By Patrick Markey
One of the four Irish nationals charged in an alleged IRA plot to smuggle weapons from Florida to Northern Ireland pleaded guilty to gun-running charges early this week as federal prosecutors prepared further evidence for a late April trial.
Late Monday afternoon, Siobhan Browne accepted a plea of conspiracy to illegally purchase weapons in Florida to send them to Northern Ireland, according to a Miami U.S. Attorney’s office spokeswoman.
Browne told the court she had bought weapons for her partner and codefendant Anthony Browne with the knowledge that he would pass them to others to send to Northern Ireland, the spokeswoman said.
Under the plea, Browne will likely receive 18 to 24 months in federal prison, although she can still be called to testify during the trial, which is due to start on April 20. Prosecutors appear to be laying the groundwork for their case against the three remaining defendants.
"There is no evidence to suggest that Ms Browne, as opposed to the other three, is or has ever been a member of the IRA," prosecutor Richard Scruggs told the court, according to the Sun Sentinel newspaper.
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But a lawyer for Martin Mullan, the fourth defendant, said Browne had only admitted to the weapons being intended for Northern Ireland after prosecutors had threatened to withdraw the plea.
"Had they asked her next to say she had knowledge of the murder of the JFK shooting . . . or Martin Luther King, she would have agreed. I don’t blame her, she got a good deal," said Mullan’s attorney, Daniel McElhatton.
Smyth, Mullan and Claxton are still being held without bail. Prosecutors have been reviewing new evidence from Scotland Yard, which has an anti-terrorism division, and also from the Irish government, McElhatton said.
"I’m waiting to see what evidence they have. They have presented no evidence to me that Martin Mullan was in the IRA," he said.
The four defendants were arrested after federal investigators swooped on homes in Florida and Philadelphia on July 26 last year as part of an international operation. British airport authorities had uncovered a package filed with weapons that had been mailed from Fort Lauderdale.
Dozens of high-powered handguns and shotguns were sent from Fort Lauderdale and Philadelphia to Ireland and the UK in packages disguised as toys and electronic equipment, authorities said.
Federal officials initially charged the four with conspiracy to post weapons through the U.S. mail and illegal exportation of arms. A second indictment filed in January added terrorism and conspiracy-to-commit-murder charges.
During questioning, Claxton, who is from Belfast, allegedly told investigators he was working for the Provisional IRA and that the weapons were to be used on RUC officers and British Army. His attorney denies Claxton made those remarks.
On Monday, prosecutors said they had more than 300 fingerprints linking Claxton to weapons sent to Ireland and the UK.
The second indictment also charges that the defendants received funds wired from accounts in Belfast to purchase and mail the weapons and ammunition to supporters in Ireland and the North.
According to that document, prosecutors charge from January last year, the defendants obtained more than 90 handguns and shotguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, including .50-caliber armor-piercing bullets.