The North’s police chief today denied claims that he was under-estimating threats to the peace process after dissident republicans bombed a court.
Police said it was a miracle no one was injured in the explosion outside Newry courthouse in Co Down shortly after 10.30pm on Monday, and First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness condemned the attack.
But Chief Constable Matt Baggott was forced to reject Ulster Unionist accusations that police were under-estimating the threat presented by dissident groups violently opposed to the peace process.
The entrance of the heavily fortified court complex was badly damaged in the explosion, which occurred within walking distance of restaurants and bars as police were still evacuating the area.
Today’s sitting of the Stormont Assembly opened with condemnations of the Newry attack.
But the deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Danny Kennedy, called for a strong security response.
“I and my party have been concerned for some time that the threats posed by republican dissidents have been viewed with a certain amount of complacency by the chief constable and his senior command, and by senior political figures including the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in the mistaken belief that these individuals (dissidents) were unrepresentative and lacked the manpower to cause serious problems,” he said.
Mr Baggott rejected the claims, saying: “Everybody knows we have injected significant resources into bringing those people to justice.
“That work continues. There has been a big investment in that and we will continue to invest.
“We are far from taking the dissident threat complacently. We have got many more police officers back on the street, we are continuing to invest in the right capability and technology to tackle the dissident threat.”
Mr Baggott said police had arrested 130 people for dissident activity over the last 15 months.
He said his officers acted quickly and professionally after being given only 17 minutes to clear the area before the bomb exploded, and added it was a miracle no one was killed.
The alarm was raised after the car carrying the bomb, originally estimated by police to be up to 800lb but later put at 250lb, was abandoned after being reversed against the gates of the court.
The blue Mazda vehicle carried registration plates from Co Monaghan.
Two coded bomb warnings were received at a local hospital and business, but residents near the scene claimed members of the public were walking past the area shortly before the explosion.
The gates of the court were blown off and a security hut was damaged, while nearby buildings including a church were hit by the blast.
Debris was strewn around the area, where police forensic teams are still examining the remnants of the car bomb. The scene is likely to be sealed off for two days.
The bombing came three days after a failed mortar attack at a police station in the nearby village of Keady, Co Armagh.
Mr Baggott added: “There is absolutely no excuse for bringing bombs on to our streets in any shape or form, but added to that, the timing which we were given was severely limited.
“I come back to the point this is not an attack on a court building, this is an attack on people whose lives depend on the wellbeing of Newry.
“This is an attack which broke and damaged places of worship, this is an attack which has damaged the ability of Newry to be at the heart of our economic success, so this is much, much more than simply an attack on a court building.”
The attack was the first since the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin brokered the Hillsborough political deal to stabilise the power-sharing administration led by the two parties.
First Minister Mr Robinson said: “The people who carried out this attack are determined to destroy all that has been achieved in recent months.
“Their sole aim is to return Northern Ireland to its darkest past.
“They will not succeed for I am equally determined that we will continue to move forward and to protect and defend the very same institutions they seek to destroy.”
Mr McGuinness said: “I am determined that last night’s attack will not undermine the progress we have made.
“The perpetrators are acting against the democratically expressed wishes of all of the people of Ireland.
“They have nothing to offer our society, we will continue on the road we have set out upon to deliver a better future.
“Attacks such as this are futile and serve only to strengthen our resolve.”
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the bombers behind the Newry blast, and Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward said: “This is an act of senseless violence by a small handful of people who refuse to accept the people’s overwhelming support for the peace process.”
Foreign affairs minister Micheal Martin added: “This attack cannot be justified or excused. Its only purpose was to inflict suffering. Its perpetrators have no mandate or legitimacy.”
Leader of the nationalist SDLP Margaret Ritchie, Alliance leader David Ford and leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party Dawn Purvis all condemned the bombing.