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Interview with IRA Chief of Staff, Seán Mac Stiofáin

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Born John Stevenson in England, MacStiofan was a key player in the early days of the IRA, especially during the split of December 1969 which resulted in the formation of PIRA. MacStiofain was at the coup's center. At the 1970 Ard Feis Convention, MacStiofain and O'Bradaigh worked intently, but unsuccessfully, against the rejection of absentionism. MacStiofain mastered the art of propaganda "techniques" and was responsible for the regular use of press conferences to get the message out. He lost some credibility within the Movement when he "caved" on his 53-day hunger strike in Curragh prison.


blank.gifblank.gifblank.gif   q: What was the state of the IRA in August 1969?

macstiofain: Very bad. Very bad. No arms, very little. No training. A few hundred people and for years no contact for weapons. Bad leadership, bad policies.


q: What did the people in Belfast feel about the IRA when the IRA had not been able to defend them?

a: Well, a slogan on the walls--IRA, we run away--very unfair to volunteers. They fight sometimes [with] their hands. But they fought with the leadership in Dublin.


q: Because the leadership had let down

a: Yes.


q: The people in Belfast.

a: Yes.


q: What did people in Belfast say about the IRA?

a: Well, I told you, right. But they want to reorganize and they're worried about more attacks. A lot of people come back to the movement and particularly the auxiliary units






q: You went to Belfast after August 1969. What did you say to people in Belfast?

a: I didn't want to see a split in Belfast, but it was too late. Some of the staff in Belfast were sympath[etic] to Goldings proposals and so that was too late.


q: Why did the IRA split?

a: One ... at least three, four ...


q: Reasons.

a: Reasons. One was political, and the other was military, they had this ...


q: Ideological

a: Ideological and also Republicans want to abolish Stormont.


q: At the Sinn Fein national conference on the 10th of January 1970, you took the microphone from Goulding.

a: No, no.


q: Tell me what happened there, what did you do?

a: I walked to the microphone, and said, "I pledge my allegiance to the provisional IRA." These were people who tied themselves to their Irish Republican Army. Then I said, "Now ... it's time to go. Go." And we did.


q: How many left with you?

a: About 40% more.


q: And that's how the provisional IRA was born.

a: Born, no, that's Sinn Fein. Three weeks before the IRA.


q: Right, I understand. How did you get weapons in those early days?

a: We sent orders to all units in the south. I want 90% of your weapons and money for the units in the north ... and we had no training courses, HQ and everything like that.


q: What was your strategy when the provisional IRA was born?

a: First, defense for the summer. All weapons and ammunition and equipment for Belfast, Derry and the other places, because the summer is always trouble. So we thought, right and plenty of training, and reorganization, that's it.


q: So at the very beginning your strategy was purely defensive.

a: Yes. Yes.


q: When did you turn to offensive action?

a: After internment. Before, anything else was a retaliation, because the British army was bad to the people. So we thought retaliatory action and sabotage. But after internment we went to all offensive, all offensive action.


q: But wasn't the killing of Gunner Curtis, the first soldier to die, an offensive action?

a: No. It was on retaliation for the bad treatment of British troops in Belfast.


q: What was the significance of the shooting of Gunner Curtis, the first soldier to die?

a: One, volunteers for ...


q: Recruitment.

a: Yes.


q: But what was the significance of the fact that a British soldier had been killed, he was the first soldier to die in the conflict, in the recent conflict, what was the significance of that?

a: The British people say if you stay in Ireland there's a price to pay.


q: And what was the price?

a: More soldiers go back in coffins unless the pressure the government to right thing about Ireland.


q: At the beginning of 1972.

a: Yes.


q: What was the state of the IRA?

a: Good now. When 1972 good, very good, I think, the best and better IRA for fifty years, more men, ammunition equipment and very, very good morale. And we reorganized everything.


q: At the beginning of 1972 did you think you were winning?

a: Yes. But there was a report that the British army said we give us a month in Belfast, one Derry, and then two months in the border, its over. Well, they were wrong.


q: Why did you want Gerry Adams released from internment?

a: He was a potential leader. Good thinker. And good in the national question.


q: What was his role at the time?

a: Prisoner.


q: What was he before he was a prisoner?

a: He was in leadership ... Belfast.


q: The IRA leadership in Belfast.

a: In Republican movement.


q: But he was IRA Belfast, wasn't he?

a: Well ...


q: What did you do when Gerry Adams came out of internment?

