A major security operation was under way in the North tonight amid fears that dissident republicans are planning to launch attacks in the run-up to the UK General Election.
Police are intensifying patrols and setting up more roadside checkpoints across the region in a bid to thwart violent extremists marring the poll with a symbolic strike.
The announcement came after it emerged that the senior lawyer earmarked to be Northern Ireland’s new Attorney General may not take up the post over security concerns.
It is understood that John Larkin QC is unhappy that he will not have access to the same close protection bodyguards which are currently assigned to judges and senior politicians.
Dissidents have stepped up their campaign of violence in the last six months, detonating car bombs outside the regional HQ of M15 in Co Down, Newry, and last week at the front of Newtownhamilton police station in South Armagh.
No-one was killed in those blasts but a Catholic police officer suffered serious injuries when a booby-trap bomb exploded under his car in Co Antrim in January.
The attack at the MI5 building at Palace Barracks in Holywood earlier this month was timed to coincide with the devolution of policing powers to Stormont.
PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie said the authorities had to prepare for another terror attack to mark the election.
“We are very alive to this possibility,” she said at PSNI HQ in Belfast this morning.
“We want to make sure that everybody goes about their democratic right to vote in a way that protects their safety and protects their security.”
Mrs Gillespie said the threat level was “very, very serious” and that the terrorists’ primary target was clearly PSNI personnel.
“From February of last year the threat has been raised to the level of severe and, even from February of last year, that threat has worsened,” she said.
She added: “It’s very obvious, given recent attacks, that police officers are the number one target for dissidents. That gives us obvious cause for concern and we want to protect our officers while they are out delivering a normal police service to the local community.
“Police are the number one target but of course that also puts the rest of the community in danger because recent attacks in Palace Barracks, in Newtownhamilton, in towns and villages across the province have put local people at serious risk and their property at serious risk as well.
“So let’s not forget they are endangering ordinary people as well.”
Mrs Gillespie said the decision to step up security was based on intelligence as well as experience of past attacks on significant dates.
“We are realists and we know there is an intelligence picture that suggests the dissidents are increasing the level of their activity and, obviously, with the election coming up, it is quite possible they will seek to maximise the impact of an attack in the run-up to that election,” she said.
Mrs Gillespie asked the public to be patient during the security operation.
“We fully appreciate that this is going to be an inconvenience and we ask for the public’s forbearance in this regard and I am sure the vast majority of people will understand the reason we are doing this and show us their patience and support and we very much welcome that,” she said.
Mr Larkin, a Catholic from west Belfast, is Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists’ preferred choice to take on the Attorney General role.
But his widely anticipated appointment did not come as expected in the wake of law and order powers being devolved from London to Stormont earlier this month.
The sticking point is the decision by independent body, the Northern Ireland Committee on Protection, not to offer him close protection.
But that position could yet be reviewed when the committee meets again next month.
Mr Larkin was not available for comment today.
Earlier this week it emerged that security barriers are going to be re-erected outside the courts in Belfast amid fears of a dissident strike.