Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams' credibility is in tatters after an incredible intervention to defend tax evader and former IRA godfather Thomas 'Slab' Murphy.
r Adams cast a slur on the Republic's legal system as he paid glowing references to Murphy - widely seen as a major smuggler who has managed to stay one step ahead of the law for years.
The Sinn Fein president's comments in a statement over the weekend were met by incredulity in political circles and caused major embarrassment within his own party but followers were reluctant to criticise their leader.
Adams variously said that Murphy:
- had been "treated unfairly";
- had his rights "denied";
- repeated once more that Murphy was a "good republican"; and
- also claimed the Special Criminal Court was not fit for purpose after the Murphy conviction.
Sinn Fein itself went into lockdown with nobody in the party breaking ranks to comment on the Murphy tax evasion judgment in Dublin's Special Criminal Court.
Opposition parties said his comments showed how Adams would act in power, opposed to the anti-terror courts and unquestioningly loyal to the Sinn Fein and IRA hierarchy.
Opponents also pointed out how Adams statement was in stark contrast to the deafening silence from other members of his party. And in a move that has infuriated members of the garda force and relatives of IRA victims, Mr Adams said he does not believe the country's Special Criminal Court is necessary or fit for purpose. The claim itself was contradicted last night by senior security sources who said there is growing concern about witness intimidation in the border region.
And the family of IRA murder victim Paul Quinn said the comments were "typical" of Mr Adams' disregard for "law and order".
Last night, Tanaiste Joan Burton said Mr Adams' reaction to the court's verdict "speaks volumes" about his party's claims of being committed to democracy and the rule of law.
"Yet again, the mask has slipped and Sinn Féin have revealed how unsuitable they are for government," the Irish Labour Party leader said. Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin pointed out that the decision to try Murphy in the Special Criminal Court was dealt with through the legal system.
"He faces a simple question now - does he or does he not accept the authority and judgment of the Irish Supreme Court?"
Irish Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald also commented on the controversy and assured the public that gardai will not be deterred from bringing criminals to justice.
"Without commenting on a particular case, I can assure people that the gardai and other law enforcement agencies will continue to pursue crime whatever the background of those who commit it and irrespective of whom might purport to vouch for them," she said.
On numerous occasions since Thursday's verdict, Mr Adams has swooped to the defence of Murphy, who is facing up to five years in prison when sentenced for tax fraud next month.
Yesterday, Mr Adams launched a desperate attack on Fianna Fail leader Mr Martin and the media for its reporting on the controversy. "Let me be very clear, Sinn Féin is strongly opposed to tax evasion. Everyone has a duty to pay their taxes and there can be no equivocation about this," he said, adding that his party supports the gardai and the law.
But Mr Adams claimed Murphy should have been tried before a jury.
"Let me be equally clear that Sinn Féin is absolutely opposed to the existence and operation of the non-jury Special Criminal Court.
"As I have already remarked there was nothing ordinary or routine about the trial and conviction of Tom Murphy who was denied the right to be tried before a jury of his peers and this raises serious concerns."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has branded Mr Adams' comments as inappropriate.
"Gerry Adams' comments on the conviction of Mr Murphy are unacceptable, and completely inappropriate for the leader of a political party to make. Simply, it is unbefitting for the leader of a political party to continue to back a convicted criminal," the Foyle MLA said.
Kenny Donaldson, spokesman for Innocent Victims United, said: "Gerry Adams and his ilk are deluded - they have a long history of crying foul of the justice system when their commanders and foot soldiers are in the dock.
"Gerry Adams is not president of a democratic political party - Sinn Fein remains integrally linked to the PIRA terror and criminal machine".