Friday, 30 May 2008


Brian Keenan laid to rest

South Armagh bids farewell to a republican icon

SEVERAL HUNDRED people gathered in the village of Cullyhanna, South Armagh, last Thursday, 22 May, to bid a final farewell to republican leader Brian Keenan.

The lifelong Irish republican, who had been ill for some time, resided in the village of Cullyhanna. His remains left his home in the village and were taken to the Volunteer Michael McVerry monument for a ceremony where local Sinn Féin Councillor Colman Burns presided.

The following oration was delivered by South Armagh republican Seán Hughes.

AS WE gather here to say farewell to our comrade, Brian, before he begins his final journey back to his native Belfast, I want to take this opportunity to say a few words on behalf of the Republican Movement in South Armagh.

Indeed it is appropriate that we have assembled here at this monument erected in memory of Brian’s friend and comrade, Michael McVerry.

Brian Keenan was a unique individual. A Volunteer in Óglaigh na hÉireann since the late 1960s, he was multi-talented, fulfilled many roles and held many positions and spent the majority of that time in the leadership of the Army.

He was instrumental in bringing the war to Britain in the 1970s and spent 14 years in English jails. He also served prison sentences in the South and led the escape from Portlaoise in 1975 when Volunteer Tom Smith was killed. He himself was shot and injured on that day.

Brian is a republican icon known the length and breadth of this island and further afield. He was admired and looked up to by republicans all over the world.

By his actions and his words he reflected and could articulate exactly what we as republicans stand for.

All during his life his honesty, integrity and determination shone through, earning him respect from all quarters both at home and internationally.

He was a dedicated and committed Volunteer; revolutionary through and through; an inspirational leader; a man of great wisdom and vision.

He was a progressive thinker with an instinctive ability to bring a realism and practicality to any given situation.

He personified struggle, living his life and leading as a committed and uncompromising revolutionary republican. A student of Tone, Connolly, and Mellows, he knew that for struggle to be successful you have to bring the people with you and be able to adapt to any changing political situation. He believed, just as Connolly believed, in constitutional action in normal times, in revolutionary action in exceptional times.

He brought clarity to the purpose of our struggle, constantly reminding Volunteers during the armed campaign that they were never ‘gunmen for nationalism’ and that Óglaigh na hÉireann had to serve as the ‘Army of the People’.

His charisma and fierce energy enthused those around him.

Brian has had a long association with South Armagh first coming here in the 1970s as a leadership figure. He helped in the organisation and the development of the area during that period and indeed he was instrumental in setting up the Barney Morris Sinn Féin Cumann in Crossmaglen at that time. Over the years he maintained a strong connection with us and built up many close friendships which have continued to this day.

One of the things he requested I do on his behalf was to convey his heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the Movement locally and to his friends and comrades for the support they have given him and the kindness shown to him during his time with us.

We in South Armagh have benefited from Brian living amongst us. He has unselfishly shared with us his vast knowledge and his great experience. We have sought and taken his advice on many occasions.

Many of us had the honour of getting to know Brian on a deeper personal level. We discovered he was a man of humour, a great conversationalist and a listener. People warmed to him. His genuine interest and sincerity for people’s lives and well-being was obvious. He had a special empathy with young people. He encouraged us to deepen, develop and build true comradeship at all levels. He inspired us by his commitment and unselfishness. The genuine attribute of selfless service coursed through every fibre of his being.

Brian showed great dignity and resilience throughout his long illness. I know he had great appreciation for those who cared for him – the doctors, nurses and his carers. At this point a special mention must be given to Pauline for her unstinting devotion to Brian during this difficult time.

Throughout this period Brian’s biggest concern was not for himself but for his family, his friends and the struggle. Just days before his death he met many of his comrades and his only thoughts were for the future and how we would achieve our goal and his dream of a 32-county socialist republic.

Brian did not aspire to a 32-county Free State. He regularly reminded us in the words of Connolly:

“If you hoist the green flag and remove the English army, unless you set about establishing the Socialist Republic, all of your efforts will have been in vain.”

Brian realised that now is the most complex and difficult phase of our struggle. As he often said himself, this generation of republicans, having fought the war, must now win the peace.
He clearly understood the direction of our strategy and the necessity for all the initiatives taken by the Republican Movement. He had the foresight to recognise that there would be many challenging times ahead but possessed the nerve and the confidence in his own republicanism to meet and overcome these challenges.

He embraced today’s republican strategy and gave leadership on it. He did so just as he did with every military operation or phase of the struggle in which he was involved – always leading from the front line.

Brian’s death ends an era but not his life’s work. He has left us all much to do – that is to achieve the Republic to which he aspired. We must face this task with the same tenacity and energy as Brian did. We need to organise, educate and agitate and build the Sinn Féin organisation the length and breadth of Ireland.

We have lost a true friend and comrade. On behalf of the Republican Movement in South Armagh, we extend our deepest sympathy to Brian’s wife, Chrissie; his sons, Frankie and Seán; his daughters, Bernadette, Ann-Marie, Christina and Jeanette; to his sister, Ann; his brother, Seán, who cannot be with us; and his wider family circle.

Many are the poorer for his passing; few could match his commitment and integrity.
Is Cailliúint mór é in Ard Mhacha Theas. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.

An Inspirational revolutionary


THOUSANDS of republicans from every corner of Ireland turned out in Belfast on Saturday, 24 May, for the funeral of Brian Keenan, one of the dominant figures within Irish republicanism over the past four decades of struggle.

Brian Keenan was a revolutionary whose thinking influenced those he met and worked with down through years of struggle and imprisonment.
Brian’s death on Wednesday, 21 May, might have marked the end of his life in struggle but to those in the Republican Movement that he has left behind there is no doubt the commitment and fortitude with which he inspired other republicans in the past will shine as a beacon into the future.

So, as people gathered at the New Barnsley Memorial Garden on Thursday, 22 May, to await the arrival of Brian’s remains from South Armagh, it was obvious that they were there out of respect for a man who epitomised the republican philosophy of equality, fraternity and liberty.

When, just after 3pm, the hearse carrying Brian’s coffin, draped in the national flag and bearing the IRA Volunteer’s beret and gloves drew up at the Memorial Garden, a respectful silence fell on the crowd.

A guard of honour made up of veteran Belfast republicans such as Liam Shannon, Dickie Glenholmes, Paddy Mulvenna and Harry Thompson flanked the coffin which was then taken on the shoulders of pall-bearers from South Armagh, republicans who had taken care of Brian in his last years of illness and who escorted his remains home to Belfast.

At New Barnsley Park, leading to the Keenan home, the South Armagh republicans handed responsibility for Brian’s remains over to Belfast republicans who brought him to the home which he rarely inhabited due to his years on the run or in prison.

A permanent honour guard flanked Brian’s remains as he lay in state as hundreds of people from across the island passed through the house to pay their respects. But it was on the day of his funeral that republican Ireland turned out in huge numbers to escort Volunteer Brian Keenan on his last journey. Republican activists, in their hundreds, lined the narrow streets of New Barnsley and the broad avenue of the Springfield Road in salute to a man who was not just a comrade but a friend to many of them. Clearly many people were moved by the occasion.
At the approach to the Upper Springfield Memorial Garden, where the funeral ceremony would be held, Brian’s coffin was taken by his friends Hugh Doherty, Joe O’Connell, Eddie Butler and Harry Duggan, former political prisoners and IRA Volunteers convicted after the famous siege in Balcombe Street in London in 1975.

Martina Anderson, another comrade who shared Brian’s experience of isolation during her imprisonment in England, and now a Sinn Féin MLA, chaired the ceremony.

Táimíd bailithe anseo inniu i gcuimhne air Brian Keenan; poblachtánach stairiúil, Óglach dílis agus Ceannaire. Táimíd ag comóradh bhás an fhir seo a bhí mór linn in alán bealaí éagsúla.
For Brian’s immediate and extended family his passing has caused great sorrow. For those of us who had the honour to call him comrade that pain is as great – and we will miss him deeply and never forget him.

Very few people become a legend in their own lifetime but Brian certainly became one. I suppose we all have our own very fond memories, stories and experiences of Brian. For me personally he was an inspiration.

Brian’s greatest gift was his humanity. Paul and I had the privilege of spending last Easter Sunday with him. Clearly he was in pain and his life was drawing to an end but not once did he complain or feel sorry for himself.

He was, as usual, a dynamo, talking and debating politics, arguing about the best tactics to employ at this stage in our struggle, and in particular expressing concerns about the health and well-being of other comrades.

It was so typical of Brian. He set an example for all of us. We learned so much from him and our struggle was enriched by his being a part of it.

Comrades, today we commemorate one of the greatest republicans who has ever lived. That is no over-estimation. That is a fact.

Brian Keenan has touched and influenced the course and direction of the republican struggle like no other person I know.

I am personally broken with grief over the loss of such a great man. But I am also immensely proud to have been able to call this great Irishman my comrade and my friend.

This grief and pride is something that we all share here today in equal measure. I recall when Ella [O’Dwyer] and I were in jail in the north of England and Brian and others were held in the South. We did not have the communication systems like those perfected here – we had no ‘comms’ – yet Brian managed to communicate with us, making sure when we were fighting for better conditions we did not box ourselves into corners we couldn’t get out from.

Brian was not only a great soldier, he was a great revolutionary and human being. Brian thought deeply about all aspects of our struggle.

He thought deeply about the political integrity of our struggle in changing circumstances – and the need to continually assess our position and make ourselves relevant.

He recognised that the inherent strength of resistance lay with the people. He often warned us that we will only achieve our aims and objectives if we are ideologically grounded. Recently, and in his own words, he told us:

“Revolutionaries have to be pragmatic – wish lists are for Christmas. At a time of great change we need to constantly lay out the republican vision. We need to constantly remind people we are for ‘equality, liberty, fraternity’. We are against exploitation and inequality. Historians in 50 years’ time will tell us whether the right path was chosen or not.

