Mac Stiofáin, Seán (1928–2001), republican paramilitary, was born John Edward Drayton Stephenson in South Leyton, Essex, on 17 February 1928, only child of Edward George Stephenson, political agent, and his wife, Lilian Mary (formerly Brown, née Newland), of 81 Maryville Road, Leytonstone. According to Mac Stiofáin his mother told him she was Irish and never to forget that this made him Irish too. Some accounts suggest that her Irish roots were retrospectively invented by her son; she had three daughters by an earlier marriage. Although his mother was a protestant and his father (also allegedly of Irish descent) an atheist, he was baptised as a catholic at the age of seven. He attended a catholic school in Islington, which produced his first contacts with the London Irish community. His mother died in February 1939, and on the outbreak of war he was evacuated to the countryside; this completed his alienation from his father, who had a drink problem (and subsequently remarried). He returned to London in 1942, worked in factories and on building sites, and collected books on Ireland. In November 1945 he joined the Royal Air Force. He spent 1946 in Jamaica (witnessing the poverty and subjugation of the non-white population), was sent back to Britain at the beginning of 1947, and was discharged in December 1948. He became a self-employed builder and repairer, a teetotaller and non-smoker.
Early in 1949 Mac Stiofáin joined the Gaelic League; soon afterwards he met Máire Casey from Castletownroche, Co. Cork, at an Irish club. They married in October 1949 and had three daughters. Mac Stiofáin joined the Anti-Partition League but, realising that it was hobbled by the Irish government, he resigned in June 1949. He accepted the Sinn Féin view of the southern state as neo-colonial (a belief reinforced by the cynical and lukewarm response to his brand of patriotism among emigrants in London and on visits to his wife's relatives in Ireland). He joined a republican front organisation, and towards the end of 1949 became commanding officer of a revived IRA unit in London. Mac Stiofáin claimed that his dislike of communists as opportunists and authoritarians derived from this time, though he considered himself, in vaguely defined terms, a ‘Connolly socialist’.
In June 1953 Mac Stiofáin was arrested with Cathal Goulding (qv) and Manus Canning after stealing guns from the armoury of a school cadet force in Felstead, Essex; they were sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. In Wormwood Scrubs and Brixton prison Mac Stiofáin studied accountancy, befriended imprisoned Greek Cypriot guerrillas of the EOKA organisation, and learned Irish and Greek. On his release at the beginning of 1959 he moved to Co. Cork, where his wife and family now lived; he re-joined the IRA (opposing calls to end the border campaign) and worked as a fund-raiser for Irish-language organisations. In 1966 the Mac Stiofáins moved to Navan, Co. Meath, after he was appointed fund-raiser for an organisation linked to the GAA. In 1962 Mac Stiofáin became a member of the IRA army council and from 1966 he was director of intelligence, establishing extensive IRA contacts in Northern Ireland; he also opposed proposals to abolish abstentionism. His genuine skills as an organiser and fund-raiser coexisted with the view that military organisation and activity must remain predominant.
Although Mac Stiofáin campaigned on such issues as the sale to property speculators of the Midleton estate in Co. Cork, he saw Cathal Goulding and his advisers as preaching a doctrinaire ultra-leftism that was blind to Irish realities. In 1964 he was suspended for six months for refusing to distribute an issue of the party paper criticising the recitation of the rosary at republican commemorations as sectarian. These divisions were crystallised by the perceived failure of the Goulding leadership to respond to growing disturbances in Northern Ireland. In August 1969 Mac Stiofáin oversaw IRA units on the border and participated in an attack on Crossmaglen RUC station, Co. Armagh. When the Provisional IRA was founded in December 1969 Mac Stiofáin became its first chief of staff; he led the abstentionist walkout from the Sinn Féin ard fheis on 11 January 1970. His dour and uncompromising manner (for a time he wore an eye patch, apparently due to an injury sustained from a letter bomb) made him the visible face of the increasingly indiscriminate IRA campaign; his noticeable cockney accent led to accusations that he was a pseudo-Irish fantasist or an English communist infiltrator. Mac Stiofáin's piety (he recorded the consolation he received from his faith during his imprisonment) produced accusations of bigotry from Official Sinn Féin and some younger Provisionals, symbolised in retrospect by his refusal to allow the use of condoms in bomb making (this also reflected the fear of propaganda repercussions if IRA men were found with them).
Within Provisional Sinn Féin, Mac Stiofáin led the militarists, who believed that ‘one big push’ would bring victory, as distinct from the more politically engaged Dáithí Ó Conaill (qv) and Ruairi Ó Bradaigh. His leadership rested on an alliance with northerners like Séamus Twomey (qv), whose primary concern was communal defence; his view that conciliating protestants must await military victory was widely regarded as sectarian self-deception. On 7 July 1972 Mac Stiofáin led the Provisional IRA delegation that met the Northern Ireland secretary William Whitelaw (qv) in Chelsea; his assumption that victory was at hand (he demanded British withdrawal within two and a half years) contributed to the breakdown of the talks.
On 19 November 1972 Mac Stiofáin was arrested in Dublin after giving an interview to the RTÉ journalist Kevin O'Kelly (qv). (O'Kelly's refusal to identify the voice on the interview tape at Mac Stiofáin's trial led to his imprisonment for contempt of court, and the government subsequently dismissed the RTÉ authority.) On his arrest he began a hunger and thirst strike and continued his protest after he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for membership of an illegal organisation. Mac Stiofáin abandoned the thirst strike after ten days, supposedly to prevent loss of life as a result of rioting by his supporters; his authority, which had been based on his aura of uncompromising commitment, never recovered, and he was subjected to widespread ridicule. Mac Stiofáin maintained his hunger strike for fifty-nine days until the IRA leadership ordered him to break it off. After his release in April 1973 Mac Stiofáin never again held a senior position in the IRA. He remained active in the Irish-language movement and in 1975 he published a propagandist autobiography, Memoirs of a revolutionary. He resigned from Sinn Féin in November 1981 over its abandonment of the federalist Éire Nua policy, and sympathised with Republican Sinn Féin after its secession from Provisional Sinn Féin in 1986 over the issue of abstaining from entering Dáil Eireann.
Mac Stiofáin suffered a series of strokes in the years before his death, which occurred at Our Lady's Hospital, Navan, on 18 May 2001. His funeral, organised by Conradh na Gaeilge, was attended by mainstream and dissident republicans; speakers praised his religious devotion and support for the oppressed in Ireland and the third world.