By Patrick Markey
After a final technical hearing Thursday, a federal judge set Monday, May 1, for the opening of the Florida gun-running trial, which will charge three Irish nationals with shipping weapons from Fort Lauderdale to Northern Ireland.
An array of witnesses, from political experts to English police officers, are expected to testify at the U.S. District Court as prosecutors try to prove the defendants plotted to send weapons through the U.S. mail to Northern Ireland for use by paramilitaries.
Prosecutors had originally indicted four defendants, charging them with providing material support to terrorists, conspiring to murder and maim individuals in Northern Ireland and other weapons offenses.
The four, Conor Claxton, Siobhan Browne, Martin Mullan and Anthony Smyth, were arrested in Fort Lauderdale and Philadelphia in July last year after authorities uncovered what they alleged was an elaborate plot to buy and post handguns, shotguns and ammunition.
Dozens of high-powered handguns were sent from America to Ireland and the UK in packages disguised as toys and electronic equipment, authorities said.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
After his arrest Claxton allegedly told investigators he was working for commanders in the IRA and that the weapons were to be used for assaults on RUC officers and British soldiers. Claxton’s attorney denied he made those remarks. But the allegations led to severe Unionist criticism over the possible breach of the IRA cease-fire.
Prosecutors have also said they had more than 300 fingerprints linking Claxton to weapons sent to Ireland.
In a surprise turn earlier this year, Browne accepted a plea of conspiracy to illegally purchase weapons in Florida to send them to Northern Ireland. Browne told the court she had bought weapons for her partner and codefendant, Anthony Smyth, with the knowledge that he would pass them to others to send to Northern Ireland.
Under the plea, Browne will likely receive a federal prison term, although prosecutors can still call her to testify during the trial before her sentencing.
Smyth, Mullan and Claxton are still being held without bail. Prosecutors recently reviewed new evidence from Scotland Yard, which has an anti-terrorism division, and also from the Irish government.
According to a second indictment, the defendants also received funds wired from accounts in Belfast to purchase and mail the weapons. Since January 1999, the defendants obtained more than 90 handguns and shotguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, including .50-caliber armor-piercing ammunition, the indictment charges.