By Patrick Markey
Nine months after federal agents arrested them in a sweeping international operation, three Irish nationals have appeared in a U.S. district court in Fort Lauderdale charged in an alleged IRA plot to ship weapons from Florida to Northern Ireland.
But on Monday as lawyers selected 10 jurors, the trial had already taken on a confrontational tone as prosecution and defense bickered over the situation in Northern Ireland. Judge Wilkie Ferguson called on legal teams to steer away from politics.
That is unlikely with province’s political process stalled over the issue of paramilitary arms.
On Monday, attorneys argued over expert witnesses from England and Northern Ireland who have been called to testify about evidence and also about the political situation in the province and about the Good Friday agreement.
Irish Northern Aid in Florida has already raised more than $100,000 for a defense fund for what they call the "Florida Four," according to the Guardian newspaper.
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The prosecution charges that the defendants Conor Claxton, Martin Mullan and Anthony Smyth were part of an elaborate plot to smuggle handguns, shotguns and ammunition from Fort Lauderdale and Philadelphia to Ireland.
After their arrest in July last year, Claxton alleged told a federal investigator that he had been working for the Provisional IRA and was under orders from senior figures from that organization. His lawyers have denied he made that statement, but the Unionist community were outraged at what they perceived as a breach of the republican cease-fire.
Prosecutors charge that the defendants and Smyth’s lover Siobhan Browne purchased as weapons at local gun shops using more than one set of documents and posted them to Ireland disguised in packages of toys and electronic equipment.
In March, Browne, a former stockbroker and bar manager who moved to Florida from Cork, accepted a plea bargain on lesser weapons charges. She is expected to testify against the others and her sentencing on a conspiracy conviction will be held after the gun-running trial.
The remaining three defendants face weapons charges and a second indictment charging them with providing material support to terrorists and conspiring to murder and maim individuals in Northern Ireland.
According to a second indictment, the defendants received funds wired from accounts in Belfast to purchase and mail the weapons.
From January 1999 until their arrest, the defendants obtained more than 90 handguns and shotguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, including .50-caliber armor-piercing ammunition, the indictment charges. Prosecutors allege they also have more than 300 fingerprints linking Claxton to weapons sent to Ireland.