Inspirational campaigner against injustice


BRIAN MCKEOWN:BRIAN McKEOWN, who has died aged 70 after a long illness, was the first director of Trócaire and a long-time campaigner for justice and human rights in the developing world.

Current Trócaire director Justin Kilcullen said he was a man of “extraordinary vision and courage” and described his response to global poverty and injustice as radical, profound and inspirational.

Born of a Dublin mother and a Derry father, he grew up near the Shore Road in north Belfast.

The society in which he was raised was a closed and bigoted one and, as a Catholic in hostile Protestant territory, he often had to fight his way to and from school

. Although physically small, he refused to be intimidated from pursuing his chosen route.

It was perhaps this early experience of anti-Catholic discrimination that shaped the path he pursued for most of his life – battling injustice to the best of his ability.

He attended Holy Family primary school and St Malachy’s grammar school and worked at first as a telecommunications engineer in Portrush, where he developed his lifelong love of the sea.

Finding Belfast society in the 1950s stifling, he went as a Legion of Mary missionary to the Congo at the age of 20, where he spent five years.

His experiences there instilled in him the desire to work for human rights and social justice.

He returned to Belfast, where he did a diploma in social studies in Queens University.

One of his lecturers was Gari, whom he married in 1968 and with whom he went to Brussels to work for Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité (CIDSE), a co-ordinating Brussels group for Catholic development agencies around the world.

Following Vatican II, the Catholic Church had set up development agencies for the Third World in a number of countries, but that had not yet happened in Ireland.

He invited Cardinal Conway to observe some meetings of CIDSE and found him very interested in development issues.

The cardinal was eventually persuaded of the need to set up a development agency of the Irish Catholic bishops and the result was Trócaire, of which Brian McKeown became first director and Bishop Eamon Casey the first chairman.

Trócaire announced it was to devote 20 per cent of its budget to development education, one of the most innovative aspects of its approach and one which differentiated it from agencies already existing.

In addition, 10 per cent was to go to emergency aid and 70 per cent to development co-operation programmes – co-operation, rather than paternalism, was to be the cornerstone of Trócaire’s approach.

The McKeown-Casey team led Trócaire for its first 20 years. They were a radical and at times tough-minded combination, but the problems that confronted them sometimes required more than a softly-softly approach.

Brian McKeown regarded Trócaire’s role in South Africa as extremely important in the development of the agency, as the organisation played a central and dynamic role in the long struggle against the apartheid system.

A vital part of this role was the education of Irish public opinion.

This was also true of Trócaire’s deep involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1980s, where the agency was fiercely critical of US foreign policy in the region.

Both he and Bishop Casey came under strong pressure to halt this criticism, especially during President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ireland in 1984.

Brian McKeown also regarded the nine-year struggle to get the EEC to give aid to Vietnam during the 1980s as one of the high points of his Trócaire directorship.

The EEC slavishly followed the US line on aid to Vietnam at the time.

In 1998, on the 25th anniversary of Trócaire’s founding, he was awarded a papal knighthood in recognition of his enormous contribution to the agency’s work.

After his time in Trócaire, he continued to fight for human rights as co-ordinator of the European Commission’s human rights programme in Rwanda and elsewhere, and in Croatia for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

He set up the International Human Rights Trust with Karen Kenny for the education, research and advancement of training in the monitoring and investigation of human rights.

He was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and bore the suffering caused by that disease with courage, dignity and humour.

He is survived by his wife Gari (Margaret) and their children Tim, Sally-Anne, Jaime and Rory.

Brian Hugh McKeown: born February 27th, 1939; died July 30th, 2009