Dissidents blamed for car bomb
Belfast – A huge car bomb exploded outside a Northern Ireland court in an attack blamed on dissident republicans, just weeks after an agreement was finally brokered on devolving sensitive policing powers.
Police said it was a "sheer miracle" that no-one was killed or injured in the explosion in Newry, south of Belfast, which highlights the fragility of the peace in the British-ruled province.
The bomb went off at around 22:30 on Monday as officers were evacuating the area after two coded warnings to a local hospital and business.
"It is only by sheer miracle that nobody was killed or injured," said the Police Service of Northern Ireland's area commander Sam Cordiner.
Conor Murphy, the local lawmaker for republicans Sinn Fein, also condemned in strong terms the blast, which was heard several miles away.
"The people responsible have absolutely nothing to offer the community except the prospect of a return to the past," he told reporters at the scene.
The attack came nearly three weeks after Northern Ireland's leaders sealed a hard-fought accord to transfer sensitive policing and justice powers from London to Belfast, the final major step to devolving power fully to Northern Ireland.
Responsibility for policing and justice is due to transfer from London to Belfast on April 12 and the Northern Ireland Assembly is to vote on the deal on March 9.
The negotiations between coalition government partners the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein on the issue were painful and drawn out.
The situation was complicated when First Minister Peter Robinson of the DUP temporarily stepped aside to fight allegations of financial impropriety linked to his wife's affair with a 19-year-old.
Robinson was cleared and is now back in office.
The BBC reported that police had been bracing themselves for some kind of dissident response to the deal.
Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward said the latest act of "senseless violence" was committed by "a small handful of people who refuse to accept the people's overwhelming support for the peace process".
"On March 9, Northern Ireland's politicians in the assembly can send the unanimous message in the cross-community vote: politics is the way forward and the small number of dissident criminals will never be given the opportunity to turn back the success of the peace process," he added.
No group has claimed responsibility for the Newry attack but Danny Kennedy, deputy leader of pro-British Ulster Unionist party, said dissident republicans had sent a warning about the device.
"A recognised code from dissidents accompanied a warning. It's likely there will be sizeable damage," said Kennedy.
Northern Ireland's three decades of violence known as "The Troubles", in which more than 3 500 people died, was largely ended by a 1998 peace deal which paved the way for the devolution of power from politicians in London to Belfast.
But there are still splinter groups opposed to the peace process.
Monday's incident came just days after a mortar bomb abandoned outside a police station in a nearby village failed to detonate.
A Catholic police officer was seriously injured after a car bomb attack last month and police stations have been shot at in recent weeks.
In September, army experts defused a massive roadside bomb near the border with the Irish Republic in South Armagh, averting what police said would have been a devastating explosion.
Last March, republicans shot dead two soldiers at an army barracks in County Antrim and two days later gunned down a police constable as he answered a call for help.