26 November 2005

Seán Mac Stíofáin


**This article is available for edit onsite. Of special interest is the archived radio interview in 'Sources'

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Seán Mac Stíofáin (17 February 1928- 18 May 2001) was an Irish republican and first chief of staff of the Provisional IRA.


Although he used the Gaelicised version of his name in later life, Mac Stíofáin was born an only child as John Edward Drayton Stephenson in Leytonstone, London in 1928. While his father was English, his mother was of Protestant Irish descent but born in Bethnal Green, London. Contrary to popular myth, Mac Stíofáin never claimed his mother came from Belfast, but that "her people" did. His Protestant Unionist great-grandmother was born in Belfast. Thus, Mac Stíofáin’s Irish ancestry was tenuous to say the least.

His childhood was marred by his alcoholic, wife-beating father. His mother, who doted over her son, died when Mac Stíofáin was only 10. Nevertheless, Mac Stíofáin (who was baptized a Roman Catholic, doubtless at the behest of his mother, despite the fact that neither of his parents was Catholic) attended Catholic schools, where he came into contact with pro-Sinn Féin Irish Catholic students.

He left school in 1944 at the age of 16 and worked in the building trade before being conscripted into the RAF to do his national service in 1945. He attained the rank of corporal. After leaving the RAF, he returned to London where he became increasingly involved with Irish organisations in Britain. He first joined Conradh na Gaeilge, then the Irish Anti-Partition League, bought (and later sold) the United Irishman, joined Sinn Féin in London and eventually in 1949 helped to organise a unit of the IRA. He first met his wife, Máire, who was from Castletownroche, County Cork, Ireland. Mac Stíofáin then began work for British Rail.

Joins IRA

On July 25, 1953, Mac Stíofáin took part in an IRA arms raid on the Officers_Training_Corps School at Felstead in County Essex. In that raid, the IRA netted over 108 rifles, ten Bren and eight Stem guns, two mortars and dummy mortar bombs. The British police seized the van carrying the stolen weapons some hours later and on 19 August 1953, he was sentenced along with Cahal (or Cathal) Goulding and Manus Canning, to eight years imprisonment by a court in Bishop's Stratford, Hertfordshire. In was in the run-up to the raid that Mac Stíofáin learned his first few words in Irish from Cathal Goulding. He later became fluent in the language, which he spoke with an English accent.

While incarcerated in Wormwood Scrubs and Brixton prisons, he learned not only a smattering of Greek from the Cypriot EOKA prisoners (he befriended Nikos Sampson) but some ideas on guerrilla warfare.

Upon parole in 1959, Mac Stíofáin went to the Republic of Ireland with his wife and young family and settled in Dublin, and later Navan, County Meath, and became known under the Irish version of his name. Contrary to a number of accounts, this was not his first visit to the country and he had been to Ireland a month before the Felstead raid in 1953. He worked as a salesman for an Irish language organisation. He remained active in the IRA and gave the Bodenstown oration in 1959. A staunch and lifelong devoted Catholic, he distrusted the left-wing political direction – underway from 1964 – his erstwhile friend and IRA chief of staff, Cathal Goulding, was bringing the IRA. Appointed IRA Director of Intelligence in 1966, Mac Stíofáin was in a position to oppose the Goulding line and prepare the ground in the event of a split in the organisation. He was prominent in agitations in Middleton against ground-rent landlordism and against foreign buy-outs of Irish farmland in County Meath where he moved with his family in 1966.

A tall, well-built man, Mac Stíofáin was regarded as a rather dour personality who did not drink or smoke. He was a devout Catholic and was infuriated by an article in the United Irishman, condemning the reciting of the Rosary at republican commemorations as "sectarian". For refusing to distribute the newspaper, he was suspended from the republican movement for six months. He was described by a former colleague as "a very rigid kind of person. He is not a person who thinks a lot. A courageous person in the physical sense, but at the same time not a person who has an accurate feeling about the situation in Ireland".

Leads the Provisional IRA

When an IRA Special Army Convention voted to drop the principle of abstentionism in December 1969, Mac Stíofáin was prominent in the breakaway faction that later became known as the Provisional IRA. Indeed, he was appointed the organisation’s first chief of staff. At the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Dublin on January 10, 1970, Mac Stíofáin declared from the podium that he pledged his "allegiance to the Provisional IRA" before leading the walkout of disgruntled members to form what would become Provisional Sinn Féin.

The split also ended Mac Stíofáin’s friendship with Cathal Goulding, who went on to serve as chief of staff of the rival Official IRA. Goulding was scathing about "that English Irishman".

According to Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, it was Seán Mac Stíofáin, as chief of staff of the Provisionals, who invented the name "P. Ó Néill". P. O'Neill is the name appended to IRA declarations to show that the statement is genuine.

Nicknamed 'Mac the Knife', Mac Stíofáin was a dedicated "physical force" republican, who believed that violence was the only means to bring about an end to British rule in Northern Ireland. In his autobiography, he set out the aims of the Provisional IRA as moving from "area defence" to "combined defence and retaliation" and then a "third phase of launching an all-out offensive action against the British occupation system". He also gave a detailed account of his development of the tactic of the "one shot sniper". He is said to have taken part in an unsuccessful attack on Crossmaglen RUC station in August 1969.