“Of course mistakes have been made along the way but we have to look to the opportunities that are there to move the struggle forward to reunification and independence.”

And for Brian it was a particular kind of independence – it was a 32-county democratic socialist republic.

A tree has fallen

SINN FÉIN President Gerry Adams MP delivered the oration at the funeral of leading republican Brian Keenan in Belfast on Saturday, 24 May. We publish that oration in full.

DIA daoibh a chairde agus failte mór romhaibh uilig. I want to welcome all of you here today – Brian’s family and friends and comrades from all parts of the island coming together to salute a great republican.
On your behalf I want to extend our sympathies to Chrissie; to Brian’s sons and daughters, Bernadette, Anne-Marie, Chrissie, Frankie, Seán and Jeanette; his 18 grandchildren and four great grandchildren; his brother, Seán, who can’t be with us today; his sister, Anne; and the wider Keenan family circle.
Tá muid buioch daoibh. Tá fhios agam go bhfuil bhur croí briste. Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil a lan daoine brónach inniu. Caill muid, ar cara.

I also want to thank Pauline and Tina McNulty in Cullyhanna and their family who took such great care of Brian.

He had a very special grá for South Armagh and I want to thank everyone from there and Dublin who looked after him during his long illness.

I had put down some names for mention – people like Phil, Wee Tom, Harry, Fra, Christy – but then I realised that the list would be too long. So, my friends, you all know who you are and you know how much Brian appreciated your friendship and support.

I want to thank Brian’s surgeon, Gerry McEntee; his oncologist, John McCaffrey; and his family doctor, Seamus McHugh; and all the other nursing and medical staff.

How do you describe Brian Keenan? Where to begin?

For me it began just down the road from here at the bus stop up from Mrs Campbell’s house.
It was 1968. I was getting on the bus. So was Brian Keenan. I was 20 years old. He was 27. I was single. He was married with six children.

He introduced himself to me. Enquired after my family.
I admired his Teddy Boy hairstyle.

Our lives were inextricably linked from that point on.

At that time the Orange state was being challenged by the democratic demands of our generation.

Two years later, this area was under military occupation and the young people of Ballymurphy were resisting the British Army.

I mention all of this only because here we are, close to the spot where Brian and I first met, 40 years later completing the circle and saying goodbye.

It is a great honour for me to give this oration. Brian sent for me about six weeks ago.
He told me that he wanted to make arrangements for his funeral.
I know that he had this conversation with other comrades as well.
He said he didn’t think he had much time left.

He said if he died in Cullyhanna that he wanted to be waked there for one night and then taken to New Barnsley.

He wanted Seán Hughes to say a few words in Cullyhanna and then he said he wanted me to say a few words at the Garden of Remembrance in the ‘Murph’.

Fear le dhá oraid. Shín Brian.

To tell you the truth, I was going to make a joke of this and say he had ordered me and Seán to give the oration but, in fairness, he was very humble about it all.

For example, he told me he was thinking of asking for a republican funeral – he asked me what I thought of that. I said I didn’t think he qualified on the basis that he was still alive.

He also said he wanted someone sensible to take care of things in Belfast. In the absence of anyone else, I suggested Big Bob. Brian immediately sent for him and gave him all his orders.
That was Brian.

Even in the face of great illness he never gave up, never stopped plotting and planning and arguing and looking to how republicans could best develop our policies and advance our struggle.
He had boundless energy – nervous energy – like a Duracell bunny.
He loved an argument.

At times when he was confronting a problem he came at it from every conceivable angle.
I know for certain this was because he agonised over some issues and spent sleepless nights trying to figure out propositions. He was very, very intense and drove everybody – and especially me – mad in the process.

But leaving aside politics, if he was socialising or having a drink, he loved driving people mad anyway, just for the devilment of it.

I’m sure that many, many people here have tales to tell of his humour and contrariness and craic.

Brian loved people. He loved conversation and debate.

He was very, very well read. And had a huge capacity to retain information on an enormous range of subjects.

He loved sport, particularly hurling.

He played for St Gall’s and rumour has it that his playing career ended when he was suspended for life. Which is no mean achievement.
In fairness, he always denied this.

He loved the countryside and natural things.
I remember being amazed away back in the early 1970s at his knowledge of trees, wildlife and especially birds.

He loved animals, particularly dogs. He and I had a hilarious experience one time trying to mate one of his dogs with one of mine.

He loved children and had a childlike ability to engage them.

He loved his own family very, very deeply.

Many, many times over the years he would speak to me of each one of them separately and individually with considerable pride after some event in their lives or some accomplishment.
He was especially chuffed as grandchildren and then great grandchildren started to arrive and he took huge interest in their progress.

It’s always hard for families of activists, no matter how sound they are, because the activist is off doing what he or she wants to do while a partner, a spouse, is left to rear youngsters and look after family affairs.

I have huge time for Chrissie Keenan. The Keenan family are a credit to her and her love and resilience.

She reared her fine sons and daughters almost single-handedly. Is bean go h’iontach thú, Chrissie.

I have memories of times in Donegal in the 1970s when Chrissie and her young brood would be waiting up in Mulroy Bay or Gort na Brad for Brian to arrive for a few days’ holidays.
Invariably he would be late; sometimes days late. And then he would appear like a whirlwind – by the way, Brian always drove like a lunatic. He would fly in and sweep them all off for a mad adventure. Then, all too soon, he would be away off again on his nomadic life’s work.

He cared deeply about other republicans. Those who opened their homes to the IRA, who sheltered and protected them, had his abiding loyalty and affection.
He would travel a hundred miles or 500 miles to help a comrade in trouble.
When Tommy Devereaux was ill and in post-operation convalescence, Brian, who was hardly able to walk, went across the country to gee him up. He also had a huge affection for Anne Devereaux, who is here with us today.

He was greatly flattered to be honoured at the recent Le Chéile event and chuffed to meet so many old friends. In fact, he spent the last few months of his life renewing old acquaintances and touching base with other activists on a one-to-one basis.

But woe betide any activist who allowed ego or self-gain or elitism to undermine our struggle.

He also dealt with his illness in an amazing way. He fought cancer the way he fought all his other battles: with passion, total commitment and no sense whatsoever of self-pity. He said to me once: “Life owes me nothing. I’m very lucky.”

In the days before his death he told some of us that he was very happy.
In these remarks I have tried to give some sense of Brian Keenan, the human being, the Irishman, a comrade, a friend.

Like others here, I could tell a thousand stories. Martin McGuiness or Paddy Doc could tell a thousand more.

Now I come to deal with Brian the IRA Volunteer – the revolutionary, the activist.

Brian was first arrested in 1964 during the Divis Street riots.

He was beaten and then taken to Hastings Street Barracks, where he was again beaten.
He was refused water to drink or to wash in and after a sham trial in which the late PJ McGrory demolished the RUC evidence, Brian was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison or a fine of £85 - a lot of money in those days.

Brian spent two weeks in Crumlin Road Prison before the money could be raised to have him released.

By this time he had also spent some years working in England where he was an active trade unionist and beginning to develop the class consciousness that was to shape his view of the world for the rest of his life.

After the Divis Street riots came the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and then the start of the Civil Rights struggle.

In a recent interview in An Phoblacht Brian described his decision to join the IRA during this period:

“Anger and frustration about injustice brought me into the IRA... it was quite easy for me to join the ranks of Óglaigh na hÉireann and translate that militancy into a military response.”
Initially, he was one of those – along with Joe Cahill and John Joe McGirl and others – who travelled the length and breadth of the island after 1969 searching out weapons to defend nationalist areas.

Inevitably, his boundless enthusiasm, his instinctive ability to encourage and motivate, and his natural talents as a leader and planner brought him ever-greater responsibilities within the IRA.
As a consequence he saw less and less of his family.

He threw himself into the struggle. And for almost a decade he played a pivotal role during what was a very dangerous and difficult time.

In 1974 he was arrested and imprisoned in Portlaoise on a membership charge. Along with others he plotted to escape and on the evening of 17 March 1975 the lights went out. Explosives were used to blow open a doorway into the yard. The gate in a wire enclosure was also blasted open with an explosive device. Unfortunately, a heavy lorry which was supposed to smash through into the yard for the men to escape became entangled in barbed wire.
IRA Volunteer Tom Smith was shot dead when soldiers opened fire on the prisoners. Six others prisoners were injured, including Brian, who was shot in the hand and leg.

Martin Ferris, who was there, tells it well.

“We could hear the engine fading at the other side of the gate and we knew then that the game was up. Brian was wounded but he was still running around trying to find a way out. In fact, himself and Kevin Mallon were trying to get behind the commanding officer of the Free State Army garrison to try and jump him and take the gun off him. They hadn’t given up at that stage even though it was fairly obvious that we were going nowhere.”

Brian was released a few months later.

In 1979, he was arrested and taken to England where he did his time mostly in the draconian Special Secure Units.

Níl spas agamsa inniu a caint faoi uair seo. Sin sceál eile.

During this period he showed a talent for landscape painting. I think his paintings were very good. But he bowed to Hughie Doc as a real painter. His were technically good, he said, but Hughie was a genius.

Even in prison he watched events closely and wrote to me very often. He never complained once. These years were also the years when Chrissie Keenan shone as an example of a strong woman in dire economic times facing the rigours of long journeys with children to a hostile place. This she did for 16 years.

In 1993, Brian was released and returned home to Belfast.

He immediately returned to activism.

By that point the Sinn Féin peace strategy was well developed and Brian was a vocal advocate of it in all of his conversations.

I know that at times of great turbulence within republicanism he defended me and Martin McGuinness and others the length and breadth of this island.

And this wasn’t purely though personal loyalty although he was hugely loyal. It was because when he argued and debated the issues out within republican forums he always took and defended the line which those forums agreed upon.

For him it was always about strategy and tactics. The goals remained the same – a free, independent, united Ireland.

