The republican bomb on the eve of the poll was a reminder of the continuing threat to the peace process from fringe elements. A 15-year-old youth was injured when a large device exploded beside a security base in south Armagh.
The bomb went off in a vehicle parked in a hotel car park next to a joint RUC-Army security base in the largely Catholic border village of Newtownhamilton. The area was being cleared following telephone warnings when the device exploded.
Teachers in a nearby primary school said children had been upset and frightened by the explosion, which caused widespread damage through the central square of the village.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Irish National Liberation Army, a small breakaway republican group that is opposed to the peace process and continues to resort to violence in an effort to derail it. The INLA is one of three minor republican groups that have not declared ceasefires. There have been recent reports that the three had begun to co-operate and were pooling resources.
The attack represents the first major bombing for some time. The security forces had warned that more violence was on the way from republican renegades, but apart from yesterday's attack, recent weeks have been peaceful.
The attack was widely condemned as the work of unrepresentative elements, although the Rev Ian Paisley claimed it must have been "sanctioned by the Provos but subcontracted to the INLA". Sinn Fein said: "This action is clearly intended to undermine the current opportunity for peace. It must not be allowed to do so."
The SDLP said it was "a cynically timed attack clearly targeting the democratic process and aimed at destroying the peace which we have all worked so hard to achieve."
The call to defy the bombers was reinforced by Andrew MacKay, the Tory spokesman on Northern Ireland. He said: "On the eve of the Assembly elections, my message to the people of Northern Ireland is clear - they must turn out in huge numbers and vote for the Assembly ... defying the bombers and the terrorists."
The Independent learnt that the Tories have submitted an amendment to Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, for the Government's Bill to allow the release of prisoners.
The amendment would harden the Bill by strengthening a requirement for the Secretary of State to "take into account" terrorist activity before releasing prisoners.
The keenest interest in the poll, which starts at 7am, will centre on the battle within Unionism, with David Trimble's Ulster Unionists seeking a clear majority over their rivals, who will be led in the assembly by Mr Paisley. On the nationalist side the contest will, as ever, centre on the SDLP and Sinn Fein. About 300 candidates are contesting the 108 seats.Reuse content