South Armagh bade farewell to former IRA commander Brian Keenan yesterday [Thursday] before he began his final journey back to his native Belfast.

Cullyhanna came to a standstill as hundreds of people gathered to remember the 67-year-old who died on Wednesday following a battle with cancer.

Under heavy rain, mourners filed into the border village and stood in virtual silence awaiting the body of Keenan to be removed from his family home.

All roads leading into Cullyhanna were manned by dozens of men who directed mourners to nearby car parks ahead of a service in honour of the veteran republican.

He spent much of his more than 40 years of marriage either on the run or in prison. In the last few years of his life, the west Belfast man had made Cullyhanna his home with his wife Chrissie as he battled with illness.

His devotion to south Armagh was reflected yesterday in the large number of people who gathered to say goodbye to a man they regarded as a “republican icon”.

The short service allowed residents in Cullyhanna an opportunity to pay their final respects to Keenan before his remains were taken to Belfast where he will be cremated tomorrow [Saturday].

Shortly after 12 noon Keenan’s body began the short journey from his St Patrick’s Park home to the village’s Michael McVerry monument to the sound of a lone piper.

Dozens of republicans wearing white shirts and black ties flanked the coffin which was draped in the Irish tricolour and Keenan’s gloves and beret.

Family and friends took it in turns to carry the coffin before it was laid at the monument.

Leading Sinn Féin politicians Conor Murphy and Pat Doherty and several party councillors were among the many mourners.

A member of the Keenan family laid a wreath at the monument before leading south Armagh republican Sean Hughes paid a warm tribute to a “man of great wisdom and vision”.

“Brian is a republican icon known the length and breath of this island and further afield,” he said.

“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, a revolutionary through and through, an inspirational leader.”

Mr Hughes added that Keenan had “maintained a strong connection” with south Armagh and “built up many close friendships which have continued until this day”.

In a final tribute to their friend, residents of Cullyhanna followed quietly behind his coffin as it made its way out of the village for the last time.

During negotiations leading up to both IRA ceasefires and then later the signing of the Good Friday Agreement Keenan was constantly consulted as to what the IRA was prepared to deliver.

He would later admit that he was at times sceptical of the where the process was going.

“The IRA was morally obliged to look at alternative options to continuing the war, especially if there was a viable alternative,” he said.

“I was sceptical and supportive in equal measure.

“There was no principle in-volved in my assessment. It was purely tactical. I had thought about alternatives in prison. Thirty years ago I would not have considered the various changes.”

His support for the peace process was clear-eyed and untainted. Keenan was a senior member of the IRA army council that called an end to the organisation’s first cessation with the 1996 bombing of London’s dockland area.

The bombs forced the British government to the negotiating table and signalled a turning point in the peace process. He later said he regretted the IRA had not the capacity to mount such attacks in the seventies, suggesting lives would have been saved.

In his last interview before his death the IRA leader said the process was less than ideal.

“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.”

However, Keenan’s general endorsement of the Sinn Féin peace strategy was crucial in securing the support of the IRA leadership for the process.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness paid tribute to Mr Keenan.

“I am deeply saddened by the death of my friend Brian Keenan,” he said.

“I was overjoyed that Brian was able to be with us in Stormont on May 8 last year to see the restoration of the power-sharing and all-Ireland institutions.

“This would not have happened without his hugely important contribution.”

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