murder against catholic civilians in Co. Armagh; it is disputed whether this was approved by the IRA's army council and/or chief of staff, and it is alleged to have provoked considerable internal controversy. O'Callaghan also alleges that Keenan played a significant role in planning the 1979 assassination of Lord Mountbatten as a means of asserting the IRA's international revolutionary credentials. Keenan has been linked to IRA actions in Britain causing at least sixteen deaths. In particular, he organised logistics for a London-based IRA unit which carried out over fifty attacks in 1974–5 and was responsible for six killings (later known as the 'Balcombe Street gang' after being besieged and arrested in Balcombe Street, London, in December 1975).
Keenan was arrested in the Irish Republic in July 1974 and spent a year in prison after being convicted of IRA membership. On 17 March 1975 he was one of the leaders of an attempted breakout from Portlaoise prison, and was shot in the hand and leg by Irish soldiers on guard duty. After release in July 1975 Keenan resumed his IRA activities, visiting London to work with the Balcombe Street gang; after their arrest, Keenan's fingerprints were discovered on bomb parts in one of their depots, and he became one of the most wanted men in Britain. He is alleged to have been an army council member by 1977.
In March 1979 Keenan was arrested by the RUC at Banbridge, Co. Down, while he was travelling from Dublin to Belfast; he was carrying encoded material relating to the IRA's Arab contacts and to an extensive surveillance operation against British security-force communications. In 1980 Keenan was tried for planning terrorist acts which resulted in six deaths, and was sentenced to twenty-one years in prison; he spent fourteen years in special secure units in various parts of Britain. His trial attracted extensive media attention, in which he was highlighted as an 'IRA mastermind'.
In 1982 Keenan wrote from jail to endorse Sinn Féin's decision to contest elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and in 1986 he endorsed proposals to end the party's traditional policy of abstention from seats in Leinster House; he regarded both of these as means to the end of wider popular politicisation (though they also had the long-term effect of restricting the IRA's military campaign by the need to retain electoral support). After his release in 1993 Keenan continued to be seen as a hardliner, and is believed to have rejoined the IRA army council. Although he was involved in the declaration of the August 1994 IRA ceasefire, he was also alleged to have been influential in the decision to resume IRA bombings in Britain in February 1996, and declared at a 1996 republican commemoration that 'the only thing the republican movement will accept is the decommissioning of the British state in this country'. After Keenan nonetheless sided with the leadership to defeat an October 1996 challenge from activists who later became prominent in the Real IRA, some dissidents came to believe that he had always been a 'decoy duck', acting in concert with the leadership to trick critics into exposing their hand. Similarly, it is debated whether Keenan's later expressions of hostility to the prospect of decommissioning IRA weapons represented genuine discontent on his part or a 'good cop, bad cop' routine intended to mollify discontented republicans and strengthen the hand of Sinn Féin negotiators.
After the 1998 Good Friday agreement, Keenan declared at a rally in south Armagh that decommissioning would only take place 'in agreement with a government of national democracy … that derives from the first Dáil Éireann' (Harnden, 324). By 2000 the Irish government believed that Keenan had tacitly accepted the need for decommissioning but wished to draw out the process as long as possible to minimise the possibility that another group might rise to continue the campaign. Others link Keenan's subsequent actions to the wider change in the international atmosphere towards terrorist movements after the jihadist attacks on Washington and New York on 11 September 2001 and the impact of this change on the republican movement. It has also been suggested that Keenan, with his interest in liberation movements, was involved in contacts with the Colombian FARC movement which led to the arrest of three republican activists by Colombian authorities, and that the furious American response to this exercise in international revolutionary cooperation weakened him within the movement.
What is clear is that from 1999 Keenan acted as the IRA's interlocutor with the Canadian General John de Chastelain, head of the body appointed to oversee decommissioning; that large quantities of IRA arms were decommissioned over several years beginning in late 2001; and that, as several commentators remarked, if Keenan had determinedly opposed decommissioning it might not have happened. Indeed, Jonathan Powell suggests that if Keenan had died earlier the republican leadership might not have been able to enforce decommissioning. Some critics claim that to the end of his life he refused to use the word 'decommissioning' to describe what had taken place. Keenan tacitly defended his role in the decommissioning process in a late An Phoblacht interview (27 March–10 April 2008), representing how he wished his career to be perceived in retrospect; he commented 'revolution is not about guns, it is about intent', and also suggested that decommissioning was a matter of tactics rather than principle. His statements remained angry and defiant; it has been suggested that even after decommissioning and the acceptance of the PSNI, some discontented IRA members remained in the organisation because they saw Keenan as the guardian of the republican flame, and that his death precipitated the final defection of some veterans of this type to dissident groups.
In July 2002 Keenan was diagnosed as suffering from terminal bowel cancer. He is believed to have stepped down from the army council by 2005, but continued to appear at republican events and to speak in support of the leadership's policy on such issues as policing. On 8 May 2007, as Ian Paisley (qv) and Martin McGuinness were sworn in the debating chamber at Stormont as first minister and deputy first minister after a DUP–Sinn Féin pact, Keenan was among a number of IRA leaders who watched from the public gallery. In February 2008 he received an award at a republican commemoration, Le Chéile, held in Dublin. His last years were spent living with his wife in Cullyhanna, Co. Armagh, where he died of cancer on 21 May 2008. He was an atheist and received a secular funeral, representing a major republican show of strength.
As a professional underground revolutionary, Keenan was predictably enigmatic; many details of his career and his motivations for particular actions in the intrigues of republican politics are obscure, and it is unlikely that they will ever be fully revealed. It is clear, however, that he was one of the key figures of the Provisional IRA and as such a major player in the Northern Ireland conflict of the late twentieth century.