IRA leader turned peace advocate Brian Keenan dies

BRIAN KEENAN, who has died from cancer aged 66, was a key, ruthless IRA leader and strategist over the entire course of the Troubles…

BRIAN KEENAN, who has died from cancer aged 66, was a key, ruthless IRA leader and strategist over the entire course of the Troubles who eventually brought hardline IRA members along with him to endorse the peace process, decommissioning and powersharing with the DUP.

The Belfast republican, a married father of six whose own father served in the RAF during the second World War, was for 40 years a senior member in an organisation that, over the Troubles, killed some 1,800 people and maimed and wounded thousands more.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell said that at one stage, when he orchestrated the IRA bombing campaign in England, he represented the “single biggest threat to the British state”.

Yet, when Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were helping move the IRA away from conflict, the uncompromising IRA leader and army council member was crucial in ensuring members stuck with the leadership and did not defect to groups such as the Real IRA.


In a recent interview, he explained how part of his politicisation came in 1964 through the riots precipitated by the demands of Ian Paisley that a Tricolour be removed from Sinn Féin offices on the Falls Road.

Around the early 1970s, Keenan helped develop the IRA’s “long war” strategy, complaining that the IRA was not causing enough casualties. He said the IRA’s plan was to “exhaust” the patience of the British government through violence in the North and the later bombing campaigns in Britain. With an engineering background, Keenan’s focus was on supplying arms and explosives.

He instigated the IRA bombing campaign in England in the mid-1970s, arguing that it would put pressure on the British government to pull out of Northern Ireland. He regretted that the IRA at that stage was not able to carry out the subsequent huge Canary Wharf-type bombings of the 1990s, as that “might have changed the course of the war decisively in the IRA’s favour”.

Keenan’s fingerprints were discovered in 1975 at the hideout of the Balcombe Street siege gang in London. He served 16 years in prison.

When the powersharing deal was done in the Assembly chamber last year, Keenan sat in the VIP gallery, just seven seats away from Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, with two other senior republicans, Bobby Storey and Brian Gillen beside him, to place the IRA leadership’s seal of approval on the historic enterprise.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times