Seán Hughes put it well on Thursday when he said:
“Brian was a student of Tone, Connolly and Mellows. He knew that for struggle to be successful you have to bring the people with you and be able to adapt to any changing political situation.
“He believed – just as Connolly believed – in constitutional action in normal times, in revolutionary action in exceptional times.”

Brian put it another way. He said for those in struggle who want to succeed: “Revolutionaries have to be pragmatic – wish lists are for Christmas.”

But it will only be when the history of this period is properly written that the real extent of the key role Brian played can be told.

For now, let me say that he was central to securing the support of the IRA leadership and rank and file for a whole series of historic initiatives which made the Peace Process possible.
And for the sceptics within unionism, let me remind them that the recent watershed moments in our history, including the election of Ian Paisley as First Minister, would not have been possible without the work of Brian Keenan and his colleagues.

I was one of those privileged to work alongside Brian in developing responses to the many challenges that faced us in recent times. On behalf of that small group, let me say we will miss him dreadfully.

In the run-in to the special Ard Fheis on policing I was at numerous meetings with Brian. At one particularly pivotal discussion he made a few remarks which turned into a keynote address.
Brian was like that. When he mustered his thoughts and weighed up all the possibilities and got the measure of what could be done, his remarks were inspirational.

On this occasion he started off by saying: “My time in republicanism is coming to a close.”
It became clear as he spoke with great passion and clarity that he saw this as one of his last big contributions.

So I wrote down what he said. And I think it’s appropriate that the man who organised his own funeral should also contribute to his own oration.

Brian spoke about the fears and the hopes he had for the future, about the pitfalls and opportunities that may open up, about our strengths, about the strength of our opponents.
He always had an ability to deal with realities. That’s what marks out the real visionary from the dreamer; the revolutionary from the verbaliser; the do-er from the theorist.

Struggle has to be embedded in the daily realities of people’s lives.

He believed that what we had achieved thus far was mighty but he asked and I quote:
“Was it good enough? No. Why? Because the Brits are still in our country.”

He went on.
“But we have made great advances. Strategically we have kept to our united Ireland objectives. We are working with the best people we could ever meet – people who have shown great courage and discipline and honesty. I am immensely proud of the young people coming up. I believe we will achieve our goals.

“I hear talk from some quarters about war. I will not lightly commit successive generations to continuous war.

“Armed actions were always about advancing and defending our struggle. Anyone else using violence for any other aim needs to be challenged.

“There is only one option. Republicans must go forward with the strength we have into government, onto new ground, building our political strength, changing our country.
“This is not about changing a flag. It is about a socialist republic. It’s about a continuous, inexorable drive – a mobilisation – towards the Republic.

“That is our responsibility; that is our moral duty.

“Unity is our strength. We have a moral responsibility not to do anything that hurts our struggle.
“There will be many challenges. The DUP may not come forward. The Brits may mess about. But we have to keep going at them. We have to keep going.”

Brian Keenan’s dedication to the republican struggle was unswerving.
Brian loved the IRA.
He was passionate about his republicanism.
He was totally unselfish in his commitment.
He personified all that is sound about our struggle.
He was never a war-monger but he had a justifiable sense of pride in the IRA’s ability to take on and fight the British Army to a standstill.
His pride wasn’t in glorifying or glamorising war in some elitist sense.
It was pride in the ingenuity and talent and ability and courage of the mostly working-class men and women who rose up against a numerically stronger, much better armed and imperial military power.

But he saw the IRA as an instrument. His commitment was to the people and to the Republic. The Army was a means to that end.
He believed in the primacy of politics.

And he understood the need to build Sinn Féin as the vehicle of republican struggle.
His working-class politics and his republican and socialist principles were his constant guide through four decades of unstinting activism.

That was his hallmark plus an ability to attract and work together with other highly competent and talented men and women; to motivate and inspire and encourage.

When we last met, a week before he slipped into death, Brian was as ready as ever to give his assessment and to express his view of what republicans need to do, whether in terms of building the party in the South; the Lisbon Treaty campaign, or the DUP stalling on the transfer of powers on policing and justice.

He was a huge influence on us all. He would also be a little embarrassed by all of the nice things that have been said about him over recent days. But he would be very pleased.

Occasionally, particularly in stressful times, he would say to some of us, “I love youse to bits.” And so he did. So I am confident that he would not want us feeling sad or sorry for him or for his loss to our struggle.

That’s why as part of his funeral he organised for the Roddy’s to be open for any of you who want to go there and relax before heading home. There will be musicians. And drink. Brian wanted a celebration. He also told me to tell you all that Fra Fox is standing the first round.
Finally, a chiarde, Mairtín Ó Direáin in a tribute to Mairtín Ó Cadhain had a few focail suited to Brian Keenan. I think the poem is called A Tree Has Fallen.

Le fíoch ba minic a d’fhiúchais.
Truabhail do chleacht
A lion doracht gur scaoil.

Mura ndeachaigh namhaid ná cara féin slán
Ó aghaidh do chraois
Maitear a lán do rí an fhocail;
Maithfear duitse mar sin...

You often boiled with fury,
Your tradition’s dereliction
Swelled your heart to bursting.

If neither friend or enemy escaped
Your abrasive tongue,
Much is forgiven the king of the word:
Much will be forgiven you...

Brian only looked forward to the future. And that’s what he would want from us. To look forward. To the future.
Slán, Brian, a stór. Slán.


Homage to Manuel Marulanda

By James Petras
May 26, 2008
Axis of Logic

Pedro Antonio Marin, better know as Manuel Marulanda and
`Tiro Fijo (Sure Shot)', was the leader of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-Peoples Army
(FARC-EP). He was without a doubt the greatest
revolutionary peasant leader in the history of the
Americas. Over a period of 60 years he organized peasant
movements, rural communities and, when all legal democratic
channels were effectively (and brutally) closed, he built
the most powerful sustained guerrilla army and supporting
underground militias in Latin America. The FARC at its peak
between 1999-2005 numbered nearly 20,000 fighters, several
hundred thousand peasant-activists, hundreds of village and
urban militia units. Even today despite the regime's forced
displacement of 3 million peasants resulting from scorched
earth policies and scores of massacres, the FARC has
between 10,000-15,000 guerrillas in its numerous `fronts
distributed throughout the country.

What make Marulanda's achievements so significant are his
organizational abilities, strategic acuity and his
intransigent and principled programmatic positions
consisting of support of popular demands. Marulanda, more
than any other guerrilla leader, had unmatched rapport with
the rural poor, the landless, the subsistence cultivators
and the rural refugees over three generations.

Beginning in 1964 with two-dozen peasants fleeing villages
devastated by a US directed military offensive Marulanda
methodically built a revolutionary guerrilla army without
either foreign financial or material contributions.
Marulanda, more than any other guerrilla leader, was a
great rural political teacher. Marulanda's superb
organizing skills were honed on the basis of his intimate
ties with peasants – he grew up in a poor peasant family,
lived among them cultivating and organizing, and spoke
their language addressing their most basic daily needs and
future hopes. Conceptually and through daily trial and
error, Marulanda worked out a series of strategic political
–military operations based on his brilliant understanding
of the geographic and human terrain. Between 1964 to his
recent death, Marulanda defeated or evaded at least seven
major military offensives financed by over $7 billion
dollars in US military aid, involving thousands of US
`Green Berets', Special Forces, mercenaries, over 250,000
Colombians Armed Forces and 35,000 member paramilitary
death squads.

Unlike Cuba or Nicarangua, Marulanda built an organized
mass base and trained a largely rural leadership; he openly
declared his socialist program and never received political
or material support from so-called `progressive
capitalists'. Colombia's armed forces were a formidable,
highly trained and disciplined repressive apparatus,
bolstered by murderous death squads, unlike Batista's and
Somoza's corrupt and rapacious gangsters, who plundered and
retreated under pressure. Marulanda, unlike many
better-known `poster-boy' guerrillas, was a virtual unknown
among the elegant leftist editors in London, the nostalgic
Parisian sixty-eighters and the New York Socialist
scholars. Marulanda spent his time exclusively in `Colombia
profunda', the deep Colombia, preferring to converse and
teach peasants and learn their grievances, rather than
giving interviews to adventure-seeking Western journalists.
Instead of writing grandiloquent `manifestos' and striking
photogenic poses, he preferred the steady, unromantic but
eminently effective grass roots pedagogy of the

Marulanda traveled from virtually inaccessible valleys to
mountain ranges, from jungles to plains, organizing,
fighting…recruiting and training new leaders. He eschewed
tripping off to `World Forums' or following the route of
international leftist tourists. He never visited a foreign
capital and, it is said, never set foot in the nation's
capital, Bogota. But he had a vast and profound knowledge
of the demands of the Afro-Colombians of the Coast, the
Indio-Colombians of the mountains and jungles, the land
claims of millions of displaced peasants, the names and
addresses of abusive landlords who brutalized and raped
peasants and their kin.

Throughout the 1960's, 70's and 80's numerous guerrilla
movements raised arms, fought with greater or lesser
capacity and disappeared – killed, surrendered (some even
turned collaborator) or became immersed in electoral
wheeling and dealing. Few in number, they fought in the
name of non-existent `peoples armies'; most were
intellectuals who were more familiar with European
narratives than the micro-history and popular culture and
legends of the people they tried to organize. They were
isolated, encircled and obliterated, perhaps leaving a
well-publicized legacy of exemplary sacrifice, but changing
nothing on the ground.

In contrast, Marulanda took the best punches thrown by the
counter-insurgency Presidents in Bogota and Washington and
returned them in spades. For every village that was razed,
Marulanda recruited dozens of angry and destitute peasant
fighters and patiently trained them to be cadres and
commanders. More than any guerrilla army, the FARC became
an army of the whole people: one-third of the commanders
were women, over seventy percent were peasants although
intellectuals and professionals joined and were trained by
movement-led cadres. Marulanda was revered for his
singularly simple life style: he shared the drenching rain
under plastic canopies. He was deeply respected by millions
of peasants, but he never in any way cultivated a
personality cult-figure: He was too irreverent and modest,
preferring to delegate important tasks to a collective
leadership, with a good deal of regional autonomy and
tactical flexibility. He accepted a diversity of views on
tactics, even when he profoundly disagreed.

