OVER THE PAST four days Gerry Adams has made a number of public statements about the conviction of Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy for tax evasion which have caused considerable controversy.
Adams’s and, by extension, Sinn Féin’s decision to back Murphy in the way they have, has led to more questions being asked about the party’s suitability for government and its connections to dissident republicanism.
This latest controversy has flared up in the wake of Murphy’s conviction for tax evasion before the non-jury Special Criminal Court (SCC) last Thursday.
But how did we get to this point and where does the story go from here?
Who is Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy?
Murphy, who has an address at Ballybinaby, Hackballscross, Co Louth, has been widely described as a ‘prominent republican’. Adams has described him as a “good republican”.
Murphy has faced allegations of being the former chief of staff of the IRA. In 1998 he sued the Sunday Times for defamation after the paper accused him of leading the importation of weapons for the IRA from Libya.
Murphy lost this case. A jury of his peers found that the article meant Murphy was a “prominent member” of the IRA. Asked today if Murphy was the IRA’s chief of staff, Gerry Adams said he didn’t know who the IRA chief of staff was.
Both the Louth TD and Martin McGuinness have praised Murphy as having been crucial to the peace process. Murphy is widely considered to have got the bulk of the IRA based in south Armagh to agree to the historic Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Murphy “played a leadership role in the development and winning support for the peace process” according to Adams today. Yesterday, McGuinness said the “amazing” achievement of the peace process “wouldn’t have happened without the work of Tom Murphy”.
What was the court case involving Murphy about?
In March 2006, following an investigation by the Criminal Assets Bureau, Murphy’s home, which straddles the border between Louth and south Armagh, was raided. Over €250,000 and over £111,000 sterling in cash was found in bin bags, as well as documentation, diaries and ledgers.
On foot of the CAB probe and the raid, Murphy was charged with nine counts of failing to furnish a return of his income, profits or gains or the source of his income, profits or gains to the tax authorities between 1996/97 and 2004.
He denied the charges. He also fought the decision to try him in the non-jury Special Criminal Court to the High Court and the Supreme Court. The High Court found that Murphy’s rights had been breached but ruled that the trial should go ahead.
Last year, the Supreme Court found that the Director of Public Prosecutions had taken the decision to try Murphy in the Special Criminal Court because of his “connections with organisations which are prepared to interfere with the administration of justice”.
When he eventually appeared before the Special Criminal Court in October, Murphy pleaded not guilty to the tax offences. His defence argued that his brother, Patrick, controlled and operated the farming activities. They also suggested that the handwriting on some of the documents found was forged.
The court heard evidence from Department of Agriculture employees, cattle mart and meat factory managers, CAB investigators and a Revenue Inspector that, although Murphy conducted dealings in relation to cattle and land, and received farming grants from the Department of Agriculture, he failed to make any returns to Revenue.
Last week, the three-judge court ruled it was “satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that in each of the individual counts on the indictment the accused is guilty”.
What happens now?
Convicted for tax evasion, Murphy will be sentenced in February and is expected to be served a significant tax bill by the CAB.
What has Gerry Adams said about the case?
Adams initially issued a brief statement on the day of the verdict:
I am aware of the reports of this morning’s judgement and that Tom Murphy has been released on bail. He has strongly contested the accusations. I have no comment to make until the legal process has been concluded.
However, on Friday TheJournal.ie submitted a series of questions to the Sinn Féin leader, including whether he still believed Murphy is “a good republican”.
In a response we received and published first on Saturday afternoon, Adams said that while everyone has a duty to pay tax he believed Murphy had been treated “unfairly”:
All citizens have the right to be judged by a jury of their peers. It is extraordinary that a case involving a failure to complete tax returns is heard before a non-jury court. Tom Murphy’s rights have been denied to him.
Adams has followed this up with a series of media interviews in recent days in which he has maintained the decision to try Murphy before the SCC is “just plain wrong”. In relation to the SCC, he told LMFM:
One can be, and should be, critical of many aspects of any system because that’s how you get the most vigorous, ongoing and transparent centred democracy that you can get. Do I have to swallow the entire baggage of the State, which is dependant on draconian legislation like the Offences Against the State Act?
