3 April 2008 Edition
The Brian Keenan interview: From civil rights to armed struggle
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 second instalment of a three-part feature in which Brian Keenan tells us, in his own words, about how resistance developed from agitation for civil rights to armed struggle.
BRIAN’S first taste of RUC violence and prison life happened the same day the RUC attacked Sinn Féin’s election office on the Falls Road to remove the Irish Tricolour from the office window at the behest of a young firebrand preacher by the name of Ian Paisley.
It was 1964. Brian and a friend were returning home from a night out close to the Falls Road when a car-load of RUC men descended on them and beat them to the ground. They were taken to Hastings Street Barracks, where they were again beaten.
“The RUC refused to give me water or allow me to wash myself. I was left lying in a cell on a leather mattress.”
They were charged with assaulting an RUC patrol and sentenced to three months in jail or an £85 fine.
It was the first time Brian met PJ McGrory, then a young solicitor at an early stage of his practice but who was to become a renowned legal advocate in the turbulent North of Ireland. He represented Brian and, characteristically of PJ, he demolished the RUC witnesses’ claims that Brian and his friend attacked them. But the judge ignored PJ’s obvious conclusion and convicted Brian nevertheless.
Unable to pay the fine, Brian spent two weeks in Crumlin Road Jail until the money was raised.
This was Brian Keenan’s violent introduction to the sectarian nature of the Six-County state, its police and judiciary. The experience taught him a lesson about the RUC he never forgot.
Shortly after the 1964 riots, students in Belfast began to organise under the banner of civil rights. This was a period of huge change which significantly impacted on the IRA, most notably in the Republican Movement split of 1969.
“In the late 1960s, the IRA was ineffective. They spent their time having arguments that were totally irrelevant to the unfolding and dangerous situation.
“The split was personality driven. It wasn’t solely ideological. It was also ego-driven. The split damaged the struggle big time.
“The IRA had no sense of what was coming at the people in terms of state violence. However, as an organisation it had a collective memory and knowledge of armed struggle which proved invaluable.
“Some senior Army people saw the Civil Rights movement in opposition to them; others saw the potential of it. They ended up going with the Sticks [who were dubbed by the media the ‘Official IRA’ and ‘Official Sinn Féin’, who later changed their name to the Workers’ Party].
“So why did I go with the Provisionals? I considered what the Dublin leadership of the Sticks did was a betrayal.
“I went with the IRA because of what happened to the Catholic people of Belfast. The pre-split IRA betrayed them. They believed that a bloodbath in Belfast among the Catholic people was good for the IRA. This was nonsense politics and left the people defenceless in the face of a very violent situation unfolding in the city.
“I was disgusted at the split. The Movement and the struggle were weakened. The split seriously damaged the struggle for a united Ireland.
“Certain IRA leaders wouldn’t talk to me for a long time after the split because they believed I was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. In their eyes I was not to be trusted. They believed I was aligned with Tony Coughlan, who was with the Sticks.”
But it was the spectacular growth of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s which held out the prospect of “something big happening in the Six Counties”.
“The trigger for my generation to get involved in violent confrontation with the state was not the IRA, not republican politics, nor republican ideology. The trigger was the Civil Rights movement.
“The Civil Rights movement was not controlled by republicans. In fact it was out of republicans’ control. It was students led by people like Michael Farrell, People’s Democracy and trade unionists. It struck a chord among the educated. Education was important and the Catholics had education as never before. They asserted their rights.
“There was a lot of excitement about. You felt something big was happening. There were demonstrations and riots.”
Across the Six Counties, thousands of students were on the march for civil rights. It was a students’ revolt against inequality. The students were influenced by what was happening in cities in Europe, especially Paris and the United States against the US war in Vietnam.
“The two big demands of the marchers were ‘one man one vote’ and decent houses. The housing conditions were appaling. People were living in squalor. I was angry. Why should anyone have more than one vote because they had money and property? Why could I, who had nothing, not have a vote?”
“People were always aware that, no matter how well educated you were, your expectations were never reached because of the society we lived in. People’s self-respect and self-esteem was low.”
Brian got involved in the Civil Rights movement and his latent republican politics came to the fore.
“It was a good thing that I had republican politics and that other republicans were involved in the Civil Rights movement because such movements have a short lifespan and, as we know from other experiences around the world, they fizzle out.
“If it hadn’t been for republicans, the Civil Rights movement here would have died also and the status quo would have remained cemented forever and a day.”
The Civil Rights movement struck an emotional chord with the Catholic population of the North because they were highlighting those issues which were deeply personal to Catholics – issues of injustice.
Catholics were seething with anger about how they had been treated by the unionist government for decades. They demonstrated in their tens of thousands for reforms to improve their personal and living conditions.
It was into this uprising that the IRA stepped in.
“I joined the IRA in 1968 and shortly after I had to go on the run. From that point onwards, normal family life ended. I never lived at home with my wife, Chrissie, and children for 27 years. I went home to my family in 1995 for the first time since 1968. Chrissie raised the kids.
“From 1968, I gave all my attention to the Army. The IRA was light on the ground when I joined.
“The IRA was a body of armed men. They were not trained ideologically. They were schooled in history but they were also a movement waiting to be revitalised, rearmed and reorganised into a fighting force. They needed leadership.”
Brian Keenan was an emerging leader of an organisation which had never experienced anything like what was happening to the nationalist and Catholic population of the Six Counties.
The mood of the Catholic population and the conditions in nationalist areas were akin to what had happened in the rest of Ireland during the period between 1916 and the end of the Civil War in 1923.
