With Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams paying tribute at the funeral of Provisional IRA leader Brian Keenan in Belfast today there are a couple of interesting articles to note – Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister’s tribute is here. First up the Independent’s David McKittrick on Keenan’s “paradoxical duality in that he first helped build up the organisation and then, decades later, helped shut it down.”
It was the combination of Keenan’s Libyan and English exploits that led Jonathan Powell, formerly Tony Blair’s chief-of-staff, to describe him in his recent autobiography as “at one stage the biggest single threat to the British state”. Keenan’s importance was further reflected in one writer’s assessment that he was “regarded by his friends and enemies alike as possessing the best organisational brain in the IRA”.
But Keenan was eventually caught, having left his fingerprints at bomb factories in Crouch End and Stoke Newington in north London. He was convicted in 1980 on 18 counts of planning terrorist acts including six killings, and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. He served a dozen years, emerging in 1993. Those killed by his unit included ordinary civilians who died in up to 50 bombing and shooting attacks on London railway stations, hotels, restaurants, pubs and other places designated by the IRA as “establishment targets”.
And at the Guardian’s Politics Blog, Henry McDonald on some of the false perceptions that may have been created
Another false perception created over the last 24 hours since his death from cancer was that Keenan decided that somehow the IRA’s “long war” had reached a stalemate in which neither they nor the British could win. This is an entirely bogus and dishonest reading of the political outcome in Northern Ireland.
Republicans such as Keenan set out to destroy the state of Northern Ireland and to force Britain to in turn eject the unionists from the union. This project has entirely failed.
Mainstream republicans have instead adopted the reformism so often derided by men like Keenan for decades. Rather than bomb the unionists into a united Ireland they now are set on love-bombing them into a new marriage, which is a courtship that will take decades and decades to bear fruit, if ever.
Shortly after the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, Keenan warned republicans from a Belfast graveside of one of their “martyrs” that they shouldn’t be confused by the politics of the situation, that the only thing that would be decommissioned would be the British state in Ireland.
Yet within a few short years after that prediction the IRA was forced politically to put most of its huge arsenal beyond use and a few years later again Sinn Fein had to recognise a British police force, the PSNI, as the price for Ian Paisley entering into power-sharing with republicans.
One of Oscar Wilde’s characters says: “Sooner or later in political life one has to compromise. Everyone does.” This is as true for Paisley in the latter stages of his life as it is for Adams. None the less, in his last interview Keenan did obliquely acknowledge that the campaign to overturn the state by force of arms had failed.
“I would prefer we were somewhere else but we are not and that is that as far as I am concerned. Revolutionaries have to be pragmatic; wish lists are for Christmas.”
The trouble is that once you start taking the pragmatic route that is the day that you, like everyone else in radical politics in the past and into the future, stop being a revolutionary.