Seán Mac Stíofáin (1928-2001) was an IRA commander, a founding member of the Provisional IRA and its first chief of staff.
Mac Stíofáin had an unusual background for an Irish Republican paramilitary. He was born John Stephenson in London, the son of Protestant parents. Stephenson claimed Irish ancestry on his mother’s side, though the validity of this is uncertain. He left school at 16, working as a labourer and converting to Catholicism. Stephenson also served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, working as a storeman. After the war, Stephenson became involved and obsessed with Irish Republicanism. He joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1949 and helped organise an IRA unit in London.
In 1953, Stephenson led a raid that stole rifles and mortars from a cadet school armoury in Essex. He was stopped randomly by police, arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison. Stephenson served more than three years behind bars, using this time to learn Irish Gaelic. Released in 1956, he married an Irish woman, moved to Dublin and changed his name to Seán Mac Stíofáin (the Gaelic form of his birth name).
Mac Stíofáin gradually ascended through the ranks of the IRA, becoming its director of intelligence. The outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 opened up divisions in the IRA over strategy and tactics. While Cathal Goulding and other leaders wanted to use violence carefully, Mac Stíofáin and his supporters urged open warfare with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).
In August 1969, Mac Stíofáin led a raid on the RUC station at Crossmaglen, in defiance of IRA orders. In December, Mac Stíofáin and four others formed a Provisional Army Council. This splinter group became the nucleus of the Provisional IRA.
Mac Stíofáin became the Provisional IRA’s first chief of staff. He also oversaw its rearming and the escalation of its military campaign in Northern Ireland. In July 1972, Mac Stíofáin represented the Provisional IRA in secret talks with the British government in London. When these talks collapsed he ordered an increase in Provisional IRA operations, beginning with the mass bombing of Belfast on July 21st 1972.
Mac Stíofáin remained in charge until November 1972, when a controversial television interview led to his arrest, imprisonment and removal from the Provisional IRA leadership. Mac Stíofáin was released the following year but was no longer prominent in the Provisional IRA. He spent the rest of the 1970s working for a Sinn Fein newspaper. Mac Stíofáin died in May 2001. His funeral was attended by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.