In the early 1980's, many cadre and leaders decided to try
the electoral route, signed a `peace agreement' with the
Colombian President, formed an electoral party – the
Patriotic Union – and successfully elected numerous mayors
and representatives. They even gained a substantial vote in
Presidential elections. Marulanda did not publicly oppose
the accord but he did not lay down his arms and `go down
from the mountains to the city'. Much better than the
professionals and trade unionists who ran for office,
Marulanda understood the profoundly authoritarian and
brutal character of the oligarchy and its politicians. He
clearly knew that Colombia's rulers would never accept any
land reform just because a `few illiterate peasants voted
them out of office.' By 1987 over 5,000 members of the
Patriotic Union had been slaughtered by the oligarchy's
death squads, including three presidential candidates, a
dozen elected congressmen and women and scores of mayors
and city councilors. Those who survived fled to the jungles
and rejoined the armed struggle or fled into exile.

Marulanda was a master in evading many encirclement and
annihilation campaigns, especially those designed by the
best and the brightest from the US Fort Bragg Special
Forces counter-insurgency center and the School of the
Americas. By the end of the 1990's the FARC had extended
its control to over half the country and was blocking
highways and attacking military bases only 40 miles from
the capital. Severely weakened, the then President Pastrana
finally agreed to serious peace negotiations in which the
FARC demanded a de-militarized zone and an agenda that
included basic structural changes in the state, economy and

Unlike the Central American guerrillas who traded arms for
elected office, Marulanda insisted on land redistribution,
dismantling of the death squads and dismissal of Colombian
generals involved in massacres, a mixed economy largely
based on public ownership of strategic economic sectors and
large-scale funding for peasants to develop alternative
crops to coca, prior to laying down arms. In Washington
President Clinton was hysterical and at first opposed the
peace negotiations – especially the reform agenda as well
as the open public debates and forums widely attended by
Colombian civil society and organized by the FARC in the
de-militarized zone. Marulanda's embrace of democratic
debate, demilitarization and structural changes puts the
lie to the charge by Western and Latin American social
democrats and center-left academics that he was a

Washington probed to see if they could repeat the Central
American peace process – co-opt the FARC leaders with the
promise of electoral office and privilege in exchange for
selling out the peasants and poor Colombians. At the same
time Clinton, with bi-partisan support, pushed through a
massive $2 billion dollar appropriation bill to fund the
biggest and bloodiest counter-insurgency program since the
war in Indochina, dubbed `Plan Colombia'. Abruptly ending
the peace process, President Pastrana rushed troops into
the demilitarized zone to capture the FARC secretariat, but
Marulanda and his comrades were long gone.

Between 2002 to the present the FARC alternated from
offensive attacks and defensive retreats – mostly the
latter since 2006. With an unprecedented degree of US
financing and advanced technological support, the newly
elected narco-partner and death squad organizer, President
Alvaro Uribe took charge of a scorched earth policy to
savage the Colombian countryside. Between his election in
2002 and re-election in 2006, over 15,000 peasants, trade
unionists, human rights workers, journalists and other
critics were murdered. Entire regions of the countryside
were emptied – like the US Operation Phoenix in Viet Nam,
farmland was poisoned by toxic herbicides. Over 250,000
armed forces and their partners in the paramilitary death
squads decimated vast stretches of the Colombian
countryside where the FARC exercised hegemony. Scores of
US-supplied helicopter gun-ships blasted the jungles in
vast search and destroy missions – (which had nothing to do
with coca production or the shipment of cocaine to the
United States). By destroying all popular opposition and
organizations throughout the countryside and displacing
millions Uribe was able to push the FARC back toward more
defensible remote regions. Marulanda, as in the past,
adopted a strategy of defensive tactical retreat, giving up
territory in order to safeguard the guerrillas' capacity to
fight another day.

Unlike other guerrilla movements, the FARC did not receive
any material support form the outside: Fidel Castro
publicly repudiated armed struggle and looked to diplomatic
and trade ties with center-left administrations and even
better relations with the brutal Uribe. After 2001, the
Bush White House labeled the FARC a `terrorist
organization' putting pressure on Ecuador and Venezuela to
tighten cross-border movements of the FARC in search of
supply chains. The `center-left' in Colombia was totally
divided between those who gave `critical support' to
Uribe's total war against the FARC and those who
ineffectively protested the repression.

It is hard to imagine any guerrilla movement surviving
under conditions of massive US financed counter-insurgency,
quarter million US-armed soldiers, millions displaced from
its mass base and a psychopathic President allied directly
to a 35,000 member chain-saw death squads. However
Marulanda, cool and determined, directed the tactical
retreat; the idea of negotiating a capitulation never
entered his mind nor that of the FARC secretariat.

The FARC does not have contiguous frontiers with a
supporting country like Vietnam had with China; nor the
arms supply from a USSR, nor the international mass support
of Western solidarity groups like the Sandinistas. We live
in times where supporting peasant-led national liberation
movements is not `fashionable', where recognizing the
genius of peasant revolutionary leaders who build and
sustain authentic mass peoples armies is taboo in the
pretentious, loquacious and impotent World Social Formus –
which `world' routinely excludes peasant militants and for
whom `social' means the perpetual exchange of e-mails
between foundations funded by NGO.

It is in this hardly auspicious environment facing US and
Colombian Presidents intent on pyrrhic victories, that we
can appreciate the political genius and personal integrity
of Latin America's greatest peasant revolutionary, Manuel
Marulanda. His death will not generate posters or tee
shirts for middle class college students, but he will live
forever in the hearts and minds of millions of peasants in
Colombia. He will be remembered forever as `Tiro Fijo': the
legend who was killed a dozen times and yet returned to the
villages to share their simple lives. The only leader who
was truly `one of them', the one who confronted the Yankee
military and mercenary machine for a half-century and was
never captured or defeated.

He defied them all - those in their mansions, presidential
palaces, military bases, torture chambers, and bourgeois
editorial offices: He died at after 60 years of struggle of
natural causes in the arms of his beloved peasant comrades.

Tiro Fijo presente!


Vietnam's National Hero Vo Nguyen Giap Turns 97

Hanoi, May 29 (Prensa Latina) Vietnam's General Vo Nguyen
Giap 97th birthday is honored by the local media as
military strategist winner of the battles for independence
from French and US colonial rule.

The national hero was presented the bronze drum and sword
from Thanh Hoa, two reproductions that embody regional
cultural heritage.

The drum is 60 cm wide, equivalent to Giap's years of
active duty while the sword is 48 cm high and stands for
1948, the date President Ho Chi Minh signed his promotion
to general.

The four-star general was born in 1911 in An Xa, Quang
Binh, to a family of farmers who owed no land but he
learned to read and write and fought colonial rule his
entire life.

Giap began political life in the student movement in 1926,
and in September 1939, after the Communist Party was
declared illegal, Giap went to China where he met and
worked with Ho Chi Minh for national independence.

The French Police detained his wife and sister in law and
used them as hostages to make in turn in yet repression was
brutal: his sister in law was guillotine and his wife
merely survived three years of her life sentence for the
tortures killed her.

The French executioners also murdered his new-born son, his
father, two brothers and other relatives.

Once the colonialists were defeated, Giap became minister
of defense at the newly founded Socialist Republic of

In the late 50s, the US sent thousands of troops plus
60,000 advisors to south Vietnam and their numbers exceeded
500,000 by 1969. From Da Nang base, around Saigon, in the
central highlands, they also bombed the north.

Giap organized national defense and led operations against
south Vietnamese and US troops. His victory on the then
most powerful army of the world made him a hero in Vietnam
and at many other countries.

William Westmoreland, commander of the US Army in Vietnam
and Giap's adversary, said "a great military chief must
have decision-making power, morale strength and resolute,
and an intelligence summarizing all of the above. Giap has
them all."

Thursday, 29 May 2008


Opening speech by Luk Vervaet, head of the Belgian IUPFP

Third Congress of the International Union of Parliamentarians for Palestine (IUPFP), Brussels 2008-05-13

Welcoming speech from by Luk Vervaet, president of the Belgian branch of the IUPFP

Your Excellencies ambassadors, Honourable members of parliament, ladies and gentlemen, comrades and friends,

May I welcome you in the name of the Belgian executive branch of the IUPP, to this inauguration of the Third National Congress of the IUPFP.

I would like to express feelings of pride and gratitude on the behalf of the Belgian branch of the IUPFP for allowing us to host your Congress in Brussels, capital of Belgium and capital of the European Union.

There are two aspects at this congress under the theme “60 years on Al Nakba, 60 years of Resistance”: on the one hand the aspect of 60 years of struggle and resistance and on the other hand the aspect of 60 years ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people.

By organising your third congress here in Brussels, we wish to make the following statement :

This congress that is taking place in the heart of the European Union is a statement that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not an ‘internal conflict’ between Jews and Arabs about their respective borders and states, nor is it a conflict between the Arab states and Israel. For us the Palestinian people are fighting the last anti-colonial struggle that opposes a colonial West in favour of the colonised people of the world. Decisive partners in this conflict are the USA and Europe and we wish to underline their responsibility. If it were not for these powers this conflict wouldn’t have started 60 years ago, without them the conflict that have could already been solved, and without them there would be no starvation in Gaza as we are witnessing today.

For all of us, for all progressive humanity this Congress is the occasion to say that we are all in debt to the struggle of the Palestinian people. For those who follow television in France or Belgium there is more attention from in the media for “May 68”, the student and workers revolt that shook all western countries 40 years ago, than there is for the 60 years of struggle of the Palestinian people. We want to emphasise that the struggle we should be celebrating and honouring in this month of may 2008 is the one that has continued for over 60 years, with a whole people involved, with a continuous intensity: a struggle at the forefront of world politics.

