IRA godfather Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy was raking in more than £10 million a year from four diesel laundering plants in south Armagh that were busted by customs officials.
A Sunday Life probe into the vast wealth of the Provo chief, who was jailed for 18 months for tax evasion on Friday, found that even after being arrested, he continued to control secret fuel factories in Cullyhanna, Crossmaglen and Meigh worth £23 million in total.
The premises, which had the capacity to manufacture 34 million litres of ‘dirty diesel’ annually, were all closed down within the past four years.
They were uncovered by customs officials and PSNI officers during four separate raids between 2012 and 2014.
Last week two republicans – who we cannot name for legal reasons – appeared in court charged in connection with the investigation into Murphy’s finances.
One of the men, aged 26, has pleaded guilty to helping run two of the IRA leader’s diesel plants on the Drumlougher Road in Cullyhanna, and on Concession Road in Crossmaglen.
But he denies a third charge connected to a customs raid on an illegal fuel yard in Meigh, meaning Sunday Life cannot yet identify him.
Outside court he was abusive to our reporter, telling him to “f**k off” when asked about his role in the racket and links to Murphy.
His 27-year-old co-accused has pleaded not guilty to running four illicit diesel factories in Cullyhanna and Meigh.
Both republicans, who are from well-known families in south Armagh, are scheduled to appear in court again next month.
The closure of the sites they are accused of involvement in put a huge dent in the pockets of IRA Army Council member Murphy, who on Friday was sentenced to 18 months in prison by a Dublin court for tax evasion.
The 66-year-old farmer was convicted after a trial found he defrauded the Irish Exchequer out of £147,000 in tax over an eight-year period.
Described by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams as a “good republican” Murphy was found guilty by Dublin’s non-jury Special Criminal Court.
Caging him on Friday, Mr Justice Butler said there was no basis for suspending the sentence and community service was not appropriate.
When asked by journalists if he would go onto the republican wing of prison, Murphy replied: “I’ve no idea, I’ve never been in jail before.”
The Provo godfather – who has been linked to numerous IRA atrocities including the 1996 Canary Wharf bomb – amassed his fortune through smuggling and the manufacture of illegal fuel.
He claims he now works as a yard man at a factory in Crossmaglen. The Special Criminal Court was also told that he survives on a salary of £1,000 a month before tax. After his sentencing, Murphy said he did “not own any property at all” and has “no savings”.
But a recent BBC underworld rich list investigation put his total worth at £40 million.
Using secluded barns dotted across the hills of south Armagh scheming Murphy had his men set up sophisticated plants that removed the coloured dyes which are added to distinguish untaxed diesel.
This allowed the gang to sell it as regular fuel at a substantial mark-up netting their boss millions.
Flat-cap wearing Murphy, a key supporter of Gerry Adams, believed that in return for lending his political support to the SF leader he would be allowed to carry on his criminal enterprises uninterrupted. But a series of high-profile customs raids on his diesel laundering network, which the two republicans appeared in court last week in connection with, proved otherwise.
The establishment of a new cross-border police force to tackle fuel-laundering and smuggling has put further pressure on Slab’s illegal empire.
As has the continuing investigations into his activities by the PSNI, National Crime Agency (NCA) and Dublin-based Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB).
These ongoing probes have led to fears of a rift developing between the now jailed and increasingly isolated veteran republican and Sinn Fein.
Murphy, who has always denied being an IRA chief, first came to public prominence in the 1980s when he lost a libel case against claims he had imported IRA weapons from Libya. Since then he has been regarded as among the most senior Provos in Ireland.
In March 2006, following an investigation by CAB, Murphy’s home that straddles both sides of the Armagh/Louth border was raided.
Over €250,000 and £111,000 in cash was found in bin bags, as well as documentation, diaries and ledgers.
This led to him being charged with multiple counts of tax evasion, crimes for which he was jailed for 18 months on Friday.
Despite these fraud convictions Murphy has been roundly praised by Gerry Adams (inset) who described him as a “good republican” who had “played a leadership role in the development and winning support for the peace process”.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness also talked up Murphy’s contribution to the peace process, saying: “It wouldn’t have happened without the work of Tom Murphy.”
Police officers who were part of the investigation that put Murphy behind bars predict the jail sentence will not fracture his relationship with Gerry Adams.
“Slab will do his time and then go back to what he does best – smuggling,” said one ex-detective.
“He has been a loyal supporter of Adams for years, going to prison won’t change that relationship.
“It’s notable that the last thing he did before going to court to be sentenced on Friday was to cast a vote in the Irish election.
“That was deliberate – it was his way of saying he was still on message with Sinn Fein.”
The ex-officer added:“Slab is a real operator, he’s not an armchair general, he’s someone who gets his hands dirty.
“He was a talented boxer back in the day, and from looking at him you can tell he’s still fit, even for a man aged 66.
“Slab is still completely dedicated to the IRA, but the irony is that if it wasn’t for the border that he wants to destroy he wouldn’t have been able to make millions through smuggling.”
The jail sentence was welcomed by Unionists and First Minister Arlene Foster told supporters at a rally in Tandragee: “Whilst some people refer to Murphy as a ‘good republican’ the people of this area know him to be a criminal.
“Most people will celebrate seeing justice done. If you break our laws, regardless of who you are, expect to go to jail.”