Thursday 21 June 2018

Flashback 1973: IRA Chief of Staff Sean Mac Stiofáin released

This weekend 43 years ago, IRA Chief of Staff Sean Mac Stiofáin was released from the Curragh Military Detention Centre

Enigmatic: IRA Chief of Staff Sean Mac Stiofáin on his release from the Curragh, April 16, 1973. Photo: NPA/Independent Collection.
Enigmatic: IRA Chief of Staff Sean Mac Stiofáin on his release from the Curragh, April 16, 1973. Photo: NPA/Independent Collection.

Ger Siggins

The release of IRA Chief of Staff Sean Mac Stiofáin from the Curragh Military Detention Centre in April 1973 marked the end of an era for the enigmatic Englishman who rose to lead the terrorist organisation. It was standard procedure for an IRA member to lose his rank upon arrest, but the farcical nature of the hunger strike he undertook in prison during his six month sentence was deeply embarrassing to the Republican movement and he never again held a position of influence.

Arrested on IRA membership charges, Mac Stiofáin had tested the resolve of Jack Lynch's government by announcing he would go on hunger and thirst strike. "I will die in six days", he dramatically claimed. Visits by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Ryan, and his predecessor, John Charles McQuaid added to the pressure on the Taoiseach.

But a prison warder in the Curragh Military Hospital was suspicious that Mac Stiofáin was taking frequent showers and peeked into the cubicle. He saw the IRA chief with his head raised, drinking water from the shower head. The story was leaked to the papers and Mac Stiofáin humiliated.

He had never been popular in Republican circles, the hardliner with the southern English accent who refused to consider change when revolutionary ideas were being proposed, was seen to be toying with notions of martyrdom by hunger strike, a heinous crime in a movement enslaved to its own necrology.

After 57 days, the IRA Army Council ordered him to cease his strike amid claims that he brought the organisation into disrepute.

The late Cathal Goulding, who spent six years in jail with Mac Stiofáin in the 1950s, was scathing about 'that English Irishman'.

"Seán's problem," he told a journalist, "is that he spends all his time going around trying to prove to everybody that he's as Irish as they are, and in the IRA he had to show that he was more violent than the rest. He's too narrow, doesn't understand politics as such, and believes physical force is the only answer."

Born John Edward Drayton Stephenson, to an English father and a mother whose roots were in Protestant East Belfast, he befriended Irish Republicans in school.

He served in the RAF after the second world war, and later became involved in Irish organisations in London such as Conradh na Gaeilge. He took part in an IRA raid on a public school in Essex in 1953 which yielded more than 100 guns. However, the raiders had been greedy and the getaway van so overloaded that it couldn't get above 20mph and caused a traffic backlog.

Stephenson, and Goulding, were sentenced to eight years in prison. On his release in 1959 he and his wife, Máire, moved to Cork and later Navan, where he adopted the Irish version of his name. He deepened his IRA involvement and he became uneasy at the left-ward drift of the movement in the 1960s, becoming bitterly opposed to Goulding and others. Deeply conservative, he was suspended from the IRA for refusing to sell one of its publications because of an article condemning the reciting of the rosary at commemorations as "sectarian".

He became director of intelligence, and later chief of staff, a post he held from 1969 to 1972, overseeing the outbreak of the Troubles, atrocities such as Bloody Friday, and the IRA split. He later told how he addressed the 1970 Sinn Fein ard fheis: "I walked to the microphone and said 'I pledge my allegiance to the provisional IRA.' Now it's time to go."

On his release from prison in April 1973 he was sidelined by the Provos, and given a job as distribution manager and occasional columnist in An Phoblacht.

He resigned from Sinn Féin in 1982 and later became active in Irish language activism. He died, aged 73, in 2001, and was hailed by SF president Gerry Adams as having played a "leading role" in the Republican struggle.

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