As a young police officer, former Police Service of Northern Ireland assistant chief constable Alan McQuillan once engaged in a bizarre game of cross-Border tug of war with Thomas "Slab" Murphy.
A quarter of a century later he was present in Dublin at the moment the authorities were convinced they could prosecute Murphy on Al Capone-type tax- evasion charges.
Murphy deserved his reputation as a clever and ruthless IRA chief in its heartland in south Armagh, McQuillan told The Irish Times: "He was a man who inspired fear."
He added: “South Armagh occupied a very special place in the structure of the IRA, because it was where the weapons and bombs and new detonation systems were tested. Therefore he was seen to be right at the centre of its operations.”
This week he recalled his first encounter with Murphy. It was in 1982 when as a young Royal Ulster Constabulary inspector he was based in Crossmaglen, close to Murphy's farm fortress straddling the Border between south Armagh and north Louth at Ballybinaby.
He remembered being in the company of a British army major and receiving word of IRA activity at Murphy’s farm.
“There were three helicopters, just by lucky chance, which were in a position to get to the scene. But as the first helicopter came over the farm on the northern side two cars came out with gunmen in them. One car headed north, the other headed south. The gunmen in the car heading north were leaning out of the window of their vehicle pointing rifles at the aircraft but they did not fire on it. Because of that the gunmen were not fired upon from the helicopter.
“But they chased the car to a village about four miles away where the gunmen abandoned their car and ran into local houses. The army landed but they had lost them.”
Separately, McQuillan, the army major and a contingent of police and soldiers arrived at the farm by road. “At first it was deserted but then Slab emerged from a cottage on the southern side and started shouting at us. The Garda were on their way at that point. Slab was trying to get us to cross the Border but we knew exactly where the Border was,” said McQuillan. At that time there was political and security sensitivity over RUC or British army “incursions” into the Republic.
"At one point he ran up to the very edge of the Border and grabbed the webbing on the back of a rucksack of one of the soldiers and tried to drag him into the Republic. We grabbed the soldier and pulled him back into the North. We would have been very happy to have Mr Murphy with him, but he let go.
“He then produced a video camera and started videoing us. He was shouting abuse at us and trying to goad us into going across into the Republic. The Garda arrived and there was an altercation and scuffle between them and Slab during the course of which the video camera was damaged.
“But the video eventually ended up on an IRA propaganda film. About four years later somebody said to me: ‘Do you know you are the star of a film in North America?’ It was on a Noraid video.” (Noraid is an Irish republican-supporting fundraising body in the US.)
If Capone was Chicago's gangster Mr Big then Murphy was Provisional republicans' Border godfather. Chieftain might be a more fitting description, because in many ways that is what he is, a leader who commanded loyalty and felt safest in his south Armagh tribe.
Consider that in 2006, long after the peace process was established, it took 400 British and Irish soldiers, PSNI and Garda officers and officials from the Criminal Assets Bureau and the British customs and excise to mount a raid on his farm complex of house, sheds, offices and oil tanks. It is located in the townland of Ballybinaby in the Republic, Cornoonagh in the North. Locally it is called Dun Slab.
Being able to slip from one jurisdiction to the other by walking a matter of metres on his property made Murphy legally elusive but his notoriety was built on much more than that: he was an IRA hard man.
As demonstrated by that raid and by McQuillan’s experience, his enemies did not enter his territory unless they were well prepared and well protected.
British and Irish security sources and republican and local sources attest to how Murphy rose through the ranks to become one of the Provisional IRA’s most feared leaders, a member of its army council and for a period from 1997 its reported chief of staff – a Provisional who with other republicans made south Armagh a virtual law unto itself, the most dangerous area for the British army and RUC during the Troubles.
The now dismantled British army observation towers along the Border hills were constructed to try to keep tabs on Murphy’s IRA operations.
The day in August 1979 the IRA killed Lord Louis Mountbatten, an elderly woman and two teenage boys in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, it also detonated two bombs at Narrow Water near Warrenpoint, Co Down, killing 18 British soldiers – the deadliest attack suffered by the British army during the Troubles.
Toby Harnden in his book Bandit Country, the term for south Armagh coined by former northern secretary Merlyn Rees, writes about Margaret Thatcher, just four months into her premiership, arriving in Northern Ireland to be briefed about the security situation two days after Mullaghmore and Narrow Water. The British army had prepared a list of 20 people who should be arrested and held indefinitely without trial. Top of the list was Murphy.
