Monday 20 May 2019

The Trocaire chief who changed how we think about third world aid

John Cooney

Brian McKeown, who has died aged 70, was the first director of Trocaire, the Irish Catholic Church's Third World development agency which has become internationally renowned for championing social justice and human rights.

Born in February 1939 in a Catholic enclave close to the Protestant Loyalist stronghold of Belfast's Tiger Bay, McKeown was educated at St Malachy's College before volunteering for missionary work with the Legion of Mary in Sierra Leone.

It was in this west African former British colony that the fun-loving but serious-minded young McKeown was confronted with structural poverty and political oppression.

This made him question the Irish Church's traditional policy of using foreign aid as pious charity or religious evangelisation. Influenced by Pope Paul VI's groundbreaking 1967 encyclical letter, The Development of Peoples, which called for Catholics to respond to injustices occurring all round the world, he returned to Belfast to study for a diploma in social studies.

At Queen's University, he met and fell in love with Gari whom he married after being appointed as assistant secretary general to CIDSE, an alliance of Catholic development organisations from Europe and North America, based in Brussels. In the Belgian capital, the couple met Cardinal William Conway, a Belfast man from the Falls Road, who was planning to establish a new overseas aid agency in line with papal thinking. In the small frame of the cigarette-smoking and whiskey drinking McKeown, "Big Bill" found the professional he was searching for to head the fledgling agency.

A pastoral letter scripted by McKeown in the name of the Bishops of Ireland for the launch of Trocaire -- the Irish word for compassion -- defined its two-fold aims: "Abroad, it will give whatever help lies within its resources to the areas of greatest need among the developing counties. At home, it will try to make us all more aware of the needs of these countries and of our duties towards them. These duties are no longer a matter of charity but of simple justice."

As chief executive, the casually dressed McKeown, who looked like a diminutive Che Guevara, found himself working with Trocaire's chairman, Bishop Eamonn Casey, whose flamboyant life-style resembled that of a chairman of the British Tory party.

In spite of resistance from conservative Catholics and politicians wedded to the old gospel of charity, this odd couple hit it off ideologically as they extended Trocaire's mission of mercy around the globe. Irrespective of religion, politics or race, Trocaire entered partnership agreements with similar radically-minded bodies. An early project was the building of a hospital for children in communist Hanoi, ravaged by American bombs in the Vietnam War.

A highpoint in McKeown's crusading career came in 1984 during a visit by US President Ronald Reagan, during which the Church hierarchy boycotted a state banquet at Dublin Castle in Reagan's honour in protest against the US government's interventionist policies in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The absence of the Catholic bishops from the Reagan festivities was no coincidence.

They supported the Trocaire leadership of Casey and McKeown by showing solidarity with the oppressed and voiceless people of El Salvador and Nicaragua. Viewed in the context of earlier decades of emigration by millions of Irish to the Land of the Free, this was an extraordinary, if not revolutionary gesture by Maynooth.

This remarkable shift to the left was a direct result of the sea-change in attitudes piloted by Casey and McKeown that was enthusiastically supported by Irish missionaries throughout the Irish spiritual empire, from the Philippines to Liberia.

Through McKeown's far-seeing policy of allocating 20pc of Trocaire's budget to educate Irish schools and parishes in the causes of poverty in developing countries, a grass-roots reformation was under way. Alas, within a decade, the unlikely partnership of McKeown and Casey broke up in the wake of the revelation that Bishop Casey had fathered a child with American divorcee Annie Murphy.

After Bishop Casey fled to the missions in disgrace, a distraught McKeown gracefully retired from the headship of his cherished Trocaire and founded a human rights body to continue his fight for social justice in Togo, Sierra Leone, Croatia, and the Congo. Present at McKeown's funeral Mass on Tuesday were Michael D Higgins and Nora Owen, both witnesses to how Trocaire converted them to the Third World cause.

In glowing tributes, the present heads of Trocaire, Justin Kilcullen and Bishop John Kirby, saluted the radical life-long commitment of McKeown -- who, according to his eldest son Tim, was a man "cast iron in his principles". When Brian received the highest papal honour as a Knight of St Gregory, he did so only on condition that he was accompanied by his beloved Gari and his four children -- Tim, Sally-Anne, Rory, and Jaime.

The full story of the life of Brian McKeown demands to be told.

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