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Brian Keenan speaks at the Sinn Fein conference in N.Y.

Writer Brian Keenan says imagination is key in Northern Irish politics

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Brian Keenan speaks at the Sinn Fein conference in N.Y.

Gerry Adams' thoughts on a united Ireland, from the Sinn Fein conference in N.Y.: Click here

Niall O'Dowd: Game plan for a united Ireland: Click here

Photo gallery of the Sinn Fein conference: Click here

What can a writer add to political dialogue? A lot, it was clear, when Brian Keenan spoke at the Sinn Fein conference in the Hilton on Saturday.

“I’m not a historian, I’m not a politician, I’m not an expert of demographics,” Keenan said, standing before the large crowd. “But I want to tell you some stories. Stories about desire for belonging.”

The situation in Northern Ireland makes everyone feel displaced, Protestant and Catholic alike, Keenan suggested. If there is to be a united Ireland, it should be one that all groups feel they belong equally to.

Brian Keenan grew up in a liberal Protestant household, and his family was not particularly religious. The son of working class parents, he put himself through college and became an English professor. He accepted a job at the American University of Beirut, and it was there, in 1986, that he was kidnapped. He was held captive for four-and-a-half years.

But it was his childhood in Belfast that was relevant at the Sinn Fein conference on Saturday. He recalled how a Catholic neighbor, John Price, was bullied by local kids, and how those same children beat him up when he tried to defend Price. And he had several other stories of conflict and tension to tell.

Keenan’s father was in the Orange Order, and he joined too – or, as he puts it, “I was joined into the Orange Order” by a neighbor, and he remained in the group for six months. But he soon left because it was boring. “I was 10!” he told IrishCentral after his speech.

The stories that he told on the podium at the Hilton may not have been underpinned by demographics or theory but they touched a chord.

Afterwards, as he tried to escape to the bar for a pint with his friend Terry Anderson, former Associated Press bureau chief who was also held hostage in Lebanon, he was stopped again and again by people who wanted to thank him for his talk.

So why did Keenan, a Protestant by upbringing, speak at a Sinn Fein gathering?

“I was asked to do it,” he said. “And I thought, how could I do this? I needed to speak with a voice that isn’t normally heard. What we have in Northern Ireland now is a badly hobbled together thing,” he continued. “The issue is not about a united Ireland. It’s about imagination.”

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