Sunday 23 October 2016

Slab's cool composure betrayed by his flushed cheeks as verdict read

Published 18/12/2015 | 02:30

Thomas Murphy at an earlier court hearing in Ardee. Pic: Frank Mc Grath
Thomas Murphy at an earlier court hearing in Ardee. Pic: Frank Mc Grath

As the judge in the Special Criminal Court started to read the verdict, Thomas 'Slab' Murphy maintained a calm composure.

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Sitting casually in the body of the court with his arms folded and legs extended, the prominent Republican - once named in a libel case (which he lost) as a senior IRA commander - held a steady forward gaze as Mr Justice Paul Butler explained how the three-judge court had found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of nine counts of tax evasion.

But the all-too visible red flushes on Slab's cheeks and neck betrayed the stresses of a nine-week criminal trial, whose outcome was contained in a pithy 10-page ruling.

Estimated by a BBC investigation to control a £40m (€55m) fortune, the enigmatic farmer - a Republican icon - was brought to heel on foot of a failure to pay income tax on an annual cattle trade of just €15,000.

The investigation into Slab Murphy began in October 2005 when a Revenue Inspector was instructed to carry out an investigation into his tax affairs.

That inquiry led to a major raid in March 2006 by authorities on both sides of the border on Slab's home/farm complex at Ballybinaby in Louth - the farm famously straddles both jurisdictions.

The Revenue officer had come to the conclusion that Slab Murphy was involved in the farming business and that, from the years 1996 to 2004, he did not file any tax returns. And the raid by the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) and their cross-border counterparts yielded an unusual haul including ledgers, cheques and cheque books - as well as about £200,000, 30,000 cigarettes and 8,000 litres of fuel.

But it took almost 10 years from the initial inquiry to reach a trial and conviction.

Returned for trial to the Special Criminal Court (from Dundalk District Court) in 2008, Mr Murphy protested the decision to try him in the non-jury court all the way to the Supreme Court.

Mr Murphy claimed the decision to try him before the non-jury court rather than before a jury in the ordinary courts breached his rights under the Constitution and European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

But the case ultimately proceeded in the Special Criminal Court. This was despite the fact that Mr Murphy was not charged with a scheduled offence - offences involving subversive crimes such as membership of the IRA which ordinarily occupies the court's time.

The prosecution raised nine counts under the Tax Consolidation and Finance Acts that Mr Murphy knowingly and wilfully failed to make tax returns over a nine-year period.

At heart, it was claimed that he did not file income tax returns on his cattle trade, despite registering his herd, receiving grants, etc.

Mr Murphy's defences ranged from claiming he was the victim of forged signatures and the victim of an elaborate identity theft by his brother Patrick Murphy, the latter of whom settled with the CAB in 2009.

The identity theft claim baffled the court, not least because Slab was supported in court on many occasions by his brother Patrick.

The State's case was not a slam dunk and was arguably weak in many respects.

But the prosecution enjoyed a central, in-trial momentum when prior statements made by a veterinary surgeon and landowner that were contradicted in part by the evidence they gave at trial, were admitted in evidence and accepted by the judges.

It was the statements made years earlier to gardaí by the vet and landowner that led the court to agree with the prosecution that the "true state of affairs" was that Thomas Murphy was carrying on a cattle farming and dealing business.

Documents mattered in this marathon trial, but it was this live testing of the evidence that arguably sealed the prosecution.

The Special Criminal Court now finds itself in uncharted territory as it prepares to sentence in a tax evasion case whose monetary value is unclear.

Either way, it marks an extraordinary turn of events for this most mythical of Republican figures.

Irish Independent

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