Jennifer O'Leary investigates leading republican Thomas 'Slab' Murphy and asks what his recent conviction means for Sinn Fein in the forthcoming Irish election.
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Tonight on Spotlight...
Thomas "Slab" Murphy -
He was the one that sent those people out to commit murder
on behalf of the IRA.
Thomas Murphy awaits sentencing following his conviction
in the Republic for tax offences, and now faces the prospect of jail.
I am on a journey to discover how he was brought to book
and how decades of IRA terror brought him
a multi-million-pound criminal empire.
I want to know why the Sinn Fein leadership moved to defend
their one-time comrade in arms as a hero,
just weeks before a crucial election.
What we have achieved in the North of Ireland
over the last 20 years has been nothing short of amazing.
The amazing wouldn't have happened without
the support of people like Tom Murphy.
In searching for the answers,
we reveal a hidden history that some prefer would remain in the past.
There was a great desire by the British Government to not admit
that the IRA were still active in crime, or active at all.
It's show time.
For Sinn Fein, the forthcoming election in the Republic may bring
its greatest electoral reward -
government on both sides of the border.
But the party's rush to the defence
of a convicted tax evader has,
for some, tested its credibility.
The recent conviction of party colleague and senior IRA man
Thomas Murphy for agricultural tax offences
marked the culmination of years of work by authorities north and south.
It's the only conviction of a man
who says he makes his living from farming -
but whom authorities believe controlled
a vast smuggling operation
that has exploited oil, cigarettes, even farm subsidies.
Murphy's position right on the border -
it ran literally through his property -
allowed him, authorities say, to exploit and cheat the revenue
north and south for decades.
The officers were in the South of Ireland, and the main generating
oil industry within the North of Ireland,
so you can imagine an imaginary line going through the building,
so that meant the officers had
to come from both sides, to actually conduct, shall we say,
a professional search.
In recent years, Murphy has been the subject of a number of raids.
This raid in 2013 was a major cross-border operation.
But the origins of his current conviction lie over a decade ago,
when Murphy moved to publicly claim that he was just a simple farmer.
Former Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan was attending
a cross-border police conference in Dublin at the time,
when his attention was drawn to a TV news report.
A senior Garda officer came to me and said,
"Quick, come and see this."
He said that he was a simple farmer.
At that point my Garda colleague turned round and said,
"Fuck me, I've got him."
He said, "For years he's been refusing to put in a tax return,
"saying he has no income. He's just admitted that he's a farmer.
"He's filed false tax returns."
And he said, "I've got enough now to open an investigation."
Murphy's own words, in effect, led the authorities to his door.
Just months later, Felix McKenna led a major cross-border raid
on Murphy's complex.
For the frantic efforts they were making when we hit the scene,
and hit the locations ourselves,
I would say the max they would have had warning was about 30 minutes.
The Army were out in force with us as well, plus helicopters,
uniformed PSNI and British Army.
As our officers drove into one of the residences, they were met
by a car, discarding items, throwing them into the ditch,
in various places, like hard drives and disks.
There was a kind of panic and a frantic effort to, kind of,
hide and conceal material that we would have been searching for.
In that farmyard and cattle shed, they located a number of black
plastic bags, concealed in the bales of straw or hay.
In them plastic bags we found large amounts of cash,
strangely enough company records, ledgers, computers, hard drives
and disks, and that painted a picture of what was going on.
But it's the timing of Thomas Murphy's conviction
that is both highly symbolic
and politically inconvenient for Sinn Fein.
The Irish State is heading to the polls, at a time
when the country is preparing to honour and commemorate
its Republican heroes.
And as the election campaign gets underway,
all the parties must decide,
when is a Republican a good Republican?
I'm pretty good on 1916.
It's about all I know about, so if you've any questions,
throw them out there.
Lorcan Collins has run tours celebrating the people and places
of the Easter Rising for 20 years.
A lot of money would flood in,
would be used by the Fenians or the IRB to buy weapons.
We get some from Germany in 1914,
in a shipment that came in in a place called Howth.
We did try the democratic process but we got nowhere.
The next thing would be they'd distribute those weapons
around the west coast, and the uprising would kick off
on Easter Sunday, OK?
So what can go wrong? Well, it's Ireland,
so everything goes wrong at the last minute, all right?
