Dissident republicans in the North may have secured a cache of military grenades, it was feared today.
Police have confirmed a military grenade was used in a weekend bombing that injured three policemen, as they investigated a robbery at a west Belfast bookmakers.
The device was hurled by a man on a bicycle on the busy Shaw’s Road after 9pm on Friday, and confirmation of the type of weapon used in the blast has sparked stark warnings from politicians.
Members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, which monitors the police service, said it was possible dissidents had secured a batch of grenades.
A senior police officer, meanwhile, said the grenade used in the weekend attack had a fatal “kill radius” of five to ten metres.
Democratic Unionist representative on the Policing Board, Jimmy Spratt, said: “This is a very, very worrying development.
“If you look at the history of the Troubles, in the past grenades were a thing that were not commonly used.
“I would have serious concerns about the source of this stuff.”
He asked whether dissidents had access to a cache of grenades smuggled into Northern Ireland without security force knowledge.
The dissident Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) group claimed responsibility for the bombing, which left one officer with a serious arm injury and two colleagues with less serious shrapnel injuries.
The group reportedly claimed a “Russian-style” grenade was used in the attack.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Matt Baggott said his officers, or members of the public, could easily have died in the bombing.
Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist policing board member Basil McCrea said he believed dissidents had become better armed and had improved their bomb-making capabilities by securing commercial detonators to ensure larger devices would explode.
“They have all the capabilities the IRA had in the 1970s. They have nothing to learn,” he said.
“It has skipped a generation. They are basically telling the old men to get out of the way.”
While grenades have been used sporadically in the past by paramilitaries, he said he was unaware if the use of a grenade in the ONH attack pointed to the existence of a new cache of military grade bombs.
“I don’t know, but I do know that the dissidents are armed and dangerous,” he said.
Dissidents have attempted to import weapons from eastern Europe, and Mr McCrea said it was always possible for illegal groups to secure arms internationally.
“We always knew that decommissioning was a short term gap, that you had to decommission mindsets,” he said.
“You can go and get more weapons. The only way to build peace and reconciliation is for both sides of the community to work together.”
He predicted a stepping-up of dissident violence over a lengthy period.
“There will be an escalation in attacks. I have been predicting this,” he said.
“I am expecting an escalation over the next two to five years.”
In the aftermath of the latest bombing, the Chief Constable said police would continue to provide a service in all regions.
“There are no ’no go’ areas in Northern Ireland,” Mr Baggott said.
“There are areas where we have to be careful, we value the support of the community and their understanding that sometimes we can’t answer calls as quickly as we would like because of course we have to look after our colleagues - that is what people want us to do, that is what I must do – but there will be no ’no go’ areas. We are here to protect people.”
The top officer said many people in west Belfast had already come forward with information, but he stressed the need for more to get in contact.
“We need help,” he said. “We want to find these people very quickly, we want the information.”
A PSNI spokesman said: “Police are currently investigating the precise make-up of the device.
“Until these inquiries are completed, it isn’t possible to say if such a device has been used in Northern Ireland before.”
He added: “The fact of the matter is, this device was intended to cause serious harm, or to kill police officers. It was a reckless attack, there were a lot of people in the area at the time and any one of them could have been killed.
“Like all police services, the PSNI keeps tactics and approach under constant review. We have been saying for some time that the threat is severe but we will continue to deliver the finest police service that we can.”
The spokesman repeated the need for officers to take care when answering call-outs in circumstances where dissident attack is a possibility.
He said of the ONH attack: “This was not just an attack on police, this is an attack on the whole community, not just in west Belfast, but all of Northern Ireland and we are not going to allow these people to drag us back to the past.”