It is their example of struggle and resistance against all odds that has inspired entire liberation movements the world over to have the courage to engage in the struggle for liberation and justice, and it has inspired different generations of youngsters in all countries, including mine. I can tell you that for my generation of “May 68” the influence of the Palestinian resistance, together with the resistance of Vietnam, were decisive factors in the progressive and anti-imperialist awakening of my generation.

So we are all in debt to the Palestinians but we have given them too little in return.

Professionally, I am a teacher in prison and I can assure you that there is a lot of concern amongst progressive and democratic people about the evolution of democratic rights in our countries since 9/11 and about a Europe that is sliding slowly but surely towards an Americanised conception of society. As you all know ‘the biggest example of democracy’ in the world has at the same time ‘the highest prison rate’ in the world. Two of the elements by which the American concepts are entering Europe are 1, policies and thinking on punishment and mass incarceration and 2, the European anti-terrorist legislation. This conference is an appeal to all democratic people in our country and in Europe to unify and concentrate our forces to obtain from our parliaments the removal of democratic Islamic movements and parties like Hamas from the list of terrorist organisations and to close down Gaza, the world’s biggest open prison. It’s time to wake up, time to get rid of our fear and indifference and to speak out. It is time to be aware that allowing a democratic elected government to be on a ‘terrorist list’ and allowing collective punishment of an entire population will have a disastrous effect not only for the people directly involved, but also on the anti-democratic trend on our own continent.

By organising this international congress of the IUPFP we seize the occasion to launch an appeal to all present and former Belgian members of the Federal Parliament of the different regions in Belgium, of the different local councils at the lowest level to join the IUPFP. We make the same appeal to present and former members of the European Parliament here in Brussels.

The program of the IUPP is not extreme but common sense and says in essence two things:

1, We demand the right to return for all Palestinian refugees

2, We demand the right for self determination for the Palestinian people to liberate their land and to establish its democratic state on the entire territory with Jerusalem as capital.

On this 60th anniversary of Al-Nakba we launch an appeal to elected representatives every level to support this program, to put it on the agenda of their elected bodies and to demand an end to the politics of double standards.

To conclude these welcoming remarks I will cite just two examples of a long list that illustrates this double standard of the West:

On the Palestinian refugees: On the one hand there are numerous European laws and conventions that claim that all refugees must have “the right to return to their homelands” but position is not applicable for the Palestinian people. We cannot support a European policy on migration that is tough that refuses and expels people without pity to “the land where they came from” and at the same time refuse this right for the Palestinians who are claiming this same right.

On Apartheid: In 1948 in the same year that the state of Israel was created the Apartheid regime of South Africa was introduced; in 1994, after nearly 50 years of national and international struggle and mobilisation the South African Apartheid regime was brought down. The anti-Apartheid movement in the world, governments included never accepted the existence of “thuislanden” like Ciskei or Transkei for the black population as a viable solution for the Apartheid state. So why are we accepting this for Palestine?

The experience of the Apartheid regime that was introduced 60 years ago and came to an end in 1994 strengthens our belief that after 60 years of Palestinian resistance and suffering a unified struggle nationally and internationally of all democratic forces will beyond any doubt be capable of bringing down the last apartheid regime in the world and to reinstate the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.

Palestine vaincra!

Palestine will win!

Luk Vervaet is a Brussels-based Marxist where he teaches in prisons.

He can be contacted at


A short record of a day in court

Before heading to court today I was reading the Belgian
newspapers and I could only notice that the media was
trying to redeem itself by posting some columns denouncing
the political process against us. Also some Opinion
articles were published written by opponents and supporters
of the AEL but all agreeing that the whole thing is a
political process.

In this atmosphere we entered the court room, to be present
at a trial that in a democracy should not even take place.
The session was opened with some technical communications
and the court agreed on hearing the defence witnesses and
watching the uncut TV footage of that night.

First the footage was played and it showed clearly that:

1- You could not really speak of real riots and that the
situation was rather tense at the scene but not more than

2- The AEL militants were clearly calming the youth and
trying to create a buffer between them and the police

3- My arrival did not have any escalating effect on the

4- we tried to negotiate calmly with the police but the
response was individual pepper-spray deployed against me
and others around me.

5- after the pepper-spray incident we kept our composure

After the tape was played came the turn of the witnesses,

the first witness was Luc Lamine, the chief of police of
that time with whom I had a verbal confrontation after I
was attacked with pepper-spray. Lamine had been cited
saying that my role was aggressive and negative. Later he
declared the opposite of that in an interview. Today he was
confronted with this contradiction in his story, he said
that he didn’t sign the declaration that was accusing me of
incitement, and that it doesn’t represent the complete
truth as he knows it. He said that before my arrival the
police was ready to intervene and the situation was
extremely tens, and that upon my arrival I asked the crowd
to sit down and recite a sort of a prayer for the murdered
brother, and that helped in calming the situation. Lamine
added that during the verbal confrontation we had he could
clearly see that my eyes were red and the symptoms of
pepper-spray were visible on my face, he said that
pepper-spray was used before the confrontation I had with
him. He was asked by the Judge if he felt insulted by my
words he denied that he felt insulted and said that me and
him understood each-others function. He finally said that,
after the verbal confrontation, I helped in calming down
the situation and lead the demonstration into a nearby

An interesting detail is that when Lamine was saying that
he wasn’t insulted by me, the judge was trying to convince
him that he was. The judge was telling him that he must
have been insulted as police-chief and he kept repeating
that while Lamine did not say that. At that moment our
lawyers intervened and made it clear to the judge that he
has no right to put words in the mouth of the witness. This
is a very disturbing indicator.

However, the testimony of Lamine came close to the truth
and destroyed the case of the public prosecutor on
incitement completely.

After Lamine, Jef Lambrecht a journalist that is known to
be a critic of our movement testified that my role there
was not negative and that he was following me the whole
evening and did not see any incitement from my part at any

Then came Ludo De Witte who testified as second hand
witness in the name of the anonymous officer who also was
observing me and said that i played a calming role the
whole evening and that the other officer that testified
against me was lying and was not even in the neighborhood.
The officer testifying in our favour wants to stay
anonymous out of fear, this alone says enough about the
whole matter.

After the witnesses, and due to a surrealistically dumb
court-clerk that can not type and can not print and needs
an hour to understand and report a testimony of 10 minutes,
the court was out of time. So we had to adjourn the process
till September. So because of the incompetence of a clerk I
have now to take the plane again in September and come to
Belgium and lose more of my time on a political scandalous
process that should not even be there from the beginning.

After seeing its amateur and tendentious way of working, I
am strengthened in my distrust of the judicial system in
Belgium, and I believe that they are after a conviction,
maybe one without a prison sentence in the light of the
partly shifting public opinion, but either way they are
looking for a conviction in order to give the
establishement a way out. I hope I will be proven wrong by
this court, but I doubt it. Either way we will fight any
conviction and take it all the way to the European court of
human rights in Strasbourg.

Police racism in Belgium: They are falling apart!

After the declaration of police chief Luk Lamine in our
case on Monday things started moving, another police chief
who is facing charges of excessive use of violence and who
was convicted to 4 years in jail felt provoked by the
performance of Lamine and declared the following ” we
received the orders from Lamine to operate hard that
night…. he rounded up several police chiefs and told us to
intervene in a hard way…. everybody who was from Moroccan
origin that day was a target and could be dealt with heavy
handedly and arrested….. it had no importance whether he
did something wrong or not, being Moroccan was enough…. it
was party-time within the police force….. some agents even
came back from vacation especially to participate in the
action against the scum, several platoons operated in the
neighborhood of Borgerhout heavy handedly and believe me
the youth felt this very well”.

Debie told us what we already know, there is racism within
the police corps and the witch hunt against ethnic
minorities is a continuous fact, However it is the first
time that such a clear testimony is made from within the
police. The AEL always tried to confront the Belgian
society with this racism and when we organised our civil
patrols to observe the police in order to document its
abuse, the whole country was defending the men in blue and
attacking us. They claimed that we were doing a provocation
and they have the nerve to tell that still. The real
provocation is racism and abuse, and if the society is not
provoked by that, then there is something wrong with this

Now that the AEL is on the offensive and raising the
pressure on the people responsible for these crimes against
society, they are starting to panic and expose each-other.
We are putting them under pressure and they are making
mistakes. Therefore the AEL will initiate judicial steps
against the police in Antwerp based upon the declarations
of Debie. Another time the AEL is proving why it is there
and what is its function.

Sunday, 25 May 2008


Regardless of any court decision, The struggle will go on

AEL generation will rise

Tomorrow myself and Ahmed Azzuz will appear in front of the court of appeal of Antwerp, after long years of criminalisation and repression we will begin the last chapter in a long fight to clear up our name and that of our organisation.

For us it has never been an issue of our own selves and there have never been anything personal about it, this whole matter is about a struggle for basic rights, identity and solidarity with our peoples in the homeland. It is an anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle. And there for racists, imperialists and Zionist-colonialists all joined forces to destroy us. And tomorrow we will tell them that they failed, and that we still stand tall, unbroken and more defiant than ever.

Some voices in our community are breaking the barrier of fear and coming out with clear support to our cause and to the AEL as an organisation. Some others are again being instrumentalised by the establishment that finances them through subsidies to attack us and play down our role and our principals. Tomorrow we will hear the voice of solidarity and courage, but we will also undoubtedly listen to the dogs of the establishment barking at the AEL caravan, but no matter what happens, the dogs will bark and the caravan will carry on its way.