Today, during testy exchanges with journalists at Leinster House, Adams appeared to dispute much of what emerged in the Special Criminal Court:
Adams also said he had not spoken to Murphy about his conviction, has not spoken to him about his case, and does not recall the last time he spoke to him.
What are the Offences Against the State Acts and the Special Criminal Court?
The Acts were introduced primarily to counter the threat posed by the IRA. They allow for internment without trail and the detention of persons deemed dangerous to State security.
The current Special Criminal Court dates back to 1972, shortly after the Troubles began. Sinn Féin politicians Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris have, in the past, been convicted of IRA membership before the court.
Since the IRA ceasefire it has handled an increasing number of other cases involving those connected to organised crime. These include the killers of journalist Veronica Guerin, and John Dundon, the Limerick crime boss, who was convicted of murdering rugby player Shane Geoghegan in 2013.
Its existence been criticised by several human rights bodies including Amnesty and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. The UN Human Rights Committee has advised that its continued existence in Ireland is in violation of human rights obligations.
Former president Mary Robinson said in 2008 that she was “sympathetic” to the critique of the court, adding there was a potential for corruption in the powers given to the court. In 2013, Labour councillor and barrister Jane Horgan Jones wrote on this website that the court needs to be abolished.
In October, the government decided to establish a second jury-less Special Criminal Court in order to deal with the backlog of pending cases.
Is Sinn Féin is opposed to it?
Yes, Sinn Féin has always been opposed to the court and the Offences against the State Acts and has regularly voted against the renewal of such legislation in the Dáil. Adams described the legislation as “coercive and draconian” today.
The party’s justice spokesperson Padraig MacLochlainn cited the courts’ several critics and added: “Sinn Féin’s view is that it is an inappropriate court. That is our right to do that, it is not a mortal sin to do that.”
What has been the reaction to Adams and Sinn Féin’s remarks?
As you might expect, particularly with an election looming, the government and opposition have been heavily critical of Adams. Both Fianna Fáil, in the form of Micheál Martin, and Fine Gael, in the form of Alan Shatter, have said it shows why Sinn Féin is not fit for government.
Martin said that Adams’s response “is completely consistent with how Sinn Féin leadership has behaved in a string of cases in recent times”.
They are more interested in protecting their own than respecting and enforcing the rule of law.
Political opponents having a go is no surprise. What about Sinn Féin-ers?
There was a notable silence from many of its TDs and Senators yesterday when we contacted them, including senior party figures like Pearse Doherty, Mary Lou McDonald and MacLochlainn.
McDonald did issue a statement in response to queries from the Irish Independent. She said: ”Everyone has a duty to pay their taxes in full. Full stop. That includes good republicans like Mr Thomas Murphy.
It is strange that the case was referred to the Special Criminal Court. That is not the norm on dealing with cases of tax evasion.
MacLochlainn explained to us at length why Sinn Féin is opposed to the court but said he does not know Murphy and has never met him in his life. On tax evaders, the Donegal TD said:
I don’t care who they are or what contribution they’ve made, they should face the full rigours of the law.
When we contacted Dublin North-West TD Dessie Ellis yesterday he claimed he hadn’t heard what Adams had said. This is despite his own party leader having been prominent in the media for three days in a row.
What are the political implications for Sinn Féin?
The party’s political opponents will no doubt continue to criticise Adams and Sinn Féin’s stance on this issue and that’s not ideal for Sinn Féin when an election is just around the corner.
There are legitimate questions to be asked about why Sinn Féin is taking such a strong position on what is, rightly or wrongly, the law of the land.
The Special Criminal Court exists, Sinn Féin might not like it but it’s not unreasonable to expect that it abides by its decision-making. Especially given that the court has issued convictions for some of the most heinous crimes carried out by people who have no affiliation to dissident republicanism.
But in Murphy’s case, Sinn Féin is on the defensive. He is a controversial figure, but an important one to the party and the peace process. The party could not have criticised Murphy without some implications within the republican movement.
So this goes to the wider issue of Sinn Féin and its connection to controversial figures linked to some of the most troubling aspects of the conflict in the North. As long as that connection exists and the party continues to operate on the defensive, it’s likely to be unable to satisfy concerns about its suitability to govern.