I saw a documentary the other day that brought the late Brian Keenan vividly back to the forefront of my memory.
Published: 22 August 2023
He’s not talked about much these days, for — as the driving force for decades of the IRA —he’s now an embarrassment to the Sinn Fein establishment.
Like their loyalist equivalents, violent republicans have had psychopaths aplenty among their numbers, but Keenan was top of the class.
Sean O’Callaghan, the terrorist who turned (unpaid) informer for the Gardaí, met him first in the mid-1970s. He described him as a “quasi-nationalist, Marxist militarist of extraordinary ability and charisma, energy and ruthlessness” who despite his atheism made common cause with Catholic militant nationalists who shared his belief in “physical force, gut nationalism and a hatred of Brits and unionists”.
Born in 1941, Keenan was in the IRA from 1968, subverting the civil rights movement, and from 1971 vital in establishing contacts and acquiring arms from sympathetic regimes, particularly Muammar Quaddafi’s Libya. By 1973, this engineer was quartermaster general of the whole Provisional IRA. On the army council a few years later, his intellectual abilities and single mindedness earned him the respect and often deference of colleagues.
He became the fanatics’ fanatic, sacrificing everybody, everything and himself to the cause: between 1968 and 1995 — whether he was in or out of gaol — his wife was abandoned to look after their six children.
He formed, for instance, a secret squad to bomb hotels in the Republic and claimed them for the UFF to heighten anti-unionist feeling.
Among the operations in the long list the authoritative Dictionary of Irish Biography attributes to him was masterminding the London-based IRA unit that became known as the Balcombe Street gang, which carried out over 50 attacks in 1974-5 that included six murders.
Keenan was the prime driver of the strategy of responding to loyalist violence by hitting back much harder and more savagely, as happened in 1976 in the Kingsmill machine-gun massacre of ten Protestant men coming home from work.
To boost the IRA’s international revolutionary credentials and demonstrate its effectiveness, he was heavily involved in planning the 1979 assassination of Lord Mountbatten.
And in spite of a 14-year stretch from 1980, there would be much else.
There have been no public showings yet in London, where I live, of Face Down, the new documentary that editor Ben Lowry reviewed here last week. But I was sent a link and have just watched it. It tells the shocking story of the IRA kidnapping and killing in 1973 of Thomas Niedermayer, the German boss of the Belfast Grundig factory where Catholics and Protestants worked together productively, and how this led remorselessly to four family suicides.
I cannot praise it enough. We have an unembroidered, heartrending story showing the ghastly reality of terrorism, and the torment victims go through. And for once an account of the commitment and hard work of RUC officers who did not give up until after years they found the victim’s body face down in a rubbish pit.
Keenan wanted a hostage to swap for the release of the Price sisters, imprisoned bombers of the Old Bailey. He had been a Grundig shop steward who was so aggressive that even the mild-mannered, kindly Niedermayer sometimes had to ask him to shop shouting and leave the room, so there was an element of personal vindictiveness in the choice of target. A bad man had it in for a good man.
The contributions from commentators including journalist Kevin Myers, reformed terrorist Shane Paul O’Doherty and ex-detective inspector William Matchett were superb. Essentially, Keenan was a psychopath, who would do anything to achieve his ends, and “wouldn’t give a fiddler’s fuck about victims”.
If interviewers are doing their duty, Mary Lou McDonald, who hopes to be taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, will be asked how she feels in retrospect about making speeches in 2003 in Dublin in tandem with this mass killer by the statue of Nazi sympathiser Sean Russell, who died on a U-boat in 1940. And why, in 2008, when the truth about Keenan was widely known, she carried his coffin.
Face Down has a few more days to run at the Queen’s Film Theatre, but should soon, I hope, be widely available.