A car bomb in a hijacked taxi exploded near the Northern Ireland headquarters of Britain’s MI5 security agency on Monday, clouding the completion of a key stage in the long-troubled province’s peace process.
Nobody was seriously hurt in the blast but the timing was symbolic, coming just minutes after the devolved power-sharing administration in Belfast took over policing and justice control.
Politicians vowed that the attack on the offices of MI5 — the agency responsible for monitoring paramilitary behaviour in the province — would not derail the peace process.
“The important thing is to keep the political process in the driving seat,” said Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, an ex-commander of the militant Irish Republican Army (IRA) now at the heart of political power.
“The vast majority of the people on the island of Ireland know where we are coming from,” he told the BBC.
Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary, Shaun Woodward, said: “Today [Monday] Northern Ireland will complete devolution with the transfer of policing and justice powers.
“That democratic transition stands in stark contrast to the activity of a criminal few who will not accept the will of the majority of people of Northern Ireland. They have no support anywhere,” he added.
The device exploded shortly after midnight in a vehicle at the rear of Palace Barracks, a former British army complex just outside Belfast, which now houses hundreds of MI5 employees, said a police spokesperson.
Security services later confirmed the bomb was in a hijacked taxi that was driven to the rear of the barracks. The driver then jumped from the car, shouting: “It’s a bomb.”
A number of houses in the area were evacuated and residents moved to a local community centre, police said.
Northern Ireland endured three decades of civil strife between Catholics, who wanted the province to become part of the Republic of Ireland, and Protestants, who wanted to stay within the United Kingdom.
The violence largely ended with the signing of the 1998 Good Friday peace accords, which paved the way for the current power-sharing administration between the Protestant DUP and the Catholic Sinn Fein parties.
The main paramilitary groups, including the IRA, have laid down their arms, but sporadic violence still plagues the province, including the killing of two British soldiers and a policeman last year.
Dissident republicans opposed to the peace process are usually blamed.
Local lawmaker Naomi Long, deputy leader of the cross-community Alliance party, condemned Monday’s car bombing.
“I would utterly condemn any such attack and am sure that the vast majority of people from across our community are sickened by the actions of people who seem intent on dragging Northern Ireland back into the past,” she said.
The policing and justice powers were transferred from London to Belfast at midnight April 11, resolving one of the most sensitive issues here.
Britain seized control of policing and justice from Northern Ireland’s local ministers in 1972, at the height of the violence known as “The Troubles”, in a bid to control the worsening security situation.
But it prompted the fall of the devolved administration and London retained control throughout the conflict, in which more than 3 500 people died.
When lawmakers approved the power transfer deal last month, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown hailed it as the “final end” to decades of strife.
Alliance leader David Ford is widely expected to be selected as the new justice minister in a vote by lawmakers later on Monday. — AFP