09 March 2006

Police raids target alleged IRA chief


James Sturcke and agencies
Thursday March 9, 2006

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An image dated March 1990 of Thomas "Slab" Murphy. Photograph: PA

One of the most enigmatic and powerful figures in the republican movement was at the centre of a series of police raids today linked to a major inquiry into organised crime on both sides of the Irish border.

More than 300 officers were involved in around dozen dawn operations in so-called "bandit country" around the border between south Armagh and north County Louth.

The farm of Thomas "Slab" Murphy, widely believed to be the IRA's one-time chief-of-staff, was sealed off. Mr Murphy, whose 38-acre property straddles the border, has been the subject of persistent claims of smuggling operations between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Police said they arrested three people, including two men in a car that sped through a security checkpoint on the south side of the border. A Republic of Ireland police helicopter helped authorities on the Northern Ireland side to intercept and arrest the men.

"It doesn't get any bigger than this," one source in Northern Ireland said, while another claimed that a top IRA member who has made millions from smuggling had been the main target.

An detective told the Associated Press that the raids were conducted in the hope of identifying links to a £30m portfolio of properties in Manchester that were investigated last October on the suspicion they had been purchased with IRA proceeds.

One of Mr Murphy's brothers has acknowledged he owns some of the properties in question but denies any link to the IRA.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) welcomed the raids as a sign of close cooperation between both police forces on the island and the two countries' anti-racketeering agencies, which have the power to impound criminals' property and other assets.

"The threat of organised crime recognises no borders, and efforts against any gangs or individuals involved can be maximised with cooperation and integration," said the party's policing spokesman, Alex Attwood. "Any crime boss or foot soldier must know there is no hiding place for them on the island."

A Sinn Féin spokesman declined to comment.

In the October raids, officials from the Assets Recovery Agency stormed homes and properties around Greater Manchester as part of an investigation into 250 properties worth £30m.

The agency said the properties, with an equity value of £9m, had been acquired "over a period of time" and were held by individuals and property management companies.

Following the raids, a property developer whose offices and home were searched by police confirmed he had done business with Mr Murphy's brother, Frank. Dermot Craven said he believed he had been duped and had not realised Frank Murphy's relationship to Thomas Murphy.

After the Manchester operations, Thomas Murphy, who has never been convicted of any crime, claimed he made his money from farming. However, anti-terrorist police and several published histories of the IRA identify him as the outlawed group's long-time chief-of-staff.

He was named in 2004 in the BBC's criminal rich list as the richest smuggler in the UK, with an estimated fortune of £35-40m from cross-border cigarette and fuel smuggling.

In 1985, the Sunday Times published an investigation of Mr Murphy that identified him as a millionaire smuggler and a pivotal figure in plotting bomb attacks. Mr Murphy sued for libel but lost twice.

Eight months later, the pivotal witness against Mr Murphy, former IRA member Eamon Collins, was murdered. No one was charged with the killing. In 1998, a Dublin jury ruled Mr Murphy was an IRA commander and a smuggler.

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