Dearbhail McDonald: We must use this landmark case to hunt down those who pursue dirty profits in the name of peace
Published 27/02/2016 | 02:30
As the Special Criminal Court swelled to full capacity, Thomas 'Slab' Murphy turned his back on the massive audience of gardai, media and his supporters who had assembled to see him jailed for tax evasion.
The Republican icon, alleged former chief of the Provisional IRA, perfected an unfazed, indifferent demeanour throughout his nine-week trial at the non-jury court. But yesterday he wore a flushed, red visage that could have indicated stress, anger or sadness, or perhaps all of the above.
When Mr Justice Paul Butler, the presiding judge of the Special Criminal Court, finalised the 18-month jail term the three-judge court had reached, Slab Murphy appeared to evaporate from the witness box into the arms of prison officers waiting to process him for his onward journey to Portlaoise prison.
In a defiant statement issued later through his solicitors, the bachelor farmer vowed to appeal and criticised investigations into him, the trial and the media.
"I am an Irish Republican and have been all my life," Murphy said, denying that he had any property or savings.
The conviction and sentence of Slab Murphy is landmark in many respects, not least because the court that ordinarily tries terrorism and gangland offences was employed to try a notable but hardly exceptional tax case involving a loss of just under €190,000 to the State.
But it is also outstanding as Murphy, successfully named by the Sunday Times in 1985 as "the IRA's 'Officer Commanding for the whole of Northern Ireland'" - and whom the BBC says controls a stg£40m empire by smuggling oil, cigarettes, grain and pigs - has at last encountered the rule of law.
In doing so, he has enjoyed equality before the law. Despite his prior reputation and a failed Supreme Court challenge in which he sought to be tried before a jury, Slab Murphy was treated by the court as "a farmer and cattle dealer" and not a man alleged to have directed a bombing campaign in the UK.
Sinn Fein can raise all the howls of protest it wants, but as well as a trial in due course of law, Slab Murphy's jail term was consistent with previous sentences for similar offences.
With standard remission, Slab Murphy will be a free man in just over a year, his Republican credentials skyrocketing in the process. Until then, he and his lawyers will be kept busy with a civil action by the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) which has been in limbo for 10 years.
The CAB's raid on Slab's cross-border farm complex in 2006 gave birth not only to his Al Capone-style tax prosecution: a separate €5m tax assessment was also raised as a result of those investigations.
Now that the criminal case has concluded, the CAB will move to realise that €5m judgment, but what are the chances of getting their hands on the fruits of Slab's reputed stg£40m empire?
Slab has no land or properties registered in his name and claimed he earned just over stg£1,000 a month as a yardsman in Crossmaglen.
That means the CAB and the international agencies it collaborates with will have to pursue alternative means.
The stunning stash found during the 2006 farm raid, including cash worth €256,235, stg£111,185 - as well as uncashed cheques worth €579,000, stg£80,000 and IR£24,000 - should now revert to the State.
But the scale of the loss to revenue authorities north, south and across the Irish Sea arising from Slab's alleged smuggling in fuel and other goods, is truly colossal according to court statements lodged by senior CAB and PSNI and customs officers.
One PSNI officer said that he understood that a HM Revenue and Customs report in 2002 estimated that in 2000 the revenue loss could have been between £450m and £980m in the UK.
Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs estimated that revenue loss in Northern Ireland was £380m in 2000. Younger guns, for want of a better phrase, have aped Slab's lead and Ireland's cross border fuel, alcohol and cigarette smuggling racket is a truly international affair.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams is absolutely right when he says that the peace process could not have been achieved without the support of Slab Murphy.
However, the Good Friday Agreement did not grant Slab and his ilk a licence to engage in rampant criminality.
That wasn't the deal.
The jailing of Slab Murphy is a timely and welcome reminder that no one is above the law.
But this important, yet in many ways modest victory, will be utterly pyrrhic unless we give the CAB and other agencies the legal and financial resources they need to combat all forms of organised crime, much of it committed by 'good republicans' pursuing dirty profits in the name of peace.