IRA Dissidents Bomb British Spy Headquarters in Northern Ireland
The overnight blast -- which caused no serious injuries and little damage to nearby homes -- appeared timed to overshadow Monday's long-awaited transfer of law-and-order powers from Britain to local hands.
But the leaders of Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration said their 3-year-old coalition would only grow in strength as it takes control of the police, courts and criminal law in the British territory for the first time. The move required years of painstaking negotiations.
Britain officially transferred authority at midnight to Belfast's new Justice Department. At midday, the Northern Ireland Assembly planned to appoint a justice minister with majority support from both the British Protestant and Irish Catholic sides of the house.
But Irish Republican Army die-hards opposed to the cross-community government launched a violent protest against the politicians' power-sharing landmark.
Police said three gunmen in a Catholic part of north Belfast held a taxi driver's family hostage, loaded a bomb into the cabbie's car, and ordered him to drive it to Palace Barracks in the Belfast suburb of Holywood. Palace Barracks is the Northern Ireland base of operations for the British domestic spy agency MI5.
Police said the driver delivered the bomb as instructed -- fearing that the gunmen would harm his family if he refused -- but shouted "It's a bomb!" to Palace Barracks security guards after he parked outside the base's perimeter fence about midnight.
Police said the bomb detonated at 12:24 a.m. (2324 GMT Sunday) but caused no serious injuries -- in part because officers had already evacuated dozens of local residents to a community hall.
A Protestant politician, Basil McCrea, said one man was hospitalized suffering from suspected shock after he "was blown off his feet" by the blast's shockwave.
The dissidents' choice of target appeared designed to illustrate the limitations of Britain's transfer of powers to Belfast -- by putting the spotlight on MI5.
While the new locally run Justice Department will take responsibility for courts and more than 20 government agencies, Britain is retaining control of anti-terrorist undercover work, surveillance and wiretapping in Northern Ireland through its growing MI5 operation.
The power-sharing leaders, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, dismissed the dissidents as unpopular bullies.
"There's no question about why the target was chosen or its timing. It's an attempt to intimidate assembly members as they meet today to move forward on policing and justice," said Robinson, whose Democratic Unionist Party represents the Protestant majority.
And McGuinness -- a former IRA commander who once oversaw the same kind of attacks -- said both sides' politicians remain "in the driving seat and we will not be deflected."
"People out there who would like to destroy the peace process are not going to succeed because of the strength of the political process we have built up over recent years," said McGuinness, deputy leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party.
MI5 director-general Jonathan Evans has warned repeatedly of a rise in dissident Irish Republican terrorism. In January, he told Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee that MI5 had more priority or "life-threatening investigations in Northern Ireland than we do in the rest of Great Britain."
In the committee's annual report, which gave an account of his secret evidence, Evans was quoted as saying that MI5 had earlier failed to anticipate how the "situation in Northern Ireland has degenerated."
Later Monday, lawmakers are scheduled to appoint Alliance Party leader David Ford as justice minister. Such cross-community cooperation was the cornerstone of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
Ford's party, unusually for Northern Ireland, seeks votes equally from both sides of Northern Ireland's divided society. Until now Alliance has been excluded from power-sharing posts because of its weak electoral support.
Both the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein are backing Ford as a compromise candidate because neither party wants the other side to control the politically sensitive justice portfolio.
The IRA killed nearly 1,800 people in a failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. The outlawed group renounced violence and disarmed in 2005 in support of Sinn Fein's efforts to forge a coalition with their former Democratic Unionist enemies.
But splinter IRA groups continue to plot gun and bomb attacks in Northern Ireland. The dissidents in March 2009 shot to death a policeman and two British soldiers, their most recent killings. On Feb. 22 they successfully detonated their first car bomb in nearly a decade, causing minor damage to properties beside the heavily fortified courthouse in the border town of Newry.