a: Well, I sent a messenger from Derry and explaining the thing, then that night I rang to Gerry and I said "Oh I'm very, very ... surprised, ... and you owe me one.


q: And what did he say?

a: He says, No, I tell 'em get, collect and in a couple of days and leave, right. His wife.


q: Yes. Just going back to the press conference that you gave.

a: Yes.


q: At the time you were the most wanted man in Ireland.

a: Yes.


q: Because you were the chief of staff in the provisional IRA, how did you get into Derry without being arrested?

a: They scout out the roads, and escort, right.


q: Were you in disguise?

a: Yes. Yes. And O'Connell was as well ... we had a driver and two others and another car.


q: What was your disguise?

a: Oh, an awful mustache and hair, different way and something else. Yes.


q: And you got through.

a: Yes. And once I went to Derry, to the funeral, Sean Keenan's son was killed. And they advice was too much activity the British army in their droves, so I said, "You take me over the fields in Derry." We did.

q: How did you decide who should go with you to meet Mr. Whitelaw?

a: Well ... one Seamus Toomey. O'Connell, Martin McGuinness, and myself and Adams from the prisoners.


q: Ivor Bell.

a: Yes. ... And I said and so that's it, .... I want this an IRA ...


q: Delegation.

a: Yes.


q: All were IRA?

a: Yes. Not been, not Sinn Fein, but IRA.


q: All of them?

a: Yes.


q: Including Martin McGuinness?

a: Oh yes.


q: Including Gerry Adams.

a: All of them.


q: When you get to Cheyne Walk, and you meet Mr. Whitelaw.

a: Yes.


q: What do you say?

a: Well he come to me and said, "Mr. MacStiofain, how do you do?" I [thought] this guy has done his homework because he pronounced my name perfect. I said, "I'm OK, now this is my friend Seamus Toomey, .... O'Connell, Martin McGuinness, Adams, Bell." So he said, "Oh, Mr. O'Connell, perhaps you want to sit down to me." [He] said "No, we sit down as group."

q: You didn't want to be split, separated?
a: No, no. And a long, a line of us right.

q: Were you offered anything to drink?
a: Water. Yes, he said, "Want a drink?" I said, "No. No." So he said, "I think I will begin." He was speak[ing] about five minutes and nothing he said, no interest to us. So I said, "I have a statement from the Irish Republican Army, I will read." And part of the statement was we call on the British government to publicly acknowledge the right to the Irish people, act in one unit to decide the future of Ireland. Now then Whitelaw said, "There's confusion about that, difficulties."

q: Difficulties.
a: Yes. "But we have a constitution guarantee for the unionists," I said. "It's a fact that one act of parliament can put back the other one." He said, "Oh that's a fact of parliamentary life." So then we would talk about the incident in ... nationalist people in rural ...

q: Areas.
a: Right, and Whitelaw said, "Oh, British troops will never fire on civilians." So I said, "Martin, you have something to say?" "Yes, Mr. Whitelaw, I saw your troops, paras, kill people in Derry, they were unarmed civilians." So I said and others. So no reply from Whitelaw and the staff much muttering, "No capital alliance."

q: What did you say about British withdrawal?
a: We want a couple of years, four years ... to withdraw.

q: I think you said you wanted a British military withdrawal by the first of January 1975. What did you say?
a: We want the withdrawal first of January 1975.

q: Extend ...
a: Extend yes.

q: How far were you prepared to extend the 1975?
a: ... that was negotiations.

q: Were you talking about a British military withdrawal, in other words, demanding that Britain withdraw her troops back to the rest of the United Kingdom?
a: Yes, yes.

q: Or were you talking about a total British military and political withdrawal, a total withdrawal?
a: Well, political, yes, as well. Yes. Because no, we want all military and political withdrawal.

q: By 1975?
a: Yes.

q: But that was just hopelessly unrealistic.
a: Maybe, maybe.

q: But you must have known that.
a: That was starters.

q: The starting point.
a: Yes. Yes.

q: How long did the meeting last?
a: The two breaks, about an hour, one hour.

q: What did you say when the meeting was over, what did you say amongst each other?
a: Then we discussed it ourselves, said "We'll give them three days for an answer."

q: That wasn't very long.
a: No. But we said, "Give them a week at the most, but start three days."

q: You didn't really expect Mr. Whitelaw, on behalf of the British government, to come back within three days or a week and say, "OK, we agree, we're going."
a: No, but you see, if he first said, "No," [we] were [to] give them more time ... another couple of days, then we said, "One week," because I knew that a Cabinet meeting on the Thursday, so I said, "Whitelaw, OK, that's it, but if there was in the chance to more negotiations right, we can expand that." But I don't think they were interested.

