Adams's backing of pal Slab Murphy is a real problem for SF in run-up to election
Published 22/12/2015 | 02:30
Gerry Adams may not like the Special Criminal Court, but as a public office holder and leader of one of the biggest opposition parties in the State, he must respect its judgments.
"Tom Murphy contests the verdict of the Special Criminal Court (SCC) and maintains his innocence," was how Adams reacted to his friend's conviction on nine counts of tax evasion last week.
The court heard Murphy had "significant dealings" in cattle sales in the period 1996 to 2004, including receiving more than €100,000 in EU and State subsidies, but had failed to make any returns to Revenue during that time.
Given Sinn Féin's economic policy proposals are predicated on the rich paying more tax, one would have thought the case of a wealthy farmer being hauled before the courts and made to account for years of deliberate and sustained tax evasion would be something to be celebrated.
Instead, Adams was more concerned about the legitimacy of the court than its judgment and said it was "truly extraordinary that a case regarding a failure to complete tax returns would be heard at the Special Criminal Court".
While Adams is right that it is unprecedented for a taxation case to come before the SCC, he rather glosses over the fact the defendant is a former chief of staff of the IRA, responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed during the Troubles.
The SCC and the DPP didn't label Murphy an IRA leader, an Irish jury of his peers did when he lost a defamation case against the 'Sunday Times' in 1998 for accusing him of masterminding the importation of tonnes of weapons from Libya for the IRA.
The jury found the article meant Murphy was a "prominent member" of the IRA and that he had "planned murder and the bombing of property" and that those words were true "in substance or in fact". It took only one hour to return its verdict.
It's also notable that just eight months after an IRA whistleblower, Eamon Collins, gave evidence against Murphy in that defamation case, he was stabbed to death as he walked his dog outside Newry.
In his rush to defend his "good republican" friend, Adams also failed to mention that Murphy had gone to the High Court and the Supreme Court to challenge the DPP's decision to try him in the SCC.
Mr Justice Daniel Herbert in the High Court found the likely reason the DPP had taken the decision was "a belief that [Murphy] was a member of, or had connections with, a proscribed organisation or was involved in organised crime" or "a belief that he had previously interfered with a jury". He went on to say that Murphy had not attempted to present any evidence that would undermine that belief.
"[Murphy] did not support his claim with a single fact: not even with a bare statement on oath that he had no such involvement or connection and had not done or said anything which might possibly be seen by the DPP as amounting to such an overwhelmingly serious matter as a threat to the effective administration of justice or to the preservation of public peace and order by the ordinary courts," he said.
Last year, the Supreme Court similarly found the DPP had taken the decision to try Murphy in the SCC because of Murphy's "connections with organisations which are prepared to interfere with the administration of justice".
While Adams is correct to state that Sinn Féin has always been opposed to the SCC, I don't remember party members publicly defending others who have been convicted by the court - people like Limerick crime boss John Dundon who was found guilty in 2013 of the murder of rugby player Shane Geoghegan.
As Adams has pointedly remarked that Murphy continues to maintain his innocence, does that mean he prefers his friend's assurances to the verdict of the court? If so, does Adams believe every guilty verdict handed down by the court is open to question or is that level of support reserved solely for IRA members who contest charges?
This is why Adams's comments are problematic for Sinn Féin in the run-up to a general election - it's unclear if he's making a generalised criticism of the SCC or raising questions about its verdicts and validity.
As the SCC is expressly provided for in the Constitution, there can be no question about its legitimacy and its ability to determine cases. Unless Murphy successfully appeals his conviction, he will remain a convicted tax evader in the eyes of the law.
It's also worth pointing out that while a panel of three judges, and not a jury, adjudicate on cases at the SCC, the burden of proof on the State remains the same in all criminal cases - beyond a reasonable doubt.
Dispensing with the right to a jury trial, one of the cornerstones of our criminal justice system, should only be done as a last resort and Adams is correct to say the use of the SCC to try non-violent crimes is exceptional.
However, there are not many white-collar criminals who have Murphy's violent past or fearsome reputation and just because Adams thinks Murphy is a "good republican", it doesn't mean the DPP didn't have legitimate concerns about proceeding with the case in an ordinary court.
The question for Adams now must be, does he accept the verdict of the SCC in this and all other cases?
Voters will be interested to learn the answer.