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IRELAND: Out of Business?

5 minute read

Before dawn one morning last week, Irish police tailed a Ford sedan for several blocks through the rainy streets of Dublin before instructing it to halt. Then, as they let their coats swing open to reveal their sidearms, the plainclothesmen ordered the tall, burly driver from his car. At Dublin’s central police station, they demanded that he explain his connection with the illegal Irish Republican Army. Sean MacStiofáin, 44, chief of staff of the I.R.A.’s militant “Provisional” wing, replied, “Tada” (Nothing to say). The dramatic arrest marked the strongest action yet taken by the Dublin government against the terrorist organization since the current period of turmoil began in Northern Ireland three years ago.

Even though the I.R.A. is banned in the Irish Republic as well as in the North, MacStiofáin has operated out of Dublin with considerable latitude since 1969. He lived quietly in rural Navan, northwest of Dublin, gave periodic television and press interviews and occasionally slipped across the border to harangue I.R.A. units in the field. Theoretically he was a wanted man, but last month he boldly appeared in downtown Dublin at a convention of the Provisional Sinn Fein—the political branch of the I.R.A.—to a standing ovation of 1,000 assembled delegates. “I say with confidence that we can escalate at will,” he bragged in a tape-recorded radio interview just before his arrest last week. “If we were not in that position, we would be out of business.”

For the first 30 years of his life, MacStiofáin was known as John Stephenson, the London-born son of a British father and a Northern Irish mother. After serving in the Royal Air Force at the end of World War II, he joined an I.R.A. unit in Britain and was subsequently imprisoned for six years for his part in an abortive arms raid on an army barracks. When he emerged in 1959, with his name Gaelicized, he moved to Ireland to devote his life to the I.R.A. In 1969, when the organization split apart over how to conduct its campaign against British rule of Northern Ireland, MacStiofáin became leader of the Provisional wing, which has been responsible for most of the subsequent bombings and terrorist shootings in the North. Until his arrest last week, his leadership remained unchallenged. During a temporary truce last June, the British government brought him to London as head of an I.R.A. negotiating team, but violence broke out again in Ulster a few days later. British officials consider MacStiofáin ruthless and impossible to deal with, and urgently pressed the Dublin government of Prime Minister Jack Lynch to crack down on the Provisionals’ activities in the Republic.

Harassment. Directing the campaign for the Irish government is Justice Minister Desmond O’Malley, 33, a brash political fighter whose antipathy toward the I.R.A. was sharpened by the recent bombing of his father-in-law’s pub just north of the border. Under O’Malley’s authority, the government has prosecuted more than 100 I.R.A. men on various charges, tightened controls on firearms and explosives, and last month raided and padlocked the Provisional Sinn Fein offices in Dublin. This week the government will present to the Irish Parliament a bill that seeks to redefine membership in illegal organizations and put the burden of proof on defendants to disclaim their affiliation with such groups. Says O’Malley: “It’s part of the general policy of the government here to harass these people to the greatest extent possible.”

At week’s end, O’Malley had won his first round against the I.R.A. A special court, sitting without a jury, sentenced MacStiofáin to six months in prison on charges of membership in an unlawful organization. But the Irish Government’s troubles with him were far from over: MacStiofáin said he would starve himself to death unless released. It did not seem to be an idle threat. In the past half century five I.R.A. men have sought martyrdom by continuing a hunger strike to the agonizing end. MacStiofáin was on the seventh day of his hunger and thirst strike when he was carried into court on a chair. Weak, barely able to speak, he sat wrapped in blankets; a prison doctor, who periodically revived MacStiofáin, told reporters later that the I.R.A. chief could barely last three or four more days.

MacStiofáin showed no signs of abandoning his fast. As the sentence was passed he aroused himself and pounded the railing of the dock. “I have taken no liquid and no food since my arrest. I’ll see you in hell before I submit,” he croaked at the judges. “I shall be dead within six days. Live with that.”

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