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Inside Slab Murphy's multi-million euro, cross-border smuggling empire

Murphy ran a profitable cross-border trade, first with pigs and cattle and then with fuel and oil.

Thomas 'Slab' Murphy court case Brian Lawless / PA Wire Brian Lawless / PA Wire / PA Wire

TOM ‘SLAB’ MURPHY said by security sources to be the former Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA, used his family farm’s unique position straddling the border to amass a multi-million euro fortune through cross border smuggling.

Born in August 1949 close to the border in the townland of Ballybinaby in Hackballscross, Co Louth, Murphy is believed to have joined the IRA in the 1960s, before the organisation split into the Provisional and Official wings.

Murphy aligned himself with the Provisionals, became an active member of the Provisional IRA and, according to journalist Toby Harnden in his authoritative book Bandit Country (written in 1999):

Since October 1996 he has been the IRA’s Chief of Staff. Balding and heavily built, Murphy has a lolloping gait and an imposing presence. Apart from the IRA and smuggling, his only passion is Gaelic football.

The family farm, which Tom took over after his father’s death in 1968, proved ideal for cross border smuggling, with part of it lying in the north and part of it in the Republic.

Murphy ran a profitable cross border smuggling trade, first with pigs and cattle and latterly with fuel and oil.

ULSTER Crime Garda officers drive fuel tankers from the scene of a major cross border search operation near Crossmaglen in Co Armagh in March 2006. Three people were arrested during a massive security operation linked to a major investigation into organised crime on both sides of the Irish border today. Hundreds of police and soldiers in south Armagh and north Co Louth raided properties and at one stage an area around the family home of Thomas Slab Murphy was sealed off. PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Affidavits lodged in court by members of the Criminal Assets Bureau following a joint raid involving the gardaí, customs and PSNI at the Murphy farm on 9 March 2006, give an insight into the problems faced by the authorities in combatting cross-border smuggling.

In one affidavit a CAB officer said that Tom Murphy inherited the family home and farm from his parents but transferred it into the names of other family members.

He said:

The original home is surrounded by a yard and sheds which contain oil storage tanks, both mobile and static. This property is now the headquarters of Ace Oils Limited.

“I believe that in addition to the above property, Murphy owns and controls a number of farm sheds and outbuildings on lands adjoining the Ace Oils Limited business premises.

“Some of these outbuildings and sheds are situated within Northern Ireland but another shed and yard are situated on land within the Republic of Ireland, which open out directly into the Northern Ireland jurisdiction.”

The officer said that Ace Oils Ltd started trading from the Murphy farm in 1992 and he went on to state:

I believe as a result of investigations and from confidential information in my possession, the source of which I do not wish to reveal for security and operational reasons, that Tom Murphy has been involved in oil smuggling for many years and this smuggling was carried out from North to South or vice versa depending on the price differential in each jurisdiction at particular times.

A senior PSNI officer in his affidavit said: “Thomas Murphy, also known as Slab, has I believe for some years been actively involved in fuel smuggling and other forms of smuggling across the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“This has been a multi million pound venture which has been undertaken for some years.

“It is in respect of these smuggling activities and related money laundering offences, which my investigations are being pursued.

“This farm straddles the border with substantial buildings in both jurisdictions, some of which actually have the border going through them. It is the convenience of the location which lends itself to the illegal trade of fuel.

The border dissects the original dwelling house and farmyard with the majority of the dwelling being located in Co Louth and approximately 60% of the yard area in Co Armagh.

ULSTER Crime PSNI officer at the scene of the major cross border search operation Near Crossmaglen in Co Armagh, Thursday March 9 2006. PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The PSNI officer went to state: “I understand that a HM Revenue and Customs report in 2002 estimated that in 2000 the revenue loss could have been between 450 and 980 million pounds (sterling) in the UK.

“Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs estimated that revenue loss in Northern Ireland was 380 million pounds (sterling) in 2000. This figure has increased since then.

I believe that criminal groups operating from the south Armagh area are involved in prolific fuel smuggling not only on both sides of the Irish border but also into Great Britain.

A detective garda with CAB said, in another affidavit, that during the March 2006 search of Murphy’s farm a large amount of cash and cheques were found in black plastic bags hidden in hay bales. The cash totalled €256,245 and £111,185.

The same CAB officer said:”I believe that Ace Oils Ltd and Murphy have been involved in cross border oil smuggling over the past twenty years approximately and that they have benefited financially from this activity and have built up a substantial property portfolio which is held in various individual and company names.”

An affidavit from a senior Customs Officer attached to CAB detailed how the fuel smuggling was carried out at the Murphy farm.

There were three large static storage tanks and six underground storage tanks. There were two filling gantries in the yard. This yard was constructed so as to enable a tanker of any size to come from the Republic of Ireland to fill up with fuel, or dispense fuel into the storage tanks.

“In addition to the above, two of the underground storage tanks containing petrol had interconnecting pipes which led to a pig shed situated a few feet south of the border

“There was also a pipe coming around the underground derv (diesel) storage tank to the same shed. These pipes were connected to petrol and derv dispensing machines concealed within the shed.

“The dispensing machines had a large flexible hose attached. This hose was sufficiently long to enable petrol or derv to be dispensed into a tanker parked in a shed north of the border. I am satisfied that this structure was put in place for the sole purpose of illegally exporting petrol and derv to Northern Ireland.”

Libel actions

PA-1095338 A 1990 image of Thomas 'Slab' Murphy PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Murphy has taken two separate libel actions against the Sunday Times; in 1990 and following a Supreme Court appeal which overturned the jury’s findings in that case, and again in 1998.

The Sunday Times in 1985 reported that Slab Murphy had been appointed the Provisional IRA operations commander for Northern Ireland and had sanctioned a planned bombing campaign of 12 seaside resorts in England which was thwarted when British police arrested the IRA active service unit in Glasgow.

During the first libel trial at the Four Courts in Dublin in 1990, the jury was shown aerial photographs of the Murphy farm complex. It was told that four companies were run from the complex, one of them an oil distribution company named after Weststar, an oil company that featured in the popular 1980’s American TV series Dallas.

The jury at that trial also heard that that two Irish customs officers who called to the Murphy farm in April, 1989 were attacked by Murphy, who threw a concrete block at them.

Evidence in trials

During the 1990 libel trial the Sunday Times called as a witness Brendan Mc Gahon, then a Fine Gael TD for Louth, who told the jury that he had no doubt that Murphy had links with the IRA. The newspaper also called five gardai, British Army Brigadier Peter Morton and three customs officers as witnesses.

The jury also heard that gardaí had found a false passport in the name of Jim Faughey which Murphy had used to travel abroad.

It was one of 100 blank passports stolen from the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1984. Passports from the same batch were found along with plans to bomb British seaside resorts when police raided a house in Glasgow and arrested an IRA active service unit in 1985.

Following Murphy’s successful appeal to the Supreme Court against the jury’s findings in 1990, a retrial was held in 1998 during which the Sunday Times called two former Provisional IRA members, Sean O’Callaghan and Eamon Collins.

Eamon Collins, who was later murdered near his home in Newry, Co Down, told the jury that Murphy was “the most senior IRA man” he had met.

O’Callaghan, who worked as a garda informer while also active as a senior Provisional IRA member, told the jury that that he had met Murphy at two meetings of the IRA Army Council’s General Headquarters Staff in 1984 and 1985.

The jury in the second libel case took less than an hour to reject Murphy’s case and found against him.

The estimated cost of the second libel case alone in legal fees was around €1.5 million.

More: Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy sentenced to 18 months in prison

Diarmaid MacDermott
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