10 April 2008 Edition
The Brian Keenan interview: Revolutionaries have to be pragmatic - wish lists are for Christmas
BRIAN KEENAN joined the IRA in 1968. In the intervening 40 years he became one of the IRA’s foremost strategists and a thorn in the side of British imperialism. Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff at 10 Downing Street during the war years described Brian Keenan as “the single biggest threat to the British state”.
Brian spoke to JIM GIBNEY for the first time publicly about his life as a husband and father of six children, as an IRA activist, his years in jails in England and the influences that shaped his early life.
This is the third and final instalment of a feature in which Brian Keenan tells us, in his own words, about how the IRA sustained a heroic guerrilla campaign against one of the most powerful nations in the world for decades until a viable alternative for political progress was presented. And this leading exponent of the most successful IRA campaign since the 1920s has a message for those who cling to armed struggle as a principle rather than a tactic.
THE MILITARY situation on the ground was changing rapidly between 1969 and 1972. The British escalated their military offensive against the IRA through curfews and widespread house raids. Gun battles between the IRA and the crown forces were common as the British military tried to occupy territory in the hands of the IRA.
“The military contest between the IRA and the British forces was largely determined by weaponry.
“It was very difficult to get the best weapons for the job at hand. The AR18, the Armalite, was ideal for urban warfare but the leadership, which was Dublin-based, wasn’t in touch with the war needs on the ground. It was difficult to get the right weaponry to ensure the IRA held on to its advantageous position.
“I remember having a stand-up row with the Chief of Staff about their failure to supply the Armalite in sufficient quantities.”
Internment was a turning point in the war for the IRA and the British Army.
“We weren’t hurt at a national level. We did lose some Brigade staff personnel. Over a protracted period of time, internment became a recruiting agent. Experience lost was regained in a short time.
“Internment showed republicans how vicious the Brits were. We were forced to organise and train the IRA to a higher standard to deal with the British Army, to overhaul its structures from the ground level upwards.
“We cleared out a lot of deadwood and put the IRA on a permanent war footing.
“The war was fought on a day-to-day basis. A lot of it was trial and error and we paid a high price for this inexperience. We had the energy of the novice, of the amateur.
“The IRA leadership knew we could not defeat the British Army militarily but we could bring them to a point where they knew they could not defeat the IRA.
“We aimed to exhaust their patience through war in the Six Counties and subsequently the campaign in England.
“By creating these conditions we believed the pressure would grow inside the British Establishment for them to withdraw from Ireland.
“We were on the march forward and no one could stop us. That is the only way to fight a war. There cannot be self-doubt, half-measures or holding back. The Army’s attitude was we could win the war.
“The Army leadership began to think more strategically and politically. It was out of this thinking that, by 1973, the ‘Long War Strategy’ took shape.
“I was very concerned at that time that the vast amount of effort being put into training IRA Volunteers was not delivering on the ground in terms of casualties among the British forces.
“There was constant competition between those on the IRA side and those on the British side who were trying to protect their personnel on the ground.
The IRA’s bombing campaign was an important development.
“We believed commercial bombing had a two-fold effect: it forced British troops out of nationalist areas when there was a very high level of repression, and when London was bombed it hit big business, the financial institutions. Those affected by these bombs would pressurise the British Government to disengage from Ireland.
“There was a lot of merit in that strategic outlook. It is arguable that had we been able to sustain a bombing campaign in London a lot earlier by using Canary Wharf-type bombs then we might have changed the course of the war decisively in the IRA’s favour.
“Until the IRA developed nitro-benzine we didn’t have explosives of a high enough velocity to justify car bomb operations.
“Benzine could be produced in massive quantities. The potential for a big bomb had arrived and became an important part of the IRA’s arsenal.
“The development of the car bomb in terms of the material that went into it was also very helpful in developing culvert bombs. The culvert bomb cost the British Army a lot of personnel. It was one of the IRA’s most effective weapons.
“Other weapons that made a difference were the RPG7 rocket launcher and the GPM, as did mortars and certain types of shoulder weapons.
“There was constant competition between the IRA and British Army for tactical superiority.
“The IRA’s Engineering Department was dynamic and an indispensable part of the war effort. Their contribution opened up the IRA’s war front.
“Some of their devices were ingenious. A lot of thought and resources were put into developing self-made armaments like mortars and shoulder-fired weapons.
“These were used to good effect against the Brits’ armoured vehicles. We also advanced well with remote control and electronic bombing devices.
The IRA leadership was constantly reviewing its war strategy, looking for ways of extending and expanding its campaign. Out of this outlook emerged the IRA’s campaign in England.
England was a very important theatre of war for both the IRA and the British. All modern states rely on transport, communications and power. These were the targets of the England campaign.
“The England campaign was also a very difficult area for the IRA. To operate in England was very demanding on IRA Volunteers and, of course, it was also a huge drain on the IRA’s finances and other resources but the dividend was worth the effort.
“It soon became clear due to the number of arrests in England that the IRA had to take a different approach. Sleepers had to be put in on a long-term basis and they had to be carefully selected.
“It was a very difficult mission. Those IRA Volunteers who took the fight to Britain were particularly brave and had special qualities. To survive in such hostile territory required a high degree of dedication, self-discipline and selflessness.
“An indication of the IRA’s very cautious approach to recruiting Volunteers for this mission can be seen in the fact that there was a trawl for a specific campaign and, of 82 Volunteers interviewed to go, the IRA selected only four.
“The Balcombe Street lads were a classic example of the high calibre that was required. They were hand-picked.”
