By Jack Holland
Reports have emerged that the IRA has chosen for its new chief of staff a man regarded by many as an uncompromising activist. The reports claim that Brian Keenan, from Turf Lodge in Belfast, now heads the republican movement. They came in the wake of news that the IRA has rejected any immediate prospect of decommissioning at a convention that took place 10 days ago.
The news about Keenan has increased fears that the stability of the peace process is under threat. Unionist Party leader David Trimble’s failure to resolve the dispute over the number and scope of cross-border bodies has produced increasingly defiant statements from the IRA and Sinn Fein, who regard the bodies as crucial for the survival of the Good Friday peace agreement.
However, usually reliable sources report that the security forces do not see the election of Keenan as chief of staff posing any threat to the IRA’s 17-month old cease-fire. In fact, some suggest that the new chief of staff will strengthen the control of the current republican leadership and at the same time help reassure the hawks, who see Keenan as one of their own.
The 57-year-old Keenan, who is believed to suffer from heart troubles, replaced Armagh man Thomas "Slab" Murphy, who recently lost a major libel case against the London Sunday Times.
Keenan is known to have adapted a hard line toward the issue of decommissioning. In a rare public appearance in Belfast in 1996 at a republican commemoration ceremony for Sean McCaughey, who died in jail in Dublin on hunger and thirst strike in 1946, Keenan said that "the only thing that the republican movement will accept is the decommissioning of the British state in this country."
Keenan has been an active member of the IRA since the 1970s when he was involved in the English bombing campaign. Police linked him to the Balcombe Street Four — an IRA team that carried out a wave of assassinations and bomb attacks in London in the mid-1970s. The four, Eddie Butler, Hugh Doherty, Joe O’Connell and Harry Duggan, were arrested on Dec. 12, 1975 after police trapped them in the fashionable Balcombe Street in West London.
In 1978, Keenan came to New York illegally and spent a month trying to open up new contacts. "He was here to establish new lines for weapons supplies," said a republican source. One of his U.S. contacts was Eoin McNamee, who was based in Chicago and who acted as the go-between for the IRA leadership and its weapons suppliers in the U.S. McNamee, a long-time IRA member and former head of Northern Command, died in August 1986.
Keenan impressed those he met with his knowledge of weaponry. He has also been described as "abrasive" in style.
In 1979, Keenan was arrested and brought to London, where he was charged in connection with explosives offenses. His importance is gauged by the fact that the IRA launched a rescue attempt almost immediately. The rescue team included Bobby Campbell, Bobby Storey, Gerard Tuite, and Dickie Glenholmes, all prominent members of the IRA. Campbell was on the organization’s general headquarters staff and was later arrested with Joe Doherty after a gun battle with undercover British soldiers. Glenholmes was a member of the Belfast Brigade, as was Storey, who was arrested and charged with attempted murder in 1981.
The rescue attempt failed. Keenan was convicted and sentenced to 21 years in prison. He was released after serving 14 years.
Back in Ireland, Keenan resumed his activities with the IRA. Once more bombing Britain was a central part of the IRA’s strategy and Keenan is believed to have been involved in that campaign
During the peace process, Keenan has appeared as a unreconstructed republican, attacking both the British and Irish governments in terms of abuse that have fallen out of fashion with Sinn Fein and IRA spokesmen since before the 1994 cease-fire. In his 1996 speech at the McCaughey commemoration, Keenan denounced the Irish government as "spineless" and accused the British of "double-dealing." He referred to the Irish government throughout as "staters". i.e. Free Staters — the traditional derogatory term republicans have used for the Irish republic.
"The Staters were vicious," Keenan said, "and the coalition government in Dublin will have a lot to answer for to history for their performance over the last two years. . . . Whatever Reynolds did . . . the bastards in power now have closed those doors."
During the same speech appealing for votes for Sinn Fein in an upcoming local election, Keenan said that those in the republican movement "don’t really want to get involved in an election, but conditions are such that we are caught, we have to get involved."
Whatever doubts he may or may not have about the electoral strategy, Keenan is said to be close to the Sinn Fein leadership and to Gerry Adams. He is vehemently opposed to the dissident republicans who left the IRA a year ago to form the Real IRA. After the Omagh bombing in August was carried out by that organization, Keenan was one of those dispatched to South Armagh, Dundalk and other areas known to have Real IRA supporters to warn them to disband.