By Patrick Markey
Four Irish nationals were indicted by U.S. federal authorities Tuesday on charges of conspiring to mail weapons to Ireland as speculation mounted over which organization lay behind the alleged Florida arms-smuggling ring.
Three suspects arrested last Monday appeared in a federal court in Miami last week where a federal prosecutor revealed that one suspect had allegedly told the FBI he was on an arms-buying mission for the IRA.
Speaking in court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Scuggs said that Conor Claxton had told the FBI that he was acting under orders from the Provisional IRA.
Several Irish newspapers have also reported that security services have linked one suspect arrested in Ireland to a senior figure in the IRA. The Irish Times, citing security sources, said that a man arrested in Galway allegedly had ties to the IRA’s quartermaster general.
Coming at a delicate time in Northern Ireland’s political process, the arrests have sparked a round of speculation over whether the IRA is attempting to rearm with fresh weapons. Others have suggested a dissident Republican group may have seized on an opportunity to throw the stalled peace negotiations into disarray.
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But British and Irish law enforcement officials have declined to comment officially on the suspects possible alignment with any paramilitary organizations. RUC and garda officials have refused to speculate who might be behind the operation.
The case broke when British authorities intercepted a parcel containing firearms mailed from Florida to Ireland. A total of eight packages containing weapons and ammunition were mailed from the U.S. under false labels.
Eight people have been arrested and questioned so far. In Florida, federal officials have charged Belfast-born Claxton, Siobhan Browne of Cork and Anthony Smyth with conspiracy, unlawful shipment of firearms through the U.S. mail and illegal exportation of weapons from the U.S.
The FBI also arrested a fourth suspect, Martin Mullan, in northeast Philadelphia. Mullan, also an Irish national, was arrested in his vehicle after an 18-hour drive from Florida. He is expected to be extradited to Miami to face charges of conspiracy, federal officials said.
In Ireland gardai arrested two women and one man last week. Another man with a U.S. passport was arrested after flying into Shannon airport from California on Friday. Only one suspect remains in custody in Ireland. Jacqueline McIntyre, a 32-year-old Inverin woman, was charged in a special criminal court in Dublin on Saturday in connection with the smuggling case, according to garda officials. The others have been released without charge.
The Irish raid uncovered three magnum revolvers, three Glock semi-automatic pistols and 150 rounds of ammunition. Those weapons have been linked to the Florida operation, a garda spokesman said.
While the political fall-out remains unclear, the sudden arrests shocked those who know the three Florida suspects.
Friends and associates of Browne and Smyth were surprised that two people they believed to be such unassuming characters could be linked to an international arms smuggling ring.
Malachy O’Connor, the owner of Waxy O’Connor’s Irish bar in Fort Lauderdale, remembers Anthony Smyth as a fairly regular customer. A used car salesman in the area, Smyth would drop into the pub about once a week and chat with other patrons, O’Connor said.
"He was a gentleman. He never talked about his political affiliations or anything like that," O’Connor said. Smyth would occasionally bring Siobhan Browne into the bar on Fridays and the couple would have a night out.
Those who knew Browne said they had little inkling of her alleged involvement in weapons dealing. That Browne had shown no interest in the political conflict in Northern Ireland made the charges even more incredible, her friends said.
Sheila Hynes, who runs the Irish Cultural Institute in Fort Lauderdale, said Browne had once owned a British pub in Florida, the Royal Britannia, and had actively sought to keep its British flavor. She once stopped an entertainer who had tried to sing an Irish rebel song in the bar, Hynes said.
"She never, ever struck me as someone who had any political leaning one way or the other. She was a mild-mannered person who was interested in her real estate and stock-brokering business," Hynes said.
Others said they believed Browne’s fledgling romantic involvement with Anthony Smyth may have lead her astray.
"It seems she lost her head over this guy and she’s done everything that he wanted," said Patricia Kawaja, an editor for the Union Jack, a paper for the British ex-patriot community and head of the American British Chamber of Commerce in Palm Springs.
Browne had attended several chamber of commerce meetings and had worked hard to establish herself in the stock brokerage business, Kawaja said. Her arrest on charges she attempted to run guns had surprised many who knew her.
"That’s not the Siobhan we knew," Kawaja said.