By Patrick Markey
Nearly a year after they were arrested in Fort Lauderdale for trafficking arms for the Provisional IRA, three Irish men have been convicted of buying and illegally shipping weapons from Florida through the U.S. mail to Ireland and the UK.
A jury took two and a half days to convict Conor Claxton, Martin Mullan and Anthony Smyth of 56 out of 58 counts, but cleared them of the most serious and controversial charges, conspiracy to commit murder and to maim in Northern Ireland and providing material support to terrorists.
All three men had faced life imprisonment if they had been convicted of those charges, but they will now receive terms of five to 10 years. One of the defendants, Claxton shouted out the Provisional IRA’s victory cry, “tiocfaidh _r l_” — “Our Day Will Come” — as court officers led him away.
Tuesday’s verdict brings to a close a case that sent a shudder through Northern Ireland’s delicate peace process.
Last July, federal agents uncovered scores of weapons mailed from Fort Lauderdale in packages disguised as toys and electronic equipment. The IRA denied involvement, but Unionist politicians quickly called for checks on republican cease-fires.
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During the controversial five-week trial, prosecutors showed the jury hundreds of fingerprints and arms that they say link Claxton to the handguns and ammunition sent to the UK and Ireland.
Prosecutor Richard Scruggs painted a picture of a professional IRA cell with Claxton directing, Mullan purchasing packages and toys to disguise the weapons, and Smyth and Browne buying the arms.
The prosecutor said the facts showed the defendants had operated not for self-defense but to maim and murder in Northern Ireland. Records had also shown the operation that had been financed with money sent from Belfast, prosecutors said.
Attorneys for the three defendants applied different defense strategies, quoting liberally from literature and evoking comparisons to America’s fight for freedom from colonial Britain.
Speaking for Mullan, Dan McElhatton said there was no conclusive evidence proving that his client had any knowledge that the packages he was asked to send had contained weapons. The jury had a duty to acquit Mullan of the charges, he said.
Frederick Mann, Smyth’s attorney, also said there was no evidence to link his client to the charges and said the pro-Republican posters and paraphernalia showed Smyth was just a wanna-be, not a terrorist or a murderer.
But it was Claxton’s lawyer, Fred Haddad, who drew the most attention. During the trial Claxton admitted membership of the IRA and said he had also worked as an international representative of Sinn Fein. He had purchased the weapons for self-defense against loyalist persecution, he said.
But in his closing rebuttal to defense statements, Scruggs reminded the jury that they could not decide on the politics of Northern Ireland. They must only consider whether the defendants had broken U.S. law, and, if so, he said, then they must convict.