IRA English Department
It might seem convenient that so many of the horrors of the Troubles should be laid at the leadership door of Murphy but, according to senior security sources, he ran the IRA in south Armagh and carried out some of the worst acts of the conflict. And it was also in south Armagh that the IRA's so-called English Department was based – the group that planned and organised the big bomb attacks in London, Manchester and in other parts of England. The Metropolitan Police in London has recently been called on by survivors and relatives of the dead and injured in the London Docklands bombings 20 years ago to investigate Murphy.
“Slab was the brains, the planner, the organiser; he was not renowned as a trigger man,” said a security source. “He ran a tight operation. Generally, only people known to him and from the area were trusted to be in his organisation.”
Murphy allegedly was involved in smuggling in huge consignments of weapons from Col Muammar Gadafy of Libya, having in the 1970s reportedly received paramilitary training in Libya. And when the IRA decided to end its 1994 ceasefire it was Murphy's English Department that planned and carried out the London Docklands bombing in February 1996 that broke that cessation.
Businessman and boat skipper Adrian Hopkins, who died last August, said he was employed by Murphy to smuggle in shiploads of weapons from Libya in the mid 1980s, four believed to have got through, the fifth – the Eksund consignment – detected. Hopkins described being paid £100,000 by Murphy in £20 and £50 notes for one of the successfully smuggled deliveries.
Murphy is now 66. Slab is a family name that goes back at least to his father. "Tom's father was a big slab of a man and the name just stuck," the late Crossmaglen publican Paddy Short told Harnden. The fortune he allegedly amassed through fuel laundering and smuggling pigs, cattle, grain and cigarettes has been estimated by the BBC's Underworld Rich List at between £35 million and £40 million. Some of that was allegedly accrued through the EU subsidies merry-go-round by repeatedly moving animals across the Border to avail of the Brussels benefits.
Much of those millions facilitated the actions of the IRA during the conflict but since the peace process that alleged criminality continued, which raises questions about what happens that money now – particularly in light of last year’s British government-commissioned report which found the IRA army council still existed and “individual PIRA members remain involved in criminal activity such as large-scale smuggling”.
Murphy left school at 14 and took over the family farm when his father died five years later. He has a great interest in Gaelic football and is also said to enjoy darts, road bowling and cockfighting. A bachelor, he is a non-smoker and moderate drinker.
“There is no flamboyance or style about the man at all,” said one local man. “There are no big cars or anything like that. He’s a man who tries to stay below the radar. If you met him you might think he hadn’t an arse in his trousers.”
It is believed Murphy joined the IRA in the 1960s and by the early stages of the Troubles was well known to the RUC, Garda, British army and customs officials on both sides of the Border, although not publicly known. One businessman who legitimately sold green diesel to him (“washed” afterwards to appear as regular diesel, it is suspected) described calling to his farm in Ballybinaby, seeing him “furtively watching from his kitchen window . . . and sending one of his men to deal with me”. He portrayed him as a man “who seemed to operate in the shadows”.
The first significant public reference to Murphy was in 1985, when four RUC officers including 21-year-old Constable Ellen Doak were blown up by a 1,000lb IRA bomb at the old Killeen Border crossing near Newry. The then RUC chief constable Sir John Hermon said the attack was carried out by a "wealthy pig farmer" living in the Republic.
Where some IRA members justified the paramilitary campaign by reference to leftist ideology Murphy is an old-style no-nonsense United Irelander. The IRA informant Sean O'Callaghan said he met Murphy at a senior IRA meeting in 1983 in the company of Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and West Tyrone MP Pat Doherty and other named IRA members. He also said he met Murphy at IRA meetings in 1984 and 1985.
O’Callaghan characterised Murphy as far preferring to be back in “south Armagh than at any meeting”. He also described some banter ahead of one meeting with an IRA commander asking Murphy: “So, how are we going to win the war, Tom?”
“We’ll bomb them [the British] to the conference table and then booby-trap the table,” he reportedly said. But what about the Sinn Féin talks delegation, he was asked, they’d be at the table too. “In south Armagh we never tell people where we put our booby traps,” he replied.