Tomorrow Belgium is tested, and the main question will be, is it a democracy or a dictatorship? Democracies can only be called such if they tolerate dissident opinions and they respect the rights of minorities. It is not an accomplishment to have freedom of speech guaranteed for the main stream that goes along with the structures of power, in dictatorships also you have the freedom of speech to agree with the main stream and with the government.

But can a dissident opinion condemning the main stream and condemning the government be tolerated? And can its right to political organisation and mobilisation be respected? Our experience has been that such an opinion and the people who carry it will be persecuted, marginalised and criminalised.

The people who were recuperated by the establishment, the ones who started as radical as us in their demands of equality but eventually fell into line and today they work for the establishment, they are tolerated and promoted. The organisations that were critical to the racist establishment but that have been absorbed by means of generous subsidies into that same establishment are tolerated and promoted. But an independent and assertive emancipation movement that rejects subsidies and rejects state funding and can not be put in check within the frames of the establishment is dangerous and must be destroyed. Such and organisation is dangerous because it can actually trigger a real emancipation and because it prevents the assimilation of the second generation immigrants originating from the third world, hence preserving the organic link with the causes of the oppressed south in the heart of the oppressive north. Having ambassadors of the exploited masses of the third world in the streets of what is supposed to be the bastion of Capitalism is something that can not be tolerated and must be destroyed.

The struggle of the AEL is deeper than most people think and is related to the wealth and justice deficit in our world, it is a mirror of the struggle of the peoples of the south against imperialism, colonialism and by extension against the very nature of the capitalist system. It is a joke to believe that a court decision, no matter what that decision is, will end the struggle. It can only be either a victory along the road, or a blow that we will endure and will eventually make us stronger in our convictions. The struggle for Basic rights, Identity, and international solidarity is unstoppable, and the AEL is unstoppable because its Ideas are now flourishing in many brave hearts and minds and will multiply.

Friday, 23 May 2008


Death of Brian Keenan

BRIAN KEENAN, one of the IRA’s foremost strategists over three decades of conflict passed away in the early hours of Wednesday morning, 21 May, following a long battle with cancer.
On behalf of Sinn Féin Gerry Adams extended his sincerest condolences to Brian’s wife Chrissie, his sons and daughters, Bernadette, Annemarie, Chrissie, Frankie, Sean and Janette and his grandchildren; and to his brothers and sisters, and to the wider family circle.

Gerry Adams said: “Although Brian had been ill for many years news of his death will come as a great shock to republicans throughout Ireland and beyond. I want to pay tribute to him and his family and to thank everyone who looked after him during his illness, particularly his friends in South Armagh and Dublin.

“Brian was a formidable republican leader over 40 years of activism. He was a man of tremendous energy even in the face of a debilitating illness. He was a deeply committed socialist and trade unionist who was enormously influenced in his youth by the writings of Connolly and Mellows.

“Brian Keenan’s strong endorsement of the Sinn Féin peace strategy was crucial in securing the support of the IRA leadership for the series of historic initiatives which sustained the peace process through its most difficult times. Brian Keenan’s dedication to the republican struggle was unswerving. His working class politics and his republican and socialist principles were his constant guide through four decades of unstinting effort on behalf of republicanism.

“In a recent series of interviews in An Phoblacht Brian spoke of the imperative ‘at a time of great change’ to ‘constantly lay out the republican vision. We need to constantly remind people we are for liberty, equality, fraternity. We are against exploitation and inequality.’

“He urged republicans to ‘look at the opportunities that are there to move the struggle forward to reunification and independence’. Brian Keenan was a good friend and gifted and steadfast republican. He made an incalculable contribution to the republican struggle. Brian will be greatly missed by his family and friends and by the many republicans who over the years have been touched by his generosity, friendship, and humour.”

The North’s First Minister, Sinn Féin MP Martin McGuinness also paid tribute to Keenan.

McGuinness said:

“I am deeply saddened by the death of my friend Brian Keenan. Brian was a republican icon who along with his wife Chrissie and family made huge sacrifices through his dedication and commitment to the Republican struggle.

“As a leader within Irish republicanism Brian’s contribution to the building and development of the peace process was not just immense but invaluable. His contribution continued throughout his long illness.

“I was overjoyed that Brian was able to be with us in Stormont on May 8th last year to see the restoration of the power sharing and all-Ireland institutions. This would not have happened without his hugely important contribution.

“I extend myself and Bernie’s sympathy and love to Brian’s wife Chrissie and the Keenan family at this sad time.”

Brian Keenan, IRA ‘Long War’ strategist

BRIAN KEENAN, one of the IRA’s foremost strategists in ‘The Long War’ over three decades, was once described by Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff at 10 Downing Street, Jonathan Powell, as “the single biggest threat to the British state”.

Brian’s pivotal role in the political and the armed struggle was also acknowledged by his comrades earlier this year when he was among the honourees at the Le Chéile celebration for those who have given outstanding service to the republican cause and the fight for Irish freedom.

Shortly after joining the IRA, in 1968, Brian went on the run and spent the next 25 years living apart from his wife, Chrissie, his children and his grandchildren. He served 16 years in various jails across England in Special Secure Units (SSUs). His story began on Belfast’s New Lodge Road in 1941.

BORN into a family of six children during the Second World War, Brian Keenan’s home was hit by a Luftwaffe bomb during the blitz on Belfast and the family was evacuated to South Derry, where the young Brian started primary school before returning to Belfast when the war was over. For the entire Second World War, his father, Harry, served with the British Royal Air Force at Packlington RAF Bomber Command aerodrome in England while Brian’s mother, Jean, raised the family on her own. His father rarely spoke about his years in the RAF or the war despite being awarded a commendation for bravery when he saved the crew of a bomb-laden airplane which had crash-landed on take-off. The King of England also acknowledged his bravery in a quotation in the London Gazette. (Ironically, the aerodrome where his father once served became the site on which Full Sutton Prison was built, where Brian served a sentence as a political prisoner.)

When the Second World War was over, Brian’s father returned to Belfast and the Keenan family set up home on Belfast’s West Circular Road. As he was growing up he experienced at first-hand the sectarianism that was prevalent for Belfast Catholics. It was this sectarianism that led a loyalist mob to the door of his family home to drive his mother and father out of their house at the onset of ‘The Troubles’ in 1969. It was also the first time Brian Keenan carried a gun. With other armed IRA Volunteers, he arrived to protect his family and bring them to safety. Sectarianism was not confined to the streets of Belfast. It was also in the workplace where Brian, in his first-ever job, personally experienced “second-class citizenship”.

It was while working as an apprentice electronics engineer that Brian joined the Electrical Trade Union (ETU), one of the more radical unions of the time. He was 16. “Engineering was the preserve of Protestants. From day one I was made to feel second class. In those days you kept your head down. You were lucky to have a job and you wanted to keep it.”

In 1958, Brian moved to England to escape the sectarian harassment he was experiencing in work. He continued his apprenticeship in Luton in a firm which made guided missiles and it was there he met trade unionists involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). He attended his first union convention as a delegate when he was just 17. It was from this point on that he analysed politics through a “class prism”.

While in England, in 1960, Brian married Chrissie. He moved back to Belfast in 1963 where he continued his involvement with the ETU and trade union politics. He was an avid reader and a deep thinker. “From 17, I was reading something or other. One of the first books was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, The War of the Flea, Small is Beautiful, and I read about the Buddhist approach to economics.”

On his return to Belfast the blatant discrimination against Catholics and nationalists in the North propelled him into becoming active in the Civil Rights movement. In 1968 he joined the Irish Republican Army.

During the years of conflict he became one of the IRA’s foremost strategists and a thorn in the side of British imperialism.
Intensely proud of IRA Volunteers’ heroism and ingenuity and the struggle waged by the ‘People’s Army’ against the British Army — possibly the most professional but certainly one of the best armed, equipped and resourced military forces in the world — Brian Keenan never let this blur his vision of the needs of the struggle and the challenges it faces.

It was leaders like Brian Keenan who steered the IRA through events such as internment, the Bloody Sunday massacre by the Parachute Regiment, the unionist work stoppages, sectarian conflict, and the unrelenting war waged by the British state and its allies and agents against the nationalist people in the Six Counties.

England was a theatre of war that became central to IRA strategy to move the political situation to a resolution. It is an area that has become associated by British commentators with Brian Keenan perhaps more than any other contemporary IRA leader.

“The IRA leadership knew we could not defeat the British Army militarily but we could bring them to a point where they knew they could not defeat the IRA,” Brian told An Phoblacht earlier this year. “We aimed to exhaust their patience through war in the Six Counties and subsequently the campaign in England. You have to be able to bring the struggle to their front door.” The England campaign was a necessary appendage to the armed struggle in the Six Counties. It sent a powerful message to the British Establishment, political and military.

Brian was one of a new breed of leaders who helped re-organise the IRA — derided after unionist sectarian pogroms led by the RUC in 1969 by the wall slogan ‘IRA = I Ran Away’ — into an effective fighting force that won begrudging admiration from its enemies.

“The IRA changed urban warfare on a world basis. Other armed revolutionary organisations have borrowed the IRA’s tactics.”

Although he recognised the challenges political progress still faces, he argued that the IRA was morally obliged to look at alternative options to continuing the war, especially if there was a viable alternative.

And as a committed revolutionary, dedicated to social as well as political change, Brian Keenan ended his interview with Jim Gibney by outlining where saw the current situation.
“I would prefer we were somewhere else but we are not and that is it as far as I am concerned. Revolutionaries have to be pragmatic - wish lists are for Christmas. At a time of great change we need to constantly lay out the republican vision. We need to constantly remind people we are for ‘equality, liberty, fraternity’. We are against exploitation and inequality. Historians in 50 years’ time will tell us whether the right path was chosen or not. “Of course mistakes have been made along the way, but we have to look to the opportunities that are there to move the struggle forward to reunification and independence.”

