Belfast Telegraph

William Matchett on Blood Brothers Kevin McKenna and Martin McGuinness

Former IRA chief of staff Kevin McKenna, who was buried yesterday, was responsible for more than 1,200 murders, many of them committed during a bitter power struggle with his 'comrade' Martin McGuinness

Kevin McKenna (pictured) and Martin McGuinness were rivals in the Provisional IRA
Kevin McKenna (pictured) and Martin McGuinness were rivals in the Provisional IRA
Martin McGuinness
Sean O’Callaghan, a former IRA man who turned informant

By William Matchett

The head of southern command was summoned to see his boss. Two men in a rowing boat. Silence from they met in a quiet car park until they reached the middle of a Monaghan lake. Then, the senior figure whispered instructions in code.

I asked my friend, who was recalling an encounter with Provisional IRA chief of staff Kevin McKenna: "What did he say?" The reply: "No f*****g idea."

McKenna was not a man you asked to repeat himself.

It is one of the last conversations I had with Sean O'Callaghan, a repentant ex-IRA leader, who came to detest the Provisionals, particularly the bigotry.

By the summer of 1982, the Provisionals embarked on a different path. The hunger strikes of 1981 had, by design, created the opportunity for Provisional Sinn Fein to enter electoral politics. This was a seismic shift, unthinkable under the Provisional IRA's first chief of staff, Sean MacStiofain, who, in 1969, led an organisation based on a strategy of military victory unifying Ireland; "Brits out" the rally cry; "armed struggle" the means; indiscriminate sectarian murder, what it looked like.

Sectarian violence ensured communal division and a small base. Several northerners in the early-Seventies, who held the post, had their time cut short by going to prison. During this period, the Provisionals were restructured and strategy revised. To counter constant changeover at the top, a new permanent leadership was set up, safely distanced from the fight.

The very top Provisionals knew a campaign of violence would fail, particularly once the state and its intelligence attack got up to full speed. The purpose of violence was leverage in the inevitable peace deal that would facilitate the Provisionals' entry into politics. They could not tell the organisation, or, at least, not straight out and not straight away.

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"Volunteers" and supporters needed conditioned in stages to the prospect that the end-result of "armed struggle" is not Brits out and to make it look that the change happened organically.

The first and most important stage was announcing the "Armalite and ballot paper" strategy after the 1981 hunger strikes. This began the transition from terrorism to politics that would culminate in tricolour-decked black taxis on the Falls Road being hailed as victory. As grand illusions go, it was masterful.

To get to the desired end-state, initial success at the polls was vital. Owen Carron replaced Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone; a council seat was won in Carrickmore. But the big test - Provisional Sinn Fein standing in a province-wide election - was yet to come.

In October 1981, it did. Elections to a new putative power-sharing Stormont, which failed to materialise, saw Provisional Sinn Fein win 10% of the vote.

This stunned the media and Irish political establishment and buoyed men like Martin McGuinness. He was desperate to stand in that poll. He knew he had strong support in Londonderry to win a seat and such was the level of post-hunger strike nationalist anger in the city that he might even give John Hume a scare.

McGuinness's problem was that he was Provisional IRA chief of staff. Most of the seven-man Provisional Army Council railed at the thought of the Provisional IRA's top dog holding a seat at Stormont, even on an abstentionist ticket. The vast majority at the very top were just "soldiers", as they preferred to describe themselves. That is, they had no political role in Provisional Sinn Fein.

McGuinness was one of very few exceptions. Most favoured someone purely dedicated to the Provisional IRA and nothing else. To pursue his political ambitions, McGuinness was forced to give up the chief of staff position.

The next chief of staff-but-one was Kevin McKenna. Rivalries at leadership level were rife. It was particularly intense between McGuinness and McKenna and the vying between them to be top dog.

For his part, McKenna, a private, publicity-shy figure, resented constant media reports that McGuinness was the real chief of staff. His annoyance was aggravated by McGuinness, one of the most media-savvy Provisional leaders, doing little to discourage that impression.

Conversely, McGuinness, head of northern command, harboured ambitions to get his old job back, especially when the Libyan arms deal was struck with Gaddafi. If there was to be a spectacular Provisional IRA "Tet" offensive to grab headlines, McGuinness wanted to be interviewed on screen and known all over the world as the brains behind it and the man who led it. He wanted to be Provisional IRA chief of staff. And McKenna stood in his way.

By late-1985, McKenna had been chief of staff for two years, but already there had been bitter clashes between him and McGuinness at leadership meetings.

At one Provisional Army Council meeting, McGuinness launched such a powerful and withering assault on McKenna's stewardship of the Provisional IRA that it seemed as if the chief of staff might be forced to offer his resignation. Only the intervention of the infamous commander of south Armagh, the Provisional IRA's fiercest and most effective brigade, largely responsible for the Provisionals' "ace card" - bombs in England - stood up for McKenna and stopped that happening.

The bitter rivalry was full of unspoken menace and danger for both. Each surreptitiously sowed suspicion of the other being a "tout". In republicanism, there is no greater insult. The rivalry resulted in extreme Provisional IRA actions that would not have otherwise happened. People died, often in horrifying circumstances, to prove each man's unquestionable loyalty to the organisation.

The casualties, like the hunger strikers, were collateral damage in a dirty game at the very top, passed off as furthering a common cause when, in reality, it was furthering the selfish ambitions of individuals.

None of this means that McKenna was an informer. Rather, it indicates that he was terrified of being labelled one and that if he failed to act to clear his name, his arch-rival would triumph. If that happened, McKenna's Provisional IRA career was over. It would have been too clouded with suspicion. The same applied to McGuinness.

As it was, the introvert McKenna outmanoeuvred the extrovert McGuinness. McGuinness never got to oust the Tyrone man as chief of staff. McKenna held the role until he was replaced in 1997 by his faithful ally in the south Armagh Provisional IRA.

Ultimately, both prospered. McGuinness became Deputy First Minister and McKenna, as chief of staff for 15 years, made the most of Libyan largesse in bolstering cross-border Provisional IRA brigades.

Under him, republican violence was responsible for 1,225 murders, including 36 alleged informers. Career "highlights": Brighton bombing (1984), that nearly killed a prime minster; Enniskillen bombing (1987), that kept sectarian tensions boiling; and attacks in London (Baltic Exchange 1993, Docklands 1996), aimed at crippling the economy.

Finishing the chat, Sean O'Callaghan recalled an episode he could not forget. In 1975, he was in a safe house with a group of "volunteers", all of them men, when they were told of a woman police officer killed by the Provisional IRA. One of them told the rest: "I hope she was pregnant and we got two Prods for the price of one."

That man was Kevin McKenna.

Dr William R Matchett is the author of Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that Beat the IRA. He is a senior researcher at the Edward M Kennedy Institute for Conflict Prevention at Maynooth University

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