DUBLIN (AP) — The longtime chief of the Irish Republican Army, one of the outlawed group's most feared and secretive figures, received an 18-month prison sentence Friday for tax evasion a decade after police discovered a fortune hidden inside hay bales on his border farm.
Thomas "Slab" Murphy, 66, denied all charges against him and vowed to appeal the verdict at Ireland's Special Criminal Court, a three-judge panel that hears IRA-related cases without a jury because of the risk of intimidation. His statement called media reports of his wealth and IRA involvement "utterly untrue."
Irish analysts have drawn parallels between Murphy's prosecution for tax fraud with the case of Chicago crime boss Al Capone, who likewise avoided conviction for his gang's many killings but couldn't account for his wealth. Until now, Murphy has been arrested several times but has never been successfully prosecuted for any crime.
Murphy's farm straddles Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and an escape tunnel runs beneath the property in each direction. He admitted he filed no tax returns in either country from 1996 to 2004, but claimed to have no declarable income of his own as other family members handled all business affairs.
South Armagh, midway between Dublin and Belfast, is renowned as "bandit country" because of its long traditions of smuggling and guerrilla activity. IRA units built vehicle bombs and mounted ambushes on British security forces there with relative impunity throughout the IRA's failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.
In 1985, following a string of IRA attacks in England, Murphy launched a libel lawsuit against a British newspaper, the Sunday Times, that identified him as the IRA godfather in South Armagh responsible for directing those bomb attacks. A Dublin jury in 1987 rejected Murphy's suit and judges ordered him to pay the newspaper's legal costs.
He refused, but also lost a subsequent 1998 appeal during which two former IRA members described their meetings with him as a member of the IRA's seven-man Army Council. One, Sean O'Callaghan, still lives today in hiding under IRA death threat. The other, Eamon Collins, tried to live openly and without security near South Armagh and was beaten to death in January 1999. A spike was driven into his face.
Murphy could have faced up to five years in prison and a 100,000 euro ($110,000) fine for the tax evasion, but judges said they had taken his age and lack of previous criminal record into account. They ruled he must pay 189,965 euros ($208,950) in taxes and interest payments.
The judges' stressed that his punishment must reflect his status as a farmer, not an IRA figure.
Nonetheless, Justice Paul Butler said that in their view the safety of jurors could not have been guaranteed, had Murphy prevailed in his legal bids to shift his trial to a jury court.
Even proving the tax evasion case proved a titanic struggle that required Irish investigators to win several Murphy appeals all the way to the Supreme Court.
When hundreds of police and customs officers swooped on his property in March 2006, they seized evidence of a diversified racketeering empire: 8,000 liters (2,100 gallons) of fuel and a fleet of tanker trucks for smuggling it; 30,000 smuggled cigarettes and crates of liquor; briefcases and boxes full of coded ledgers documenting his sales of cattle in markets island-wide; and garbage bags filled with cash in three currencies and checks exceeding 1.15 million euros ($1.37 million at the time).
Ireland's Criminal Assets Bureau, which seized the cash and other assets, testified during Murphy's trial that it estimated his tax liability on illicit trade at 5.34 million euros ($5.9 million). But Friday's judgment concerned only his failure to declare earnings from legal cattle dealings and other farm income, chiefly government subsidy payments.
In his statement, Murphy denied owning any property and said he had no savings.
Murphy has never given an interview and, until his tax evasion trial, studiously avoided being photographed.
His conviction and imminent sentencing became a major election issue this month, so much so that the court delayed his sentencing to Friday, the election day.
Sinn Fein, which grew out of the IRA to become the major Catholic-backed party in Northern Ireland, expects to become the third-largest party in the Republic of Ireland parliament following Friday's vote.
A prominent critic of the Sinn Fein-IRA movement in Ireland's parliament, Sen. Mairia Cahill, welcomed Murphy's sentencing.
Cahill said Murphy long has been linked to crimes "far worse than tax evasion."
"Justice has finally caught up to this notorious individual," she said.