q: What was the atmosphere like on the flight going back?
a: Steele come to me and said, "Don't tell me you're not starting, your stupid campaign again." So I said, "Well, it's up to you people. We never worried about the casualties, we've more casualties in Germany with accidents ... you lost twenty men in two weeks in here, in Ireland."

q: That was the two weeks leading up to the cease-fire?
a: Yes, yes.

q: What did he say to that?
a: "You know what they mean." And I said, "Well that's about the troops."

q: Did you ever hear back from the British?
a: No. No.

q: But shouldn't you have given the truce longer? Two days isn't much.
a: But the British and the UDA broke the bloody truce.

q: Well the truce was broken by Seamus Toomey ... leading that cavalcade down Lundadoon Avenue and forcing the army lines.
a: No, that is wrong.

q: It was there. I saw it.
a: No ... but I had people I respect there that told you that that's not so. No, that the UDA went into break the truce and the British army in Belfast the British general, brigadier they want to break the truce. No, they, lots of incidents as well in Belfast, Portadown and ... the truce had gone by Sunday night.

q: When the truce was over.
a: Yes.

q: What was your strategy, what did you decide to do as chief of staff?
a: Well, the leadership first of all units in the north were instructions to get back to operations. And I said the campaign will be stop.

q: Is intensified the word you're looking for?
a: Yes. OK.

q: After the truce had ended, what was your strategy as chief of staff of the provisional IRA?
a: Well the leadership had an order to all units in the north, get back into offensive action and we must get intensify the campaign.

q: Part of that intensified campaign was the planting of over twenty bombs in Belfast on what was known as Bloody Friday, was that part of the intensification?
a: It was, 22 in Belfast and 14 other parts right, and only two had civilian casualties, and the every bomb had three warnings and the British government and the British army they not give the warnings.

q: Those bombs planted on that day, on Bloody Friday, killed eleven people, eleven civilians.
a: No, no, nine. Nine.

q: Well nine or eleven, nine innocent people died.
a: No. Nine people were killed then. Two British army, two RUC, one a known RU and a UDA. But there were four innocent people and we regretted all of them. The others were legitimate targets.

q: Well, in the eyes of most British people, nobody is a legitimate target, even if you say they were legitimate targets four civilians were killed.
a: They were, yes, and we regretted all of them, but the blame was the people who deliberately not given the warnings to the public.

q: The blame rested with those people, your people the IRA who planted the bombs.
a: No, I don't agree.

q: You don't plant the bombs, people don't die.
a: Oh, well, but if the British government has persistent his policies to the north of Ireland, then you get resistance and I'm sure if the same situation was England, some of your friends would resist it.

q: Did you ever discuss taking the campaign to England?
a: Yes. Yes. We have and there was planned an operation to sabotage the factory [that] makes CS gas in 1970, but I then the OC was bad in security and four people were arrested. Right. So then another year an operation was organized for shooting a high ranking officer, who was not, was in the north. But then we had two operations planned for the end of 72, and I was arrested so I don't know what happened, but yes.

q: Were you aware of the planning of the Old Bailey bombs before you were arrested?
a: No, no. ... that was my one month, ... the end of March '73.

q: Why did you want to take the campaign to England?
a: To make sure that the establishment would see that they must pay dearly for the north of Ireland.

q: Their presence in the north of Ireland.
a: And the policies and the prison.

q: What was your reaction when you heard that Sinn Fein had rejected abstentionism in 1986?
a: I was very, very disappointed, very disappointed. And that was one of the biggest mistakes that Adams made and so yes.

q: Why do you say that?
a: The government in Dublin is typical neo-colonial government ... there's no real policy about the north. And saying from the people, whole people here ... went into politics to advance the class interest, his own class.

q: What was your reaction to the IRA's declaration of its cessation in August '94?
a: I was pleased. Four years before I suggested to the IRA leadership that something like that to suspend offensive action and change the tactics.

q: Do you think the war is over?
a: No. No, I do not. Because Major and the unionists have never taken the peace process seriously



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Mac Stíofáin was a man of the highest integrity, patriotism and honour, who not only did a huge amount for the military and political struggle against British imperialism, but also gave a lifetime's labour to the Irish language and culture, including serving as vice-president of Conradh na Gaeilge.

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