Murphy has not always been sure-footed. His decision to take on the Sunday Times in an 11-year libel saga damaged his reputation. In 1987 the newspaper said he had been behind an IRA seaside bombing campaign in England two years earlier. It described him as the IRA's "officer commanding for the whole of Northern Ireland". Murphy said he was defamed but in 1990 a Dublin jury rejected his claim, portraying him as a senior IRA figure who planned murder and bombing.
Murphy was successful in a Supreme Court appeal that led to a retrial. But he neither impressed the judge nor the jury by his evidence in the second hearing. He depicted himself as a man who owned a "small wee farm" in Co Armagh. "Never been a member of the IRA, no way," he said. And did he endorse violence for any reason? "No way," he asserted. He even claimed never to have heard of the Maze prison, leading Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness to scold: "Oh, come on, Mr Murphy, you must have heard of the Maze." When further prompted by the judge to say whether he knew about the prison he replied: "I do now."
It took the jury less than an hour to dismiss his case. They found the article meant Murphy was “a prominent member” of the IRA, that he “planned murder and the bombing of property” and that those words in the article were true “in substance or in fact”.
Eighteen years on, Murphy has not paid the legal fees of the Sunday Times, estimated at £600,000. "The Sunday Times has not as yet recovered its legal fees," said a spokeswoman for the newspaper, indicating some hope that Murphy might yet deliver.
Harnden reported in Bandit Country that after the case Murphy, said at that stage to be IRA chief of staff, offered to stand down from that position in favour of the late Brian Keenan but that this was rejected.
One of those who gave evidence for the Sunday Times was former IRA man Eamon Collins, author of Killing Rage, a disturbing book that, as Collins said, dealt with the horrific banality of murder. "No hard feelings, Slab," he said as he left the courtroom.
Murphy lost the case in May 1998. The following January Collins was beaten, stabbed and bludgeoned to death while he was out for his regular early- morning walk near his home in Newry. Guns were not used because that would have raised further questions about the authenticity of the IRA ceasefire. At his wake Collins’s coffin was closed because his face was so badly disfigured.
Sinn Féin has generally stood by Murphy, although this conviction is causing difficulties for it. After the huge raid on his property in 2006, which is believed to have been linked to a multimillion- pound property portfolio in Manchester in which Murphy was also allegedly implicated, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said Slab was a “good republican”. So far he and other senior figures such as Mary Lou McDonald have held to that description.
In the realpolitik of Provisional republicanism Adams had reasons to be grateful to Murphy. In the 1990s, when Real IRA leader Michael McKevitt was trying to lure south Armagh republicans into the arms of the dissidents, it was Murphy, under some pressure, who helped persuade the bulk of them to hold with the Adams-McGuinness leadership.
Murphy delivered south Armagh and in that context it was understandable that Adams would seek to walk the tightrope between continuing to stand by him while striving not to undermine Sinn Féin's prospects during this election campaign. But even with the election out of the way the hard moral question remains for Adams and other Sinn Féin leaders: is Thomas Slab Murphy still a good republican?
Looking back on Murphy’s career, McQuillan can’t help uttering the phrase “Long runs the fox” – in the end even the seemingly invincible get their comeuppance.
It's a neat, book-ending coincidence that in October 2005, as the then head of the Assets Recovery Agency in the North, the equivalent of the Criminal Assets Bureau, he was at a high- level meeting in Clontarf Castle Hotel of North-south politicians, police, revenue, ARA and CAB colleagues. This was when almost £12 million in Manchester property assets allegedly linked to Murphy were frozen.
“We were chatting when suddenly one of the Garda officers came to me and said: ‘Come and see this quick,’” recalled McQuillan. “On the TV was Slab Murphy standing outside his solicitor’s office with the solicitor reading a statement on his behalf where he said he had absolutely nothing to do with Manchester, he knew nothing about it, and that he was a ‘just a farmer’,” he said.
My colleague in the Garda turned to me and said: ‘F*** me, we’ve got him.’ He virtually leapt in the air. I said: ‘Sorry, what do you mean?’ And he said: ‘For years he’s been refusing to put in tax returns, saying that he had no occupation. He has just admitted on national TV that he is a farmer. We now have enough evidence to open a tax-evasion case against him.’
“That statement was the trigger for the whole investigation,” said McQuillan.
It’s an interesting irony for Murphy to contemplate after his sentencing: how despite his notoriety as one of the shrewdest, most feared and most ruthless leaders of the IRA he incriminated himself.