12 March 2006

'Slab' raid is trouble for Sinn Fein

Sunday Times

March 12, 2006

GOLF 40, a British Army observation tower on top of Crotlieve Mountain near Forkhill, is jokingly referred to as the Slab Murphy Memorial Watchtower. Long after the Troubles ended, it was kept open precisely with last Thursday’s series of raids on Murphy’s property a couple of miles away in mind.

Last year Golf 20 and Golf 30, its two companions, were decommissioned in a blaze of publicity. Both were closer than G40 to Murphy’s farm and smuggling complex in Ballybinaby, but it was G40, on elevated ground two miles away, that commanded the best view. So effective was its imaging equipment that car numbers going into the complex from either side of the border could be read.

During the IRA campaign Murphy, the organisation’s chief of staff, had studied carefully the areas of “dead ground” invisible from the three towers. He built a concrete wall and sheds to protect his smuggling empire, to facilitate the movement of explosives and to minimise the opportunities for surveillance.

At first light on Thursday, soldiers, who live in an underground chamber deep in the mountain, had an excellent view of Ballybinaby from G40. What they missed was picked up by a British Army Lynx helicopter hovering nearby. Under their watchful eyes, a huge security operation swung into place from 6am. It will probably be the last significant operation that G40 sees before it is demolished later this year.

From Newry and Armagh on the northern side of the border, more than 100 troops and a similar number of police and customs officers converged on Murphy’s estate. The 50- vehicle convoy paused at No 45 Larkin’s Road to search a derelict building and to establish a road block. “We want to seal off the area as a crime scene,” a police source said.

Soldiers fanned out into the fields to secure the area, while on the southern side of the border a smaller convoy of 30 vehicles with gardai, customs, army and Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) personnel swung into action, establishing its roadblock at Ballybinaby’s crossroads, just a short distance from the British operation. There were unmarked detectives’ cars and marked garda cars, Emergency Response Unit 4x4s, technical bureau staff in crime-scene vehicles and vans for taking away seizures.

The search used great sensitivity to the political boundary running through the farm. Members of the garda mapping division were present and a PSNI source said: “A lot of planning went into it. This was a joint operation so that we would both be able to search in our own jurisdiction. Any mistakes would have legal resonance.”

They searched all day but could not find “Slab” Murphy, who is believed to have slipped the cordon. Garda sources say his half-eaten fried breakfast was still on the table when they arrived, suggesting he had fled after getting a few minutes’ notice of their arrival.

The security forces on both sides of the border must now sift through a vast haul of documents, computers and disks that they recovered. Evidence will be compared with information seized by the CAB in the south and the Assets Recovery Agency in Manchester during raids last year in relation to a property portfolio linked to Francis Murphy, Slab’s brother. Up to 12 vehicles, about 30,000 cigarettes, a large quantity of fuel suspected of being illegally laundered and approximately €450,000 of cash in euro and sterling were seized, as well as £414,000 (€600,000) in cheques found in plastic bags in the hay shed.

There were also two shotguns and chemicals that could be used for laundering diesel.

The finds looked impressive as garda and PSNI officers drove them away that evening, but Murphy’s absence gave some cause for concern. Gardai and CAB believe the IRA commander may have hid himself, presumably in his night clothes, in a bunker. Another possibility is that after being warned by lookouts of approaching vehicles, he sat out the raid in the home of Michael Conlon, his friend and neighbour. Conlon’s house was not included in the search operation and consequently could not be entered.

Some sources in Irish customs suggest that the IRA leader had been tipped off well in advance and was able to remove the most incriminating material. They point to a break-in at Dundalk courthouse, where documents relating to the raids were held, on Wednesday evening. “I’m surprised Slab didn’t leave out a cake for us,” one officer said.

However, gardai have discounted any link between the Dundalk break-in and the raid. Their main concern on Thursday was seizing evidence. Arresting Murphy was not an objective, although he would have been lifted if he was there. On past form, gardai expect him to present himself in Dundalk station in the next few days.

If he did have advance warning, he did not share it with his brothers Francis and Patrick, or with Francis’s wife Judy, all of whom were caught in the dragnet. They were intercepted attempting to leave the secured area in a 4x4 and arrested on suspicion of revenue offences but released without charge.

The operation against the Murphy family’s financial interests has been dogged by problems. Last year the swoops in Manchester, directed at companies linked to Judy and Francis, had to be moved forward by several months because of leaks to the media.

It will take months of careful sifting to determine whether any evidence can be put before a court, and whether laptop computers found in Murphy’s barn contain financial secrets of the IRA.

This game is being played for high stakes. Noel Conroy, the garda commissioner, and Sir Hugh Orde, the PSNI chief constable, the next day promoted the raid as a showcase for a coming era of cross-border co-operation. In briefings afterwards the CAB, gardai and PSNI all scrambled for the honour of being portrayed as the lead agency in the operation.

Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, said he expected nothing would be proved against Murphy, who he embraced as one of his key supporters.

“Tom Murphy is not a criminal, he is a good republican,” said Adams. “He is also, very importantly, a key supporter of the Sinn Fein peace strategy and has been for a very long time.” Asked if he believed Murphy was just a farmer, Adams said: “If he denies being a member of the IRA, then I have to accept that.”

THE Sinn Fein leader’s endorsement of Murphy could come back to haunt him. Far from being an innocent man who made whatever few shillings he has from farming, as Adams claimed, Murphy is a rich smuggler who led the IRA in south Armagh throughout the Troubles but never served a jail sentence. Murphy’s unsavoury past was laid bare in a series of court cases that he took against The Sunday Times after this newspaper accused him of vetting terrorists to take part in a bombing campaign in Britain in the 1980s. A Dublin jury found him to be a man of worthless reputation who had plotted murder and other terrorist acts and was involved in smuggling and criminality.