He disclaimed responsibility for the innocent civilian casualties of IRA actions by simply declaring: "It's a war". His military strategy was summed up in his own words by "escalate, escalate, escalate" and in 1972, by far the bloodiest year of the conflict, the IRA killed around 100 British soldiers and lost 90 of their own members.

On 7 July 1972, Mac Stíofáin led an IRA delegation to a secret meeting with members of the British government, led by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw, at Cheyne Walk in London. This was the Chelsea home of millionaire Tory minister, Paul Channon. Other IRA leaders in attendance were Dáithí Ó Conaill, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams, Seamus Twomey and Ivor Bell. Very much in charge, Mac Stíofáin spelled out the three basis demands of the Provisionals: (1) The future of Ireland to be decided by the people of Ireland acting as a unit; (2) a British government Declaration of Intent to withdraw from Ireland by January 1975 and (3) the unconditional release of all political prisoners.

The British claimed this was impossible owing to the commitment it had given to unionists. The talks ended in failure, and as a briefing for prime minister Edward Heath later noted, Whitelaw "found the experience of meeting and talking to Mr Mac Stíofáin very unpleasant". Mac Stíofáin said that Whitelaw put up his bluff exterior at first, but after a couple of minutes let it drop and showed himself to be a shrewd political operator; he also noted that Whitelaw was one of the few Englishmen to pronounce his name correctly.

Following the unsuccessful talks, Mac Stíofáin ordered an intensification of the IRA campaign which peaked on July 21, 1972, or Bloody Friday, when the IRA detonated 22 car bombs in less than two hours across Belfast, killing nine people and injuring 130. In his memoirs, Mac Stíofáin described the operation as "a concerted sabotage offensive" intended to demonstrate the IRA was capable of planting a large number of bombs at once.

At a meeting between British Prime Minister Ted Heath and Irish Taoiseach Jack Lynch in Munich on September 4, 1972, the former asked the latter if Mac Stíofáin could be arrested. In reply, Lynch said that he had disappeared and that the evidence against him was flimsy.

On November 19, 1972, a controversial interview with Mac Stíofáin was broadcast on the RTÉ This Week radio programme. He was arrested on the same day and the interview was later used as evidence against him on a trial of IRA membership and on November 25 he was sentenced to six months imprisonment by the Special Criminal Court in Dublin. Political fallout arising from the interview was considerable and some days later Fianna Fáil minister Gerry Collins sacked the entire RTÉ Authority.

Jailed in the Curragh Prison, Mac Stíofáin immediately embarked on a hunger and thirst strike. He was taken to the Dublin Mater_Hospital, from where an IRA unit, two of whom were disguised as priests, unsuccessfully tried to free him on November 26, 1972. Mac Stíofáin continued his hunger and thirst strike, which led to tumultuous scenes in Dublin and protests outside the Mater Hospital where he was visited by the then Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Dermot Ryan, and his predecessor, Dr. John Charles McQuaid.

Near to death after 57Citation needed days, he relented and took liquids, turning what had been expected by the republican leadership to become a major national protest into a farce. For "bringing the IRA into disrepute", he was then ordered off his protest by IRA Army Council members Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill. Under the IRA constitution, Mac Stíofáin lost his rank upon arrest and he never again regained his influence within the IRA after his release in April 1973. He was also thenceforth referred to in republican circles, when at all, by his birth name.

Subsequent Activities

Afterwards he was sidelined, and was given a job of distribution manager of the Provisional Sinn Féin newspaper An Phoblacht/Republican News in the late 1970s. He resigned from the party in 1981 after a disagreement about strategy at the Ard Fheis (annual convention), when a majority opposed the Éire Nua policy, which envisaged the setting up of regional governments in each of the traditional four provinces on the island.

In March 1983 Mac Stíofáin appealed to the IRA to declare a ceasefire.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Mac Stíofáin became active in the Irish language organisation Conradh na Gaeilge. At that organisation’s centenery celebration held in Dublin’s O'Connell_Street in 1993, he was a guest of honour on the platform. He remained a member of the standing committee (Coiste Gnó) of Conradh na Gaeilge until his death.


In 1993, Mac Stíofáin suffered a stroke. On May 18, 2001, he died in Our Lady’s Hospital, Navan, County Meath, after a long illness at the age of 73. He is buried in St Mary's Cemetery, Navan.

Despite his controversial career in the IRA, many of his former comrades (and rivals) paid tribute to him after his death. Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, who attended the funeral, issued a glowing tribute, referring to Mac Stíofáin as an "outstanding IRA leader during a crucial period in Irish history" and as the "man for the job" as first Provisional IRA Chief of Staff. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness also attended. In her oration, Ita Ní Chionnaigh of Conradh na Gaeilge, whose flag draped the coffin, lambasted Mac Stíofáin’s "character assassination" by the "gutter press" and praised him as a man who had been "interested in the rights of men and women and people anywhere in the world who were oppressed, including Irish speakers in Ireland, who are also oppressed".

A number of former EOKA members also attended his funeral.

In 2001, Sunday Times journalist Liam Clarke claimed Mac Stíofáin was an informer on dissident republicans for the Garda Siochána from 1969. According to Clarke, Mac Stíofáin’s former Special Branch handler, the late Hugh McNeilis, claimed that: "I think he was doing it because he wanted to get rid of certain people."


Mac Stíofáin, Seán, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, London (Gordon Cremonesi), 1975.



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