The Emerald Ire

A former probation officer once saw the IRA as killers and the FBI as heroes. All that's changed now, as he investigates the Irish gun-smuggling case.

Rory McMahon grew up in the classic law-and-order family. His father hit for the cycle in crime-fighting in New York, serving in his long career as a prosecutor, a police commissioner, a sheriff, and finally a judge. A picture of longtime FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover hung in the den. McMahon was raised with strict curfews, and it was drilled into him how important it was to be one of the good guys.

Good guys, of course, need bad guys, and the McMahon family, which was just one generation away from Ireland, considered members of the Irish Republican Army to be in the latter group. They were not only lawbreakers, McMahon's dad would say, but were the worst kind: cold-blooded killers. And that's the way McMahon saw it even as he began a career as a federal probation officer in the late '70s. FBI good, IRA bad. Simple.

And dead wrong, he now says.

A strange thing has happened to McMahon during the past dozen years: He's come full circle, his illusions crushed by his close relationships with both the FBI and the IRA.

He says he found out he was mistaken after seeing the FBI's corruption firsthand as a federal officer -- including its use, and protection of, murderous informants. He also saw the stone wall of silence that sometimes allows the Bureau to cover up wrongdoing. McMahon, who'd once been a rising star in the probation office, was fired by the federal government in 1990 for giving seemingly benign information about a closed case to a book author. You don't mess with the stone wall.

"I was definitely disillusioned," he says.

When he was fired, he'd already begun studying Irish history and then took something of a pilgrimage to the land of his forefathers in 1989, where he saw, as he puts it, the "terrible beauty" of Northern Ireland. He visited with IRA prisoner Sean Lynch in Belfast, and the experience opened his eyes to the complexity of the Troubles.

"I saw the atrocities that were being committed against the Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland," says McMahon, now a Fort Lauderdale private investigator. "I saw the siege mentality that the people growing up there were living under."

Does he condone the IRA's use of violence?

"I'm in favor of a united Ireland," he says. "Did George Washington and the American Revolutionary people have to use violence? When you're dealing with the British, they aren't giving up their possessions without a struggle. Do I advocate violence? No. That would be a crime to advocate violence, but I understand it."

And it is from this rather unique perch that McMahon sees the FBI's current Irish gunrunning case in Fort Lauderdale. The case of four co-conspirators buying more than 90 guns in the U.S. and trying to ship them to Ireland has made headlines throughout the world and threatened the ongoing peace talks in Belfast. Last week the case intensified when U.S. prosecutors topped off the gunrunning case with charges of terrorism and conspiracy to "murder and maim" people in Northern Ireland.

McMahon again has sided with Irish prisoners. He accepted a court appointment to investigate the case on behalf of Siobhan Browne, a 34-year-old, Republic of Ireland-born former stockbroker charged with illegally mailing guns, terrorism, and conspiracy.

Browne would seem as unlikely a terrorist as McMahon is an antigovernment agent crusader. While she holds both American and British citizenship, she's never even set foot in Belfast, McMahon says. In her 20 years in America, at least a decade of them in South Florida, she's led a relatively untroubled life, free of criminal charges. Early last year she quit her job and moved into a condo in Weston with her boyfriend, Anthony Smyth, himself a long-time South Florida resident who hails from Northern Ireland and also has no previous criminal record.

Browne's FBI-alleged role in the caper is simple: In a reckless spree, she and Smyth bought more than 90 guns between them in their own names, and some of them wound up, via the U.S. mail, in Ireland. She was also known to associate with Conor Claxton, a 26-year-old, Northern Ireland-born intrigue artist who is accused of mailing to Dublin some of the guns Browne and Smyth bought.

When Claxton was arrested just before dawn on July 26, 1999, in his Deerfield Beach motel room, it broke the case wide open, according to FBI reports. In the room agents found a how-to kit on becoming an IRA operative. There was a book entitled The Modern Identity Changer, another publication called Pro Sniper, and a pamphlet on "covert communication techniques of the underground."

Claxton allegedly told FBI agent Mark Hastbacka that he was an IRA member working for a "higher-up." According to the FBI, Claxton said the guns were to be used against police in Britain and Northern Ireland, along with Protestant paramilitary forces. Why? "Claxton's rationalization for sending the weapons back to associates he would not name in Ireland was that the Protestants were not negotiating a peace agreement in good faith," Hastbacka wrote in his report.

McMahon defends Browne's role in the plot by saying, quite correctly, that the government hasn't produced any evidence that physically ties Browne to the actual mailing of weapons. Her purchase of the weapons was legal. But the evidence, taken as a whole, makes it clear that Browne was intimately involved in something, and it involved Claxton and the illegal sending of guns to Ireland.

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