The concentration of British forces in the Six Counties made it increasingly difficult for the IRA to operate there, especially in the late 1970s.
England was wide open to a carefully planned campaign by the IRA. Opening up this front put huge pressure on the British Government and on their policy makers.
“In any military analysis it is extremely important to hit the enemy where they live.
“You have to be able to bring the struggle to their front door.
“The England campaign was a necessary appendage to the armed struggle in the Six Counties. It sent a powerful message to the British Establishment, political and military.
“In those days the Army dominated. Their needs came first and while I can understand it because we were fighting a war, it was also a mistake not to pay attention to building a political party.
“Everything was subservient to the Army. There was a lot of elitism in the Army. Politics were frowned upon. A lot of senior Army people were suspicious of politics. They thought it would corrupt the struggle – but the struggle was all about politics.
“The Army was probably too strong for its and the struggle’s good. A lot of leadership people thought republicans did not need a party, that the Army could do it all.
“This was a historical legacy. It was long and difficult to get away from this outlook. This attitude has nothing to do with republicanism or revolutionary politics.
“In urban areas they led the way and other armed organisations around the world learned from them. But it was very tight because of the concentration of British forces with their patrols and bases in nationalist areas.
“In rural areas – places like South Armagh, South Derry – IRA Volunteers were exceptional. The Volunteers knew every inch of their own land. Their fieldcraft was brilliant. They often shocked the British Army.
“It was a dynamic, unstoppable, frantic situation. Volunteers were on four operations a day.
“It was events on the ground which made the IRA into the fighting force it became.
“The biggest recruiting agent was oppression
“The British Army had infinite resources. There are nine or ten people behind every one of their armed personnel, providing back-up. In the IRA, everyone was on the gun and practically everyone wanted to be on the gun. This was not sustainable over a long period of time.”
In the late 1970s, Brian was arrested, taken to England and charged. He was convicted and sentenced.
He spent 16 years in jail, most of the time in a Special Secure Unit.
“There was never more than four other IRA Volunteers with you in these special units.
“As in all situations, there were good and bad times. You had to be disciplined about your life, try to escape if the opportunity presented itself, and occasionally use violence when necessary against the prison regime to keep them in check.
“I was a spokesperson for years in jail for prisoners. I remember Willie Whitelaw came to visit the special units. He refused to speak to IRA prisoners.
“I keenly watched the efforts being made to build Sinn Féin as a party.
“The split in 1986 was inevitable, necessary as far as building Sinn Féin was concerned in the 26 Counties. To make headway with the political project it was necessary to recognise the institutions of the 26-County state.
“I wrote a letter to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis that year because I was angry that some people were using IRA martyrs as a reason for not trying to open up a new front in developing Sinn Féin. No living person can say how Pearse, Connolly or Bobby Sands would have reacted to different events.
“Looking back from this position at the overall performance of the IRA, I would say they were a remarkable fighting force.
“Against the backdrop of all the personnel, weaponry, technology, surveillance equipment, fortifications and other resources the British state deployed against us, the IRA and its Volunteers fought a remarkable war. On many occasions they successfully outwitted the British Army and secured a number of significant military strikes against them.
“My overall assessment, especially in the first decade of the campaign, is that the IRA was an outstanding fighting force. You just have to admire their capabilities. Under the most unrelenting pressure from the crown forces, they were able to sustain themselves.
“Operationally they fought in two theatres: urban and rural. The IRA changed urban warfare on a world basis. Other armed revolutionary organisations have borrowed the IRA’s tactics.
“In terms of where we are now, with the Peace Process and other huge shifts in strategy, the IRA was morally obliged to look at alternative options to continuing the war, especially if there was a viable alternative.
“I was sceptical and supportive in equal measure.
“There was no principle involved in my assessment. It was purely tactical. I had thought about alternatives in prison.
“As far as I was concerned, the IRA had to think about the best way forward, including an escalation of its operations in a more ruthless way.
“I’ve heard it argued that the IRA was too cautious in its operations against the British Establishment and the enemy exploited this caution.
“It would be wrong to assume that the IRA’s cessation in August 1994 was inevitable. It wasn’t. It came out of a particular, chosen path going back several years. It was the product of that chosen path.
“The IRA’s decision was undoubtedly difficult but it was fairly logical. It was well-debated at Army leadership level. All the alternatives were looked at: military and political. We had all the information that was needed to carry out the required assessment.
“The Army leadership was well aware of the Army’s capabilities in terms of its arms, structures and capacity to sustain its war. All of that was judged against the broad political mood, as you would expect.
“The questions were simple – the answers were more difficult.
“I can understand younger IRA Volunteers being unhappy with the twists and turns in the IRA’s strategy. If I was 40 years younger myself I might share their views. Thirty years ago I would not have considered the various changes.
“I would prefer we were somewhere else but we are not and that is it as far as I am concerned.
“Revolutionaries have to be pragmatic – wish lists are for Christmas.
“I can understand the widespread concerns by republicans about the manner in which the IRA handled its weaponry. But revolution is not about guns it is about intent.
“At a time of great change we need to constantly lay out the republican vision. We need to constantly remind people we are for ‘equality, liberty, fraternity’. We are against exploitation and inequality.
“Those who continue to use armed struggle need to hear that message. They also need to be faced with the consequences of their campaign. There is no revolutionary logic to their activities.
“But I’m not a prophet when it comes to the future use of armed struggle in this or any other country.
“Historians in 50 years’ time will tell us whether the right path was chosen or not.
“Of course mistakes have been made along the way, but we have to look to the opportunities that are there to move the struggle forward to reunification and independence.”
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.