2001: Brian Keenan addresses republicans at a commemoration of IRA Volunteers at Knockatallon on the Monaghan/Fermanagh border

The Brian Keenan interview: The Brian Keenan interview:

Brian receives award at the recent Le Chéile event in Dublin

Photo: Brian receives award at the recent Le Chéile event in Dublin

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.

Shortly after joining the IRA, Brian went on the run and spent the next 25 years living apart from his wife, Chrissie, his children and his grandchildren.

He served 16 years in various jails across England in Special Secure Units (SSUs).
His pivotal role in the struggle was recognised last month when he was among the honourees at this year’s Le Chéile celebration.

Ahead of that honour, 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 first instalment of a three-part feature where Brian Keenan tells us, in his own words, what has driven one of the most formidable foes the might of the British state has ever faced.BRIAN KEENAN was born on Belfast’s New Lodge Road in 1941 into a family of six children.

His family home was hit by a Luftwaffe bomb during the blitz on Belfast during the Second World War and the family was evacuated to South Derry, where the young Brian started primary school before returning to Belfast when the Second World War was over.

For the entire Second World War his father, Harry, joined the fight against Hitler as a member of the British Royal Air Force. He was based in England at Packlington RAF Bomber Command Base aerodrome, from where the RAF ran regular bombing raids on Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe.

During the war his mother Jean raised the family on her own.

His father rarely spoke about his years in the RAF or the war despite being awarded a commendation for bravery when he saved the crew of a bomb-laden airplane which had crash landed on take-off. The King of England also acknowledged his bravery in a quotation in the London Gazette.

Brian’s father and a comrade waded knee-deep through thousands of gallons of aviation fuel, pulled the stunned crew from the stricken aircraft and dragged them from a potential inferno and almost certain death.

It took Brian many years to understand his father’s motivation in joining the RAF. His father had joined the boys’ RAF service at 15 in 1924. It was a way out of poverty for the teenager like thousands of other Irish men before him.

In time, and after many heated rows, Brian came to realise that his father was “a man of integrity, a courageous man, a man of his times, who did things according to his lights. He was a clever man, educated at Harding Street School.”

One of life’s interesting twists of fate is that Packlington aerodrome became the site on which Full Sutton Prison was built. Brian’s father would have walked the base on duty. Brian himself walked the same terrain as a political prisoner. He was a prisoner in Full Sutton. Both their feet traversed the same piece of ground separated by nearly 40 years of time and two different types of war entirely.

When the Second World War was over, Brian’s father returned to Belfast and the Keenan family set up home on Belfast’s West Circular Road.

Belfast in the 1940s was a tough place for people rearing a family. Work and money were scarce and service in the British forces was of little benefit to those coming home to poverty.
From a very young age Brian carried a hurl with him as often as he could.

“In my youth, republicanism did not come into it. I was always nationally minded. I played hurling as a teenager.”

The hurl was also a magnet for the attention of sectarian bigots on the Shankill and Springfield roads, which Brian had to pass through on his way to school or training at the GAA’s Corrigan Park on the Falls Road. He was often attacked.

As he was growing up he experienced at first-hand the sectarianism that was prevalent for Belfast Catholics.

“Sectarianism was a way of life. Sectarian tension was always there. It didn’t stop you going about Belfast but you were always aware that you could end up in a fist-fight if you travelled too far from the safety of your home streets.”

It was this sectarianism that led a loyalist mob to the door of his family home to drive his mother and father out of their house at the onset of ‘The Troubles’ in 1969.

It was also the first time Brian Keenan carried a gun. With other armed IRA Volunteers, he arrived to protect his family and bring them to safety.

Brian was angry and wanted to burn his parents’ house to the ground. The previous week, his grandmother had died and his father had had a heart attack and was in hospital. His mother told him very firmly: “If you touch a brick of that house, you’re no son of mine!”

Brian’s mother’s generosity was absent from the family whose house the Keenans got. Self-proclaimed Christians, they destroyed as much of the house as they could before they left.
Sectarianism was not confined to the streets of Belfast. It was also in the workplace where Brian, in his first-ever job, personally experienced “second-class citizenship”.

It was while working as an apprentice electronics engineer that Brian joined the Electrical Trade Union (ETU), one of the more radical unions of the time. He was 16.

“I first became acutely aware that I was regarded and treated as a second-class citizen when I started work. I was an apprentice engineer. Engineering was the preserve of Protestants. From day one I was made to feel second class. In those days you kept your head down. You were lucky to have a job and you wanted to keep it.”

In 1958, Brian moved to England to escape the sectarian harassment he was experiencing in work.

He continued his apprenticeship in Luton in a firm which made guided missiles and it was there he met trade unionists involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). They refused to build missiles designed for offensive purposes but built defensive missiles.

His involvement in trade unionism deepened and he attended his first union convention as a delegate when he was just 17.

While in the Luton factory and the ETU his class consciousness began to take shape and it was from this point onwards that he analysed politics through a “class prism”.

He is not sure where his interest in class politics came from. There were no members of his family who were staunch trade unionists, although his father was active in housing issues on the West Circular Road and was chairperson of the local tenants’ association in the early 1950s when few others had such an interest.

He thinks he may have acquired his early social conscience from his dad’s involvement in local community politics.

While in England, in 1960, Brian married Chrissie. He moved back to Belfast in 1963 where he continued his involvement with the ETU and trade union politics.

“From a young age my political outlook was shaped by my interest in trade unions. My brother was in the boiler-makers’ union.”

Brian got a class perspective on politics from his involvement in union work, strikes and working conditions.

The two big influences on him were the GAA and trade unionism. His uncle was in the IRA in the 1920s so that probably had a bearing as well.

“There were no overt republican politics in my house as I was growing up.

“In fact, I remember having a row with my mother when she found a copy of The United Irishman beneath my mattress. I had bought the paper at a GAA match in Thurles.”

By the time Brian was 21 his political outlook was formed. He was very much on the left wing of politics and has stayed there to this day. By 21 he had read Connolly’s works and Mellows’ writings.
“To me, republicanism is an ideology which should be firmly fixed socially and economically.

“To me, the enemy was capitalism and the system of exploitation.
“To me, the national question was always a class question.
“Most republicans see it in terms of British troops occupying the North. I see it in those terms as well but I also apply a socialist analysis.

“From 17 I was reading something or other. One of the first books was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, The War of the Flea, Small is Beautiful, and I read about the Buddhist approach to economics.

“I was against nationalism and I was critical of republicans in the Movement in the late 1960s/early seventies who limited their politics to nationalism.

“I don’t believe there is any form of benign nationalism. And I’m not speaking about people who are proud of their country, nor am I speaking about the positive role national liberation movements play in bringing about social and economic change.

“Looking back on the 1930s and 1940s, I could understand the difficulties that republicans like Peadar O’Donnell, George Gilmore and Frank Ryan had with right-wing people in Óglaigh na hÉireann.

“Over the years I met a lot of republicans from the ‘40s. I don’t want to be cruel to them because they were good people. They kept the struggle going in difficult times. But they relied too much on the politics of the gun.

“Their vision was a united Ireland, plain and simple. It didn’t matter on whose terms as along as it was a united Ireland.

“In the 1960s, the IRA was not an organisation working-class people could identify with.
“They were secretive, in many cases elitist, and, in some cases, family driven. It was almost hereditary to be in the Movement. It was organised around a number of well-known families in Belfast.

“Most republicans did not understand working-class and related politics. They were organised for a different purpose.

“Their focus was on independence and the politics which revolved around this. Class politics did not interest the most of them.

“Republicans, by their nature, were part of a conspiratorial movement.

“Republicans and the IRA made little impact on the plight of working-class people in Belfast.
“Some republicans labelled me a communist because of my trade union involvement. That annoyed me because people did not know what they were talking about. I was primarily interested in class politics and couldn’t understand why republicans would approve of non-unionised labour and being associated with people who owned firms that paid less than the union rates.

“My experience in trade union politics was drawn on by the IRA in 1966. I was asked to prepare a document for the Army Convention. I used a document I worked on for trade unionists in England called the Red Arrow Agreement. I gave that to one of the IRA’s leaders in Belfast. I don’t know what happened to it.”

Brian was active in workers’ rights campaigns. He trained people in his flat in Turf Lodge in this area.

“I was involved in organising a number of strikes. I got a reputation as a militant trade unionist and was blacklisted by my union, the ETU. I couldn’t get work. I had six children. It was a hard time. There was not a lot of money about.

“I got a job in Grundig on the management side of things. I built up a good relationship with the trades unions.”

While a foreman at Grundig’s, a German firm in Belfast, Brian experienced the hidden system of preferential treatment which was commonplace and which ensured discrimination in favour of Protestants in the workplace.

He supervised an applicant seeking a job as an engineer only to discover the applicant knew nothing about engineering. When Brian refused to employ him the interviewee said to him: “Have you not been told? This is all arranged.”

Brian promptly showed him the door only to be approached by one of the other foremen at the factory seeking an explanation for his actions. The applicant was a ‘B’ Special.

It was this hidden system of discrimination which relied on family connections, home address, and school name that ensured Protestants received preferential treatment.

This, and the more obvious discrimination practised by the sectarian, Six-County state, saw Brian Keenan propelled into becoming active in the Civil Rights Movement and to joining the Irish Republican Army. Things would never be the same again.

• NEXT WEEK: From civil rights to armed struggle

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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.”

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The Brian Keenan interview: Revolutionaries have to be pragmatic - wish lists are for Christmas

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 third and final instalment of a feature in which Brian Keenan tells us, in his own words, about how the IRA sustained a heroic guerrilla campaign against one of the most powerful nations in the world for decades until a viable alternative for political progress was presented. And this leading exponent of the most successful IRA campaign since the 1920s has a message for those who cling to armed struggle as a principle rather than a tactic.

THE MILITARY situation on the ground was changing rapidly between 1969 and 1972. The British escalated their military offensive against the IRA through curfews and widespread house raids. Gun battles between the IRA and the crown forces were common as the British military tried to occupy territory in the hands of the IRA.