The conditions were ripe for the IRA to once again prepare itself and the nationalist people for war.
1969 was a pivotal year for the IRA. The organisation was disorganised and disjointed, with few weapons.
After the pogroms on the Falls Road, a slogan was seen daubed on the walls: ‘IRA – I Ran Away.’
“At the time the people were leading the IRA by their actions in places like Derry, Ardoyne and Short Strand. The strength of resistance lay with the people’s actions. It was afterwards the IRA provided the much-needed armed leadership.
“Anger and frustration about injustice brought me into the IRA. It was easy for me to move into an armed organisation. I’d no faith in any democratic confrontation with the state. It was quite easy for me to join the ranks of Óglaigh na hÉireann and translate that militancy into a military response.”
The IRA started to mobilise in a way it had always been done in secret organisations. At the time, with the threat from the RUC, ‘B’ Specials and loyalists, the most important issue was defence, particularly for Belfast Catholics. This was the strongest and most popular dynamic.
“Defence is only possible with armaments. The country was scoured for weapons. I travelled myself from Derry to Cork, picking up old bits and pieces. I remember in West Cork I got a dump from an old man and that dump had been there from the Civil War!
“They were incredible days. All of a sudden, the IRA was in your street; your next door neighbour was in the IRA; your mate’s son was in the IRA. They were the IRA.
“Of course, the IRA was in its infancy. Few knew how to deal with the situation. We drew on the experience of older republicans – the people who were in the jails, in the Army since partition. Their advice in those very early days was invaluable.
“In one sense we were shaped and moulded by the levels of continuous repression from the British Army and the RUC.
“British military repression also deepened the crisis on the streets. They behaved as if they were in one of their colonies, thousands of miles away, instead of where they actually were – in a west European country a few miles away from London.
“British repression actually created the conditions which allowed the IRA to intensify its armed struggle. The British Army was really stupid. They provoked mass revolt by their repressive actions.
“The IRA organised behind the barricades for national liberation, not social revolution. It could have been different if the IRA had been more than an organisation seeking a united Ireland. In the context of national liberation it was inevitable that the focus would be around independence.
“It was unfinished business from the period of partition.
“We did what needed to be done and we were right to do it.”
It was a popular uprising. The revolt was propelled by anger borne out of decades of discrimination and injustice; an uprising which focused on issues like jobs, housing, votes, quality of life issues – a reform agenda.
The IRA was trying to manage all of this popular upheaval, trying to find its place in the midst of chaos. Understandably, the growth of the IRA was unmanageable.
It was the first time in modern Irish history that republicans were dealing with this type of situation, where war in an urban setting was underway.
“It was really only after internment that people and the Army began to focus on the nature of the Six-County state.” By this time, the IRA was improving its efficiency.
“The IRA offensive just developed. There was no point at which someone said, ‘Right, that’s it – we are at war.’
“Sympathisers in the US were getting in various weapons: Korean War weaponry: M1s, some old M14s, BARs. We were glad of them but they were not very good weapons against what the Brits had.
“There was a concerted effort with friendly people in the States to re-equip the Army so that it could effectively fight the Brits.
“We had friends in different parts of the world procuring weapons for us. But it was the republican supporters in the US who made the difference.
“Parallel with that, our own Engineering Department was developing weaponry of a home-made nature.
“You have to remember, there was no IRA as we know it today. The IRA was badly organised and badly armed. The strength of the resistance was in the people responding spontaneously to the violence of the RUC, ‘B’ Specials and loyalists. For many it was a case of, ‘Get the guns and shoot the British Army.’
“The IRA followed the people’s response on the streets. The IRA saw the potential in the situation. The people forced the IRA to organise itself. It did so and it did a good job under difficult circumstances.
“The IRA then went on a mass recruiting campaign. It opened its ranks to anyone and everyone. This had its strengths and weaknesses from the point of view of a secret, clandestine army which needed security to survive and grow.
“The IRA’s security was compromised during these years. People were recruited who did not have the basic tenets of republicanism or nationalism. But this is one of the contradictions armed revolutionary organisations have to manage.
“You had a popular uprising which the IRA had to take advantage of because its primary project was the freedom of the country.
“Because of the immediacy of the situation on the ground, it took the IRA a number of years to put a military strategy together. Like I said earlier, the leadership saw its job as completing the unfinished business of 1921: ending partition.
“The growth of the IRA was unmanageable. It was unplanned because of what was happening on the ground. The IRA’s strength in many instances was down to individual Volunteers and their initiative in taking on the crown forces.
“When you consider it, the IRA Volunteers were self-taught, trained on the streets and highly motivated. They took on one of the best conventional armies in the world. We paid a heavy price in terms of loss of life and the attrition rate to jails was also very high but people kept volunteering to join the IRA.
“Then the Belfast Brigade of the IRA was a driving force. They were very brave; an engine driving the situation forward. They lost a lot of Volunteers in the early years in confrontations with the British military. The IRA was light on the ground in places like South Armagh until after internment, in fact until after Harry Thornton was shot dead. [Harry Thornton, a building worker, was driving his car past Springfield Road Barracks in Belfast on Sunday, 7 August 1971, when it backfired. Soldiers opened fire on the car and killed him.]
“Belfast Volunteers played a huge part at all levels in the Army structure and in all areas of its operations. Belfast Volunteers took up positions in various commands and in a short time they made a difference, especially on the Northern Command.
“Northern Command was responsible for prosecuting the war. It was very effective. It was an important development in the overall war effort. It meant that Volunteers on the ground were fighting the war. The people fighting the war were the best people to run the war. They were making the decisions.”