Sean O’Callaghan, a former garda agent within the IRA, testified at one trial that he attended IRA meetings at which both Adams and Murphy were present. One was a Revolutionary Council meeting in 1983 and the second was an Army Council meeting in 1984 or 1985.

Eamon Collins, a former IRA intelligence officer from Newry, told a 1998 hearing that his unit had murdered a Catholic civilian in mistake for a police officer. After an IRA internal inquiry carried out by Freddie Scappaticci, who was himself a British agent, Collins was sent to meet Murphy who exonerated him. “He introduced himself,” Collins testified. “He said, ‘I am Tom Murphy and I am here as a representative of the Army Council’.”

Collins added that after hearing his explanation of the fatal mistake, Murphy “accepted that. He told me that I had been fully exonerated and I was fully reinstated. I was very impressed by his manner”.

Immediately after the libel case, a campaign of intimidation started against Collins, culminating in his murder on January 27, 1999. It was a frenzied attack in which he was beaten, stabbed and had a crowbar pushed through his face.

Despite his high-ranking role in the IRA, and Adams’s description of him as “no criminal and a good republican”, Murphy denounced IRA violence in an attempt to win the libel case against The Sunday Times. At one stage he claimed that he did not know where the Maze prison was or what an IRA funeral was like.

The juries heard clear evidence of his criminality. At one point he had difficulty in deciding his date of birth (August 26, 1949) because, he explained, different dates had appeared on a forged passport and driving licence that he sometimes used.

Murphy had used one of these forged passports to travel to Greece in 1986 to meet Nasser al-Ashour, a colonel in Libyan military intelligence, to arrange the importation of weapons. The arms importation came to an end with the seizure of the largest shipment, on the Eksund, in French waters in 1987. A statement given to the French authorities by Hopkins documents Murphy’s hands-on involvement in the traffic.

The court also heard how Murphy had thrown a breeze-block at Seamus Colgan and Mick McGill, two Irish customs officers, and how his complex had been a centre for smuggling and attacks on the British Army in the Troubles.

It was all a far cry from the life he portrayed of a small farmer who left school at 14 and earned a precarious living raising cattle on a smallholding straddling the border.

THE truth is that the end of the Troubles has been the undoing of Murphy. While friends, neighbours and employees died, went to prison or were exiled, he prospered, amassing a fortune estimated at £35m.

His control of the local IRA was essential to controlling these assets. During the terrorism campaign, security forces could watch from towers but could not enter the area except by helicopter. Larkin’s Road, which winds its way across the border beside the Murphy family home, could be regarded as “Slab’s Road” and other smugglers were charged a “tax” for driving contraband along it.

All deals could be settled on a handshake. Murphy could pay off his suppliers, as he paid Hopkins, with bundles of crumpled banknotes without fear of being ripped off because he had the deadly muscle of the IRA behind him. Anybody who complained to the police could be shot or exiled. Even sales of local land went through only on his say-so.

It was the power of a feudal warlord, but it receded as soon as the war was over. Any attempt to continue it in peacetime risked exposing Adams and Sinn Fein to ridicule. Now the prospect of Murphy’s criminal empire unravelling in court must be the Sinn Fein leadership’s worst nightmare.

Adams has begun uneasily to prepare a damage limitation exercise. He has defended Murphy, his old friend and ally in the IRA, by condemning the police for their actions and the media for their coverage of the raids. “The thrust is about demonising and vilifying,” according to Adams. “It is about setting aside the huge work that has been done to bring us all to the point where we are at the moment in terms of the peace process. And then to try and portray what’s going on as the dregs of a terrorist campaign which is being exploited by these super-duper godfathers.”

He did condemn smuggling as “wrong” and said “we support the pursuit of criminal assets. Anybody involved in criminality should face the full rigours of the law, and that includes the right to a fair trial”.

The message was this: if the mud sticks to Murphy, Adams will step aside. There will be no “free Slab” campaigns if the smuggler ends up behind bars.

As Sinn Fein prepares itself for the Irish general election in 2007, and a possible northern assembly election this year, it is desperate to present a clean image. It has been quick to decry past political corruption exposed in the Dublin tribunals and to exploit each revelation to score against Fianna Fail.

But in “Slab” Murphy, Adams faces his own sleaze factor and IRA corruption dwarfs anything that emerged from the Dublin planning system. The best option for Sinn Fein is if nothing is proved, but if it comes to a choice between electoral success and Murphy’s friendship, Adams may not find it that difficult a call to make.

Murphy: for the record

Thomas “Slab” Murphy owes The Sunday Times more than £600,000 (€870,000) for legal fees as a result of a disastrous 12-year libel battle he pursued. He lost and was branded by an Irish jury as a man of worthless reputation who plotted murder. The newspaper will hope to recover some of its costs from assets seized by the British or Irish authorities.

On June 30, 1985 The Sunday Times published an article entitled “Portrait of a check-in terrorist” in which Murphy was identified as head of the IRA’s northern command. The piece said that he had helped to select terrorists for a bombing campaign against 12 British seaside resorts.

Two years later Murphy sued for libel in Dublin. In 1990 the trial was abandoned on technical grounds. When it was reheard later that year, Murphy lost. He appealed to the Supreme Court, which in 1996 ordered a retrial. The retrial, in May 1998, lasted nine days. It took the jury less than one hour to conclude that the newspaper had established that Murphy was a terrorist who had directed bombings and murder. He appealed for a retrial but dropped his case in 1999.

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