“The military contest between the IRA and the British forces was largely determined by weaponry.

“It was very difficult to get the best weapons for the job at hand. The AR18, the Armalite, was ideal for urban warfare but the leadership, which was Dublin-based, wasn’t in touch with the war needs on the ground. It was difficult to get the right weaponry to ensure the IRA held on to its advantageous position.

“I remember having a stand-up row with the Chief of Staff about their failure to supply the Armalite in sufficient quantities.”

Internment was a turning point in the war for the IRA and the British Army.

“We weren’t hurt at a national level. We did lose some Brigade staff personnel. Over a protracted period of time, internment became a recruiting agent. Experience lost was regained in a short time.

“Internment showed republicans how vicious the Brits were. We were forced to organise and train the IRA to a higher standard to deal with the British Army, to overhaul its structures from the ground level upwards.

“We cleared out a lot of deadwood and put the IRA on a permanent war footing.

“The war was fought on a day-to-day basis. A lot of it was trial and error and we paid a high price for this inexperience. We had the energy of the novice, of the amateur.

“The IRA leadership knew we could not defeat the British Army militarily but we could bring them to a point where they knew they could not defeat the IRA.

“We aimed to exhaust their patience through war in the Six Counties and subsequently the campaign in England.

“By creating these conditions we believed the pressure would grow inside the British Establishment for them to withdraw from Ireland.

“We were on the march forward and no one could stop us. That is the only way to fight a war. There cannot be self-doubt, half-measures or holding back. The Army’s attitude was we could win the war.

“The Army leadership began to think more strategically and politically. It was out of this thinking that, by 1973, the ‘Long War Strategy’ took shape.

“I was very concerned at that time that the vast amount of effort being put into training IRA Volunteers was not delivering on the ground in terms of casualties among the British forces.
“There was constant competition between those on the IRA side and those on the British side who were trying to protect their personnel on the ground.

The IRA’s bombing campaign was an important development.

“We believed commercial bombing had a two-fold effect: it forced British troops out of nationalist areas when there was a very high level of repression, and when London was bombed it hit big business, the financial institutions. Those affected by these bombs would pressurise the British Government to disengage from Ireland.

“There was a lot of merit in that strategic outlook. It is arguable that had we been able to sustain a bombing campaign in London a lot earlier by using Canary Wharf-type bombs then we might have changed the course of the war decisively in the IRA’s favour.

“Until the IRA developed nitro-benzine we didn’t have explosives of a high enough velocity to justify car bomb operations.

“Benzine could be produced in massive quantities. The potential for a big bomb had arrived and became an important part of the IRA’s arsenal.

“The development of the car bomb in terms of the material that went into it was also very helpful in developing culvert bombs. The culvert bomb cost the British Army a lot of personnel. It was one of the IRA’s most effective weapons.

“Other weapons that made a difference were the RPG7 rocket launcher and the GPM, as did mortars and certain types of shoulder weapons.

“There was constant competition between the IRA and British Army for tactical superiority.
“The IRA’s Engineering Department was dynamic and an indispensable part of the war effort. Their contribution opened up the IRA’s war front.

“Some of their devices were ingenious. A lot of thought and resources were put into developing self-made armaments like mortars and shoulder-fired weapons.

“These were used to good effect against the Brits’ armoured vehicles. We also advanced well with remote control and electronic bombing devices.

The IRA leadership was constantly reviewing its war strategy, looking for ways of extending and expanding its campaign. Out of this outlook emerged the IRA’s campaign in England.

England was a very important theatre of war for both the IRA and the British. All modern states rely on transport, communications and power. These were the targets of the England campaign.
“The England campaign was also a very difficult area for the IRA. To operate in England was very demanding on IRA Volunteers and, of course, it was also a huge drain on the IRA’s finances and other resources but the dividend was worth the effort.

“It soon became clear due to the number of arrests in England that the IRA had to take a different approach. Sleepers had to be put in on a long-term basis and they had to be carefully selected.

“It was a very difficult mission. Those IRA Volunteers who took the fight to Britain were particularly brave and had special qualities. To survive in such hostile territory required a high degree of dedication, self-discipline and selflessness.

“An indication of the IRA’s very cautious approach to recruiting Volunteers for this mission can be seen in the fact that there was a trawl for a specific campaign and, of 82 Volunteers interviewed to go, the IRA selected only four.

“The Balcombe Street lads were a classic example of the high calibre that was required. They were hand-picked.”

The concentration of British forces in the Six Counties made it increasingly difficult for the IRA to operate there, especially in the late 1970s.

England was wide open to a carefully planned campaign by the IRA. Opening up this front put huge pressure on the British Government and on their policy makers.

“In any military analysis it is extremely important to hit the enemy where they live.

“You have to be able to bring the struggle to their front door.

“The England campaign was a necessary appendage to the armed struggle in the Six Counties. It sent a powerful message to the British Establishment, political and military.

“In those days the Army dominated. Their needs came first and while I can understand it because we were fighting a war, it was also a mistake not to pay attention to building a political party.

“Everything was subservient to the Army. There was a lot of elitism in the Army. Politics were frowned upon. A lot of senior Army people were suspicious of politics. They thought it would corrupt the struggle – but the struggle was all about politics.

“The Army was probably too strong for its and the struggle’s good. A lot of leadership people thought republicans did not need a party, that the Army could do it all.

“This was a historical legacy. It was long and difficult to get away from this outlook. This attitude has nothing to do with republicanism or revolutionary politics.

“In urban areas they led the way and other armed organisations around the world learned from them. But it was very tight because of the concentration of British forces with their patrols and bases in nationalist areas.

“In rural areas – places like South Armagh, South Derry – IRA Volunteers were exceptional. The Volunteers knew every inch of their own land. Their fieldcraft was brilliant. They often shocked the British Army.

“It was a dynamic, unstoppable, frantic situation. Volunteers were on four operations a day.
“It was events on the ground which made the IRA into the fighting force it became.
“The biggest recruiting agent was oppression

“The British Army had infinite resources. There are nine or ten people behind every one of their armed personnel, providing back-up. In the IRA, everyone was on the gun and practically everyone wanted to be on the gun. This was not sustainable over a long period of time.”
In the late 1970s, Brian was arrested, taken to England and charged. He was convicted and sentenced.

He spent 16 years in jail, most of the time in a Special Secure Unit.

“There was never more than four other IRA Volunteers with you in these special units.
“As in all situations, there were good and bad times. You had to be disciplined about your life, try to escape if the opportunity presented itself, and occasionally use violence when necessary against the prison regime to keep them in check.

“I was a spokesperson for years in jail for prisoners. I remember Willie Whitelaw came to visit the special units. He refused to speak to IRA prisoners.

“I keenly watched the efforts being made to build Sinn Féin as a party.

“The split in 1986 was inevitable, necessary as far as building Sinn Féin was concerned in the 26 Counties. To make headway with the political project it was necessary to recognise the institutions of the 26-County state.

“I wrote a letter to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis that year because I was angry that some people were using IRA martyrs as a reason for not trying to open up a new front in developing Sinn Féin. No living person can say how Pearse, Connolly or Bobby Sands would have reacted to different events.

“Looking back from this position at the overall performance of the IRA, I would say they were a remarkable fighting force.

“Against the backdrop of all the personnel, weaponry, technology, surveillance equipment, fortifications and other resources the British state deployed against us, the IRA and its Volunteers fought a remarkable war. On many occasions they successfully outwitted the British Army and secured a number of significant military strikes against them.

“My overall assessment, especially in the first decade of the campaign, is that the IRA was an outstanding fighting force. You just have to admire their capabilities. Under the most unrelenting pressure from the crown forces, they were able to sustain themselves.

“Operationally they fought in two theatres: urban and rural. The IRA changed urban warfare on a world basis. Other armed revolutionary organisations have borrowed the IRA’s tactics.
“In terms of where we are now, with the Peace Process and other huge shifts in strategy, the IRA was morally obliged to look at alternative options to continuing the war, especially if there was a viable alternative.

“I was sceptical and supportive in equal measure.

“There was no principle involved in my assessment. It was purely tactical. I had thought about alternatives in prison.

“As far as I was concerned, the IRA had to think about the best way forward, including an escalation of its operations in a more ruthless way.

“I’ve heard it argued that the IRA was too cautious in its operations against the British Establishment and the enemy exploited this caution.

“It would be wrong to assume that the IRA’s cessation in August 1994 was inevitable. It wasn’t. It came out of a particular, chosen path going back several years. It was the product of that chosen path.

“The IRA’s decision was undoubtedly difficult but it was fairly logical. It was well-debated at Army leadership level. All the alternatives were looked at: military and political. We had all the information that was needed to carry out the required assessment.

“The Army leadership was well aware of the Army’s capabilities in terms of its arms, structures and capacity to sustain its war. All of that was judged against the broad political mood, as you would expect.

“The questions were simple – the answers were more difficult.

“I can understand younger IRA Volunteers being unhappy with the twists and turns in the IRA’s strategy. If I was 40 years younger myself I might share their views. Thirty years ago I would not have considered the various changes.

“I would prefer we were somewhere else but we are not and that is it as far as I am concerned.
“Revolutionaries have to be pragmatic – wish lists are for Christmas.

“I can understand the widespread concerns by republicans about the manner in which the IRA handled its weaponry. But revolution is not about guns it is about intent.

“At a time of great change we need to constantly lay out the republican vision. We need to constantly remind people we are for ‘equality, liberty, fraternity’. We are against exploitation and inequality.

“Those who continue to use armed struggle need to hear that message. They also need to be faced with the consequences of their campaign. There is no revolutionary logic to their activities.
“But I’m not a prophet when it comes to the future use of armed struggle in this or any other country.

“Historians in 50 years’ time will tell us whether the right path was chosen or not.
“Of course mistakes have been made along the way, but we have to look to the opportunities that are there to move the struggle forward to reunification and independence.”