Dublin became a battleground.
But confusion over the arrival of arms for the rebels
led to the Rising being cancelled in many other parts of Ireland.
Those who carried on seized the General Post Office,
before losing to the might of an imperial army.
The Rising had ultimately failed in its aims.
The city did not fall to the rebels.
The ringleaders were rounded up and executed.
The rebellion and the image of the rebel leaders
who died for their country
gave new life to the idea of a blood sacrifice for a united Ireland.
You don't have to be the winner to be the victor -
that's a key aspect of 1916 Uprising.
So history is obviously a living thing for Lorcan,
who runs these tours on a daily basis,
but the 1916 Rising,
its significance and its commemoration
will certainly feed into the forthcoming elections
here in the Republic soon.
I think the 1916 commemorations are undoubtedly part of the context
for the general election.
Most of the debate in the South around 1916
has actually been pretty mature.
Ten or 15 years ago, it would have been completely polarised
between people saying, "These people were terrorists and criminals",
and people saying they were saints and martyrs.
I think most people now know that it's somewhere in between.
Thomas Murphy's upcoming sentencing
may determine where he spends Easter 2016 -
a time when Republican heroes of old will be commemorated.
For some, Thomas Murphy is the manifestation
of a modern Republican hero.
Sinn Fein's defence of the so-called Good Republican, however,
has left the party open to criticism
that it's more interested in protecting its own
than respecting the rule of law.
Thomas Murphy, known as Slab,
is a man who has fought hard to keep his IRA past a secret.
His ascent to IRA leadership began in the 1960s.
Former senior IRA member Kieran Conway, now a solicitor,
first met Murphy in the early 1970s.
I was Director of Intelligence.
I went to a series of meetings in the border areas with the IRA.
And that would be the first time I met Tom Murphy.
We might discuss mutual acquaintances or, you know,
a bad IRA operation, or, er...
Or whatever, but no, no, the small talk would be very minimal.
In the mid 1980s, Conway was arrested with Murphy,
just over the border in County Louth,
on suspicion of IRA membership.
I think it was just a routine meeting, as far as I recall.
They were probably making arrangements for something or other.
But just to be sure, you were on IRA business?
Oh, absolutely, yeah, yeah, yeah.
The area had become a war zone for police and army.
For the IRA, under its leading lights like Thomas Murphy,
it was a fortress.
It was the safest area in Ireland to be in.
It was safer than Kerry or Cork or anywhere.
South Armagh was the centre for experimentation with explosives,
test firing weapons, er,
mortars, rockets, various other items,
and also as a centre for the interrogation of suspect informers.
For the security forces, however,
South Armagh was one of the most dangerous postings...
..in the world.
Soldiers who served there have been long familiar with Thomas Murphy
and the IRA unit he led.
Colonel Richard Kemp worked in intelligence
at the Cabinet Office after several tours in Northern Ireland.
My role, both when I was in intelligence in Northern Ireland
and in London, was to monitor the activities
of the Provisional IRA.
Thomas Murphy, of course, remained a major player in the IRA operations,
throughout all of these years.
I had access to the intelligence that was available
to the British Army and to the British Government,
and that did include information about what Murphy's activities were
and his links to other members of the IRA and his position
and the reason for it.
Thomas Murphy had risen to a senior position in the South Armagh IRA
by the early 1970s.
And the IRA in South Armagh has been linked to
some of the bloodiest attacks of the Troubles.
Narrow Water - 18 soldiers killed.
The murder off the coast of Sligo of Lady Brabourne,
Lord Mountbatten, his grandson as a local boy that same day.
A series of border bombings.
And the shooting dead of so-called IRA informers.
We were briefed on the main IRA terrorists
operating in South Armagh.
Was Thomas Murphy on that list?
Thomas Murphy was one of the main people on that list -
in fact, he was... As we understood it,
he was the head of the Provisional IRA in South Armagh.
We did not believe that he was necessary the trigger man,
the one who would actually position the bombs or pull the trigger
of a sniper rifle, but we did know that he was the one that sent
those people out to commit murder on behalf of the IRA.
On the watchtowers,
attempted morale-boosting visits by ministers came and went.
The IRA's armed campaign continued.
During my tour in South Armagh in 1986, we lost three soldiers
from my battalion, the 2nd Royal Anglians.
The first one was Major Andrew French,
who was killed by a remote-controlled bomb,
and we also lost two other soldiers,
Private Bertram and Private Davis, near my observation post.
I believe that Slab Murphy was behind those killings.
We believed at the time that Slab Murphy was behind those killings,
and I still believe it today -
that he, while he almost certainly did not actually take the action,
would have ordered the action, would have approved the plan,
would have directed what happened,
and therefore I consider Slab Murphy responsible
for the death of those three men from my battalion.
I think Thomas Murphy will be remembered -
and I certainly remember him - for being a mass murderer.
He killed and ordered the killing of many people.
He had a regime of fear.
Who was going to stand up in court
and give evidence against Slab Murphy?
He was a big Mafia boss, in effect.
People were terrified of him.
This is Eamon Collins, a former IRA man who went
on the record about his own IRA activity.
We were killing police, soldiers, and causing severe explosions.
We were tying down thousands of troops
and we were causing very severe problems.
In 1990, Murphy took the Sunday Times to court for libel
but eventually lost
when he challenged a description of him in the newspaper
as a top IRA commander.
Eamon Collins gave evidence against Murphy at the trial.
Collins outlined an IRA meeting he had attended in 1983,
where Thomas Murphy had identified himself as
a representative of the IRA's Army Council.
Eight months after the trial, Eamon Collins was found
beaten and stabbed to death a short distance from his home in Newry.
Murphy has contested his links to criminality
and role within the IRA, but his failed legal challenge
only brought further exposure.
I want to discover how Murphy's IRA influence had grown
within South Armagh and beyond.
In 1987, French Customs intercepted a ship
off the coast of Brittany in France.
-Not much has emerged
as to what the Eksund and her crew were up to.
The Eksund first appeared as a riddle,
cut adrift on the French coast, but it contained a deadly secret.
Inside, a haul of arms that could have transformed
the capabilities of the IRA.
It seems that the shipment was masterminded by Murphy and others.
And she's still yielding box after box after box of ammunition.
This is the north coast of France.
And this is where the Eksund's journey came to an end,
beginning a major international police investigation.
Jean-Louis Bruguiere was France's most senior
He led the Eksund investigation.
I think we have the details.
Anti-aircraft, explosives, semtex - two tonnes.
And, of course, more than 1,000 Kalashnikovs.
150 tonnes of arms destined for the IRA.
Intelligence services in several countries
had known of a link between Libya and the IRA,
but the discovery was proof that the Gaddafi regime
was supplying arms to the Provisionals.
Three IRA men, a crewman and their Irish skipper were arrested.
The skipper, Adrian Hopkins, revealed the story of the Eksund
and its deadly cargo.
And French police had pieced together the supply line.
The arms had been loaded onto the Eksund from a dock in Tripoli.
A Libyan intelligence officer had been identified
and, as the investigator recalls, so, too, had Thomas Murphy.
Quite sure - sure - that Murphy was involved.
In time, it was revealed that Murphy had been travelling abroad
on a forged Irish passport
in the months before the Eksund arms shipment.
Thomas Murphy and the IRA had tapped into a crucial source of arms
from Colonel Gaddafi's Libya.
The Eksund shipment had been stopped by the French - but others had not.
The French police investigation had learned that four previous Libyan
shipments had already been landed
back here on the County Wicklow coast.
An account emerged, detailing how weapons were smuggled into Ireland
from this very beach.
The shipment was reportedly carried ashore by the armful
by IRA personnel - Thomas Murphy amongst them.
The capture of the Eksund helped scupper the IRA's plan
for a major offensive.
And it became clear that parts of the leadership were already
seeking an alternative strategy.
In the early years, every January the 1st was hailed
as the year of victory.
'72, '73, '74...
It became obvious it wasn't going to happen that quickly.
The search for heavy weaponry went on, and all the time the excuse
for every failing of the IRA was,
"Look, we need the heavy gear. We need proper equipment."
There was then supposed to be a major IRA offensive,
but they weren't able to deliver.
They were heavily infiltrated in various areas.
A military victory was not on the cards. Couldn't be done.
And people... Well, I think Gerry Adams
began to look for alternatives.
But South Armagh remained at the cutting edge of the IRA.
When it broke a ceasefire with the 1996 bombing
of London's Docklands, it was they who provided
the logistics for the operation.
Less obvious in the political strategy of the armed campaign
was the IRA's involvement in robberies and crime.
These pictures of a £4 million cigarette robbery in Belfast
record what police believe was an operation partly organised
by Thomas Murphy's South Armagh IRA.
One of the cigarette companies
was moving a very large consignment
of cigarettes in containers
on a ship in Belfast Docks,
when a party of IRA from Belfast arrived to rob it.
A fleet of lorries then arrived,
which had been provided by the IRA in South Armagh.
The cigarettes were loaded onto them. That was a joint operation
between the Belfast Brigade of the IRA, providing the muscle
in Belfast, and the South Armagh Brigade providing the transport.
For some in the security forces, the suspicion grew that the support
of key Republicans for the peace process had come at a price -
that smuggling and criminality would be allowed to continue,
as long as they held the peace.
There was a great desire by the British Government
to play down these things,
to not admit that the IRA were still active in crime,
or active at all.
We can only take cases on referral from other law enforcement agencies,
so they had to give us the cases.
We got lots and lots of cases of Loyalist crime
and we were hugely successful against those -
to the extent that the Unionists began to complain about bias.
But what we would not get were the really hardcore entry
into dealing with the criminality of Republican paramilitaries.
Do you think that the intelligence services and the police
were encouraged not to pass on referrals
regarding Republican cases?
I think the decisions were political -
I think the issue here was the management of the peace process,
and nothing must be done
that would disturb the politics of the situation.
Thomas Murphy has put his full support for the peace process
on the record, and said that he will play whatever role
he can to see it work.
But in defending a fraudster, critics say Sinn Fein have
undermined their credibility as a potential partner in government.
What we have achieved
in the North of Ireland
over the last 20 years
has been nothing short of amazing.
That's what the world tells us.
"What you have done here has been amazing."
Well, the amazing wouldn't have happened without the support
of people like Tom Murphy.
And we need to understand that.
There is a very unhelpful narrative being developed over the course
of this one particular case.
What is it about?
It's about trying to undermine Sinn Fein in the face of election.
Sinn Fein has said that Republicans are not involved
in criminal actions along the border,
but security sources believe that
Republicans still control a criminal empire
that continues to generate huge sums of money.
Sinn Fein have said it was a breach of Tom Murphy's rights
to hold his case in front of judges and not a jury.
The party's defence of Murphy was used by some political opponents
in the Republic as evidence that the party is not
fit for government.
And when Gerry Adams stood by Murphy and said he was a good Republican,
many asked why.
I think one was a sense of historic debt he feels he owes him
and he owes in going back to IRA decommissioning.
I think this is part of the strange psychosis of Gerry Adams
at the moment - that he has this official sense of himself,
which has no connection with the IRA at all,
and he has this dark side to himself which is this whole history.
And that history contains Slab Murphy.
You know, if you open that cupboard,
Slab Murphy and a lot of other people are going to fall out of it.
The 1916 Easter Rising was the seminal event
that led to Irish independence.
Kieran Conway was part of another generation of violent Republicans
who fought for a vision of a united Ireland.
A vision that is still unfulfilled.
Sinn Fein believe that a united Ireland is on the cards.
I think it's further away than it ever was.
I think the union is safe for the foreseeable
and, of course, has been made safe
by the Provisionals underwriting the Unionist veto, and saying,
"Yeah, we agree with this, and the only way to achieve Irish unity
"is by the way that the British Government
"told us to achieve it all along",
so the entire 25-year struggle was a total futile waste of lives
and the outcome could have been achieved
without a drop of blood being spilled.
Gerry Adams declined to be interviewed for the programme
but, in a statement, said political opponents and sections of the media
have used his defence of Murphy to attack him and his party.
He added that Tom Murphy contests the verdict
of the Special Criminal Court, and maintains his innocence.
Thomas Murphy also declined to speak to Spotlight.
He has previously challenged the portrayal of him
as a senior member of the IRA.
Government on both sides of the border could be
on the horizon for Sinn Fein, but their embrace of Murphy suggests
they see their own Republican heroes as first among equals.
It remains to be seen to what extent loyalty to their Good Republican
affects their prospects of one day holding power in the Republic.