By Jack Holland
Sean MacStiofain, one of the founders of the Provisional IRA and its first chief of staff, died Thursday in a hospital near his County Navan home after a long illness. He was 73 and had suffered from a series of strokes over the years.
MacStiofain, along with Daithi O Conaill, Ruairi O Bradaigh and Billy McKee, was an influential figure in the early days of the Provisional IRA, formed in December 1969 as Northern Ireland erupted into civil and sectarian violence.
MacStiofain was a controversial figure. He was an Englishman, born John Stephenson, in Leytonstone in East London in 1928, to a mother of Irish extraction and an English father. His mother died when he was 10. As John Stephenson he joined the RAF in 1945, rising to the rank of corporal.
He spent a lot of time with Irish exiles in London, identifying strongly with Irish history and language, which he learned to speak. He joined militant republicans planning to launch the border campaign and took part in an arms raid in Essex in 1953. He was caught along with Cathal Goulding and Manus Canning after stealing arms from an officers training corps armory. On release he moved to Ireland to live with his Cork-born wife, Mary.
In the aftermath of the failed border campaign (1956-62), MacStiofain became a spokesman for the more militant republican faction, which for years chaffed under the left-wing policies of the Cathal Goulding leadership. In 1966, he became head of IRA intelligence. In 1968, with the rise of the civil rights movement, he protested that "the Irish Republican Army had been bogged down in politics to the point where young girl students from Northern universities had left it far behind in revolutionary initiative."
In the split that followed, MacStiofain vowed to supply the embattled Belfast republicans with weapons, winning their support. He also promised an offensive when the time was right, convinced that the Provisionals could force the British army to withdraw by inflicting relatively few fatalities.
As chief of staff, he saw the Provisionals grow in numbers, and oversaw the civilian bombing campaign which was to cost dozens of innocent lives during 1972, the most violent year of the conflict. However, controversy remains as to how much actual control he had over the Northern units. According to McKee, who was leader of the Belfast IRA in 1971, MacStiofain "knew nothing about what was going on in the North." Along with other IRA leaders, MacStiofain took part in secret talks with the British government in July 1972, but they failed to advance a settlement of the conflict.
He was arrested in Dublin in 1972 and went on hunger strike, which he called off early the following year. By then, he had been removed as chief of staff. The rest of his life he was on the sidelines of the republican movement. In 1978, he was approached by the Irish National Liberation Army to become its chief of staff, but after six or seven meetings the plans fell through. He worked on the Provisionals’ newspaper, An Phoblacht, before withdrawing from the movement completely in the early 1980s.