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Friday, 18 May, 2001, 15:44 GMT 16:44 UK
Sean MacStiofain: Londoner who led the IRA

Sean MacStiofain: Changed his name from John Stephenson
Memories of Sean MacStiofain's part in the Provisional IRA were revived only two months ago when it was reported that the tribunal investigating the events of Bloody Sunday were considering asking him to give evidence.

Senior legal sources said the inquiry was exploring the possibility that MacStiofain, apart from being the IRA's chief of staff, was also the Provisionals' commanding officer in Derry in January, 1972, when British paratroops shot dead 13 Catholic protesters.

Although he was born John Stephenson at Leytonstone, in east London, Sean MacStiofain said he always considered himself to be Irish.

He did not get on well with his father, a solicitor's clerk, but readily accepted the views of his mother, who was from Belfast.

I'm Irish, therefore you're Irish....Don't forget it

MacStiofain's mother
She died when he was 10, but he vividly recalled her instruction three years earlier: "I'm Irish, therefore you're Irish....Don't forget it".

He never did, despite being brought up in England.

He left school at 16 to work in the building trade, but spent his spare time mixing with Irish exiles in North London dance halls and reading Irish history.

In 1945, he was conscripted into the Royal Air Force, serving as a storeman, and when he was sent to Jamaica, he saw not the beauty of a tropical isle but what he described as the "racism and poverty" of the British colonial system.

When he returned to London he married and became heavily involved with Irish political groups.

One night, he crept up to Pentonville prison and painted the words "Roger Casement died for Ireland" on the walls, in memory of the Irish patriot.

Failed raid

MacStiofain joined the Irish republican movement's English organisation, the United Irishmen, but was jailed in the early 1950s when, along with two other IRA men, he was caught in a failed arms raid on a British Army barracks in Essex.

MacStiofain served eight years in Wormwood Scrubs prison.

In 1966, he was appointed the IRA's director of intelligence, and when the IRA split in the early days of the Northern Ireland violence, he aligned himself with the younger, Belfast-based element.

At the annual Sinn Fein convention in January, 1970, the split with the Official IRA was formalised, and MacStiofain became the Provisionals' chief-of-staff.

As the violence intensified, many Catholic families fled their homes because of Loyalist violence, but MacStiofain said it was internment that persuaded the Provisionals' army council to adopt offensive action.

In 1972, MacStiofain was a member of the delegation which had a secret meeting in London with the Northern Ireland Secretary, William Whitelaw, but within months, he was in Dublin's Mountjoy prison after being charged with IRA membership.

He began a hunger strike, but when he ended his fast after 57 days, his authority, built on a reputation for toughness and dedication, was severely damaged in the eyes of republicans.

Martin McGuinness, once the IRA's second-in-command in Londonderry, said of MacStiofain: "He thought everyone in Dublin should be dancing attendance on him. He served a purpose up until 1972, but it was clear by then he had no long-term future in the movement".

When he left prison, MacStiofain was reprimanded and replaced in March, 1973, by Seamus Twomey.

He resigned from Sinn Fein in 1981 when the Party abandoned its federal Ireland policy.

It was the end of a lifetime's ambition for John Stephenson, aka Sean MacStiofain.

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18 May 01 | Northern Ireland
Former IRA leader dies
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