Gerry Adams had little choice but to stand by ‘Slab’ Murphy

All those involved in peace process owed debt to IRA strongman of south Armagh

Sinn Féin's backing of Thomas "Slab" Murphy will be seized upon by politicians from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, DUP, Ulster Unionist, SDLP and other parties chasing seats in the Dáil and Northern Assembly elections.

But imagine for a moment if Gerry Adams had taken a different tack and said Murphy was a "bad republican".

Only Enda Kenny knows for certain, but there is speculation the Taoiseach will call a general election for late January or early February. Murphy won't be sentenced until February 12th and therefore Adams could have held to his initial response to the Murphy tax conviction, that he had "no comment to make until the legal process has been concluded".

Adams would have faced questions about Murphy regardless, but such a holding response probably would be sufficient to take the sting out of interrogation from journalists and politicians. That might have got him beyond the election in the Republic.

But perhaps Adams felt it important to get a statement out to reassure south Armagh republicans that, no matter how risible it might publicly appear or how embarrassing it is for him and Sinn Féin, he would stand shoulder to shoulder with Murphy.

Adams and Martin McGuinness, and indeed the British and Irish governments, owe a debt to Murphy. When the IRA called its second and sustained ceasefire in 1997, creating some of the key conditions that led to the 1998 Belfast Agreement, it was Murphy who got the bulk of the IRA in south Armagh over the line.

And it was touch and go how it might all pan out, according to well-placed security, intelligence, republican and political sources. As an alleged member of the IRA army council and a republican who allegedly ran the IRA’s most ruthless outfit, Murphy was a feared figure with great authority.

Real IRA leader Michael McKevitt was attempting to lure Provisional IRA members in south Armagh into his dissident organisation. Murphy, as a no-frills united Irelander, might have been tempted to keep the war going but, in the end, he sided with Adams and McGuinness and supported the peace process.

Murphy’s writ ran in south Armagh and when he held the line the IRA in south Armagh generally held the line, notwithstanding some seepage to McKevitt and the dissidents. Adams and the governments know how critical it was to have had “Slab” Murphy on board.

South Armagh republicans will be unhappy with his conviction, and most likely they will be even more upset when he is sentenced. Part of the package in selling the peace to Border republicans is there would be a quid pro quo for them, that the war would be over. That would leave it possible for those that so chose – as many did – to go back to the “normal” Border business of smuggling, diesel-laundering and other forms of criminality.

Now though there will be mutterings about why such a “good republican” has to pay a possible custodial price when without him there might have been no peace.

Adams naturally understands all this, as privately do Dublin and London officials. Therefore, he would have felt, he had no option but to stand by Murphy. In so doing, he attempted to muddy the waters by querying why "Slab" Murphy wasn't tried in front of a jury, rather than facing the non-jury Special Criminal Court, normally reserved for paramilitary and organised crime suspects. The case was originally listed to be held in front of a jury in Dundalk.

One can't but note that when Murphy's home straddling the Border between Louth and Armagh was raided in 2006 it took 400 British and Irish soldiers, PSNI officers and gardaí, Criminal Assets Bureau and British customs officials – not to mention a Garda helicopter – to carry out the job.

Adams could also have cited how when Murphy sued the Sunday Times for defamation for labelling him an IRA commander it was Dublin juries who branded him a liar and an IRA man who planned murder and bombing. So, why not a jury in this case?

But here it won't be forgotten that, in 1999, months after Murphy lost the case, one of the men who gave evidence against him, Eamon Collins, himself a former IRA man, was bludgeoned to death. It seems as an alleged former chief of staff of the IRA it was unlikely Murphy would have been tried anywhere other than the Special Criminal Court. Adams did what he had to at the weekend. But this legal case and Adams's defence of Murphy once again illustrates that Sinn Féin is not a normal political party, that its roots are the Armalite and the ballot box.

Organised crime

And such matters are becoming more pronounced. Today in Dublin, Minister for Foreign Affairs

Charlie Flanagan

, Northern Secretary

Theresa Villiers

and a number of North-South Ministers including Martin McGuinness are discussing how to tackle cross-Border organised crime.

Moreover, while the recent finding that the IRA and its army council are still in existence has been fudged to allow Stormont to continue, it hasn’t gone off the political radar. As the election looms, opponents of Adams and McGuinness on both sides of the Border will continue to paint a picture of the paramilitary monkey of the IRA still firmly attached to Sinn Féin.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times