By Patrick Markey
PHILADELPHIA — A County Antrim man was ordered held without bail in Philadelphia on Thursday after federal prosecutors charged him with taking part of a Florida-based arms smuggling ring that conspired to ship illegal weapons to Ireland.
Martin Mullan, 29, dressed in a white T-shirt and cream-colored prison slacks, smiled and waved to his 5-year-old son, Sean, who scribbled on a notepad in the back of the Philadelphia federal courtroom with Mullan’s fiancee, Patricia O’Kane.
"Daddy, I’m here," the red-headed boy called to his father as Mullan sat handcuffed in the jury box.
Prosecutors charge Mullan is one of four Irish nationals who tried to send handguns, shotguns and ammunition through the U.S. mail to Ireland and Northern Ireland using packages marked with false labels for toys, videos and other electronic equipment.
Federal authorities arrested Conor Claxton and companions Siobhan Browne and Anthony Smyth in Fort Lauderdale on July 26. Mullan was arrested in Philadelphia later that day after he made an 18-hour drive from Florida, federal authorities said.
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Claxton allegedly told federal agents who arrested him that he was on an arms-buying mission for the Provisional IRA, a claim that sent an anxious ripple through the hallways of the British and Irish governments concerned about a return to violence by paramilitary groups.
Claxton also allegedly told agents he was in America to buy weapons for use against the British Army, RUC officers and loyalist paramilitary groups. The group chose Florida, he said, because buying guns there was "like buying cars, it was so easy," according to Miami prosecutors. Claxton’s lawyer has denied his client made those remarks.
In a statement released on Thursday, representatives from the IRA said that the group’s Army Council, the leadership controlling its actions, had not sanctioned an attempt to smuggle arms.
Unionist politicians, however, have expressed concern over the allegations of republican involvement in the plot.
Ken Maginnis, Ulster Unionist MP, told the Irish Times, "I have information from international security sources that the Florida gun-smuggling was officially sanctioned by the Provo leadership and was not a freelance or dissident operation."
"As Unionists we have always maintained that there can never be an armed peace," Ulster Unionist Assembly member Dermott Nesbitt said in a statement last week.
"This development heightens our concerns that the implicit threat of terrorism remains and furthermore raises serious questions about the Republican movements American connection fund-raisers," Nesbitt said.
In Florida on Thursday, Claxton and Smyth pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy mailing weapons through the U.S. mail and illegally exporting weapons. Browne will be arraigned on the same charges next week.
Mullan faces similar charges in Florida and prosecutors are hoping he can be extradited from Philadelphia within weeks for a formal arraignment in Miami federal court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie K. Pell told the Philadelphia court on Thursday that Mullan allegedly mailed as many as 13 handguns to Ireland and aided the other suspects in posting packages from Florida.
Pell said Mullan had given a statement to FBI agents arresting him that he knew several packages contained ammunition and other packages contained weapons.
Federal agents arresting Mullan also discovered two mailing receipts for packages sent to Ireland in the handbag of Mullan’s girlfriend, Pell said.
Two packages were later intercepted in New York and in Dublin that investigators have linked to Mullan, prosecutors said. U.S. Authorities in New York’s JFK Airport X-rayed a package containing ammunition and two handguns. A package uncovered in Dublin contained .50-caliber sniper ammunition, Pell said.
But Mullan’s attorney, Daniel McElhatton, said his client had made no such confessions to federal agents and challenged prosecutors to produce any signed statements.
"The first time he has heard of a signed statement was today," McElhatton said.
Mullan had been visiting family and friends from Ireland in Philadelphia and Florida since entering the United States on a visa waiver three months ago. Mullan had no knowledge that the packages he was asked to send contained weapons or ammunition, his lawyer said.