Police yesterday put on show a