New IRA suspected as two arrested over Northern Ireland car bomb
Police say Derry investigation focusing on dissident Irish republicans opposed to 1998 peace deal
Two men were arrested early on Sunday over a car bomb attack in the Northern Irish city of Londonderry as police said were looking into whether the New IRA militant group was responsible.
The men, both in their twenties, were detained hours after the explosion on Saturday evening outside Derry's courthouse, said Police Service of Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton.
“Fortunately it didn’t kill anybody but clearly it was a very significant attempt to kill people here in this community,” he said.
Mr Hamilton said the main focus of the investigation was on the New IRA – one of a small number of groups opposed to a 1998 peace deal that largely ended three decades of violence in the British-run province. They have carried out sporadic attacks in recent years.
Saturday’s blast came at a time when police in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland warned that a return to a hard border between the two after Brexit, complete with customs and other checks, could be a target for militant groups.
Politicians from all sides – including Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army – condemned the explosion.
“Shame on you. Shame on you and stop,” said Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. She told BBC Northern Ireland that the blast was an “outrageous attack”.
Police said they were given only minutes to move children and hundreds of hotel guests before the detonation of what they described as a highly unstable, crude device that could have exploded at any time.
Officers on patrol spotted a suspicious vehicle at the scene at about 7.55pm GMT, then received a warning five minutes later that a device had been left there.
“We moved immediately to begin evacuating people from nearby buildings including hundreds of hotel guests, 150 people from the Masonic Hall and a large number of children from a church youth club,” Mr Hamilton said.
The pizza delivery vehicle was completely destroyed by the blast just 10 minutes later. The van had been hijacked nearby by two armed men about two hours earlier, police said. Nobody was injured in the explosion.
Mr Hamilton said he thought the attack marked a continuation of dissident republican campaigns, rather than an escalation.
“The New IRA, like most dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland, are small, largely unrepresentative, and just determined to drag people back to somewhere they don’t want to be,” he said.
The most recent fatal attack involving a car bomb was in 2016 when the New IRA killed a prison officer with a bomb left under his van in Belfast.
About 3,600 people died in a conflict that was fought between mainly Protestant unionists who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom and predominantly Catholic Irish nationalists.
“There is no doubt that in terms of the Brexit element, there will be a section within our communities who will want to exploit that and use that to further their own objectives but I wouldn’t put that as the sole purpose,” Gary Middleton, a local Democratic Unionist Party member of Northern Ireland’s devolved government, told Reuters at the scene.
Updated: January 21, 2019 10:36 AM