Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams delivered the graveside oration at the funeral of the former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, Kevin McKenna, who passed away earlier in the week at the age of 74. In his address, Mr Adams hailed Mr McKenna as “a republican soldier who had the politics to know when to fight, and the political vision to know when to talk”.
From Brantry, near Dungannon, County Tyrone, Mr McKenna lived quietly in Smithborough, County Monaghan since the mid 1970s. He played a key role in bringing the armed struggle of the Provisional IRA to an end as part of the peace process of the 1990s. Until his death earlier this week following a short illness, he continued to support the evolution of Sinn Féin into mainstream party politics.
Family friend and Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP, Michelle Gildernew described him as “totally wedded” to the peace process in the north of Ireland. “I knew Kevin really well and to me he was a man of courage, a man who played an active part in republican politics and showed great leadership for decades,” she said.
Former neighbour and fellow Tyrone republican Gerry McGeough paid his respects: “Even though there has been a parting of the ways politically among many republicans in Tyrone most would agree that the sacrifices he and his family made during some of the toughest years of the conflict were considerable and no-one can take that commitment and dedication away from him.”
A large crowd attended his funeral at St Mary’s Church, Magherarney in County Monaghan on Thursday. Dozens of men dressed in white shirts and black ties formed a guard of honour and flanked the coffin, which was draped in a tricolour, a beret and gloves.
Among those who attended the funeral were a large number of Sinn Féin politicians as well as the widow and son of the late Sinn Féin leader, Martin McGuinness.
Chief celebrant Father Joe McVeigh praised Mr McKenna’s role in the peace process. The last time he had seen him, he said, had been at Mr McGuinness’s funeral in Derry in March 2017.
“His presence reminded me how these two men had worked together to bring about a just and a lasting peace in Ireland,” he said.
Speaking at the graveside, former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams described Mr McKenna as a patriot who in 1970 chose to return from Canada to join the IRA.
“Among the rolling hills of Tyrone, and the narrow laneways, the villages and the roads of that historic county, Kevin and his comrades relentlessly and defiantly fought the British Army,” he said.
“The British Army didn’t have a chance of defeating the spirit, centuries old, of an indomitable people, with character, and the culture, and the history and the sense of freedom as old as Ireland.”
He described Mr McKenna as “a decent man doing his best in very difficult times”.
“The republican people of the north never went to war,” he added. “The war came to us. I’m mindful of those who have been hurt, and there has been hurt on all sides and healing and reconciliation is needed, but the war is over.
“The future is being written now, and as we help to write that future we will not let the past be written in a way which demonises patriots like Kevin McKenna any more than we would the generations before them.
“I think the men and women of 1916 were right,” Gerry Adams added. “I think the H-Block hunger strikers were right. I think Kevin McKenna was right. I think the IRA was right, not in everything that it did, but it was right to fight when faced with the armed aggression of British rule.”
Referring to Kevin McKenna’s involvement in the first ceasefire of the Provisional IRA in 1994, Mr Adams also said that it had been right to make peace.
“This August marks 25 years from the first IRA cessation, it was an initiative created by republicans which opened up the potential for the peace process.
“Kevin had the courage to make the big decisions with others during the conflict, and he was also was one of those who had the courage to make the big and difficult decisions during the effort to make peace,” he said.
Mr Adams also said that the “big challenges” of today should not be understated: “Even as we gathered here today the so-called United Kingdom is disunited. Yes, we have quarrels to settle with our unionist neighbours and yes, partition remains, but republican Ireland remains also; resolute, unbowed, undefeated and looking to the future.”
He said that while it was “the nature of things that the part played by republicans like Kevin during the long years of war will never be known”, he described Mr McKenna as “the real deal: a decent, honest republican who saw off Thatcher and her ilk and brought the British government to the negotiating table.
“There was no peaceful way to end the union and to build a new united Ireland. Thanks to your efforts, Kevin, and the efforts of many others there is now a growing debate about a new Ireland and a referendum on Irish unity, and thanks to your efforts there is a pathway towards unity. Our duty is to complete that journey.”
Fermanagh Sinn Féin councillor Chris McCaffrey said Mr McKenna should be recognised “for what he did to sell the ceasefire to hardline IRA members”.
He added: “Thank you Kevin for the sacrifice you made, for the sacrifices your family made, and for your leadership throughout some of the darkest days of the conflict. Laoch de na laochra na hÉireann [Hero of the heroes of Ireland].”
* There were also tributes this week to former civil rights leader Ivan Cooper. Sinn Féin MP Elisha McCallion expressed her condolences. “Ivan Cooper, along with others, played an important role in the Civil Rights campaign in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” she said. “He stood up with others and challenged an unjust and unfair system of apartheid and discrimination. My thoughts and sympathies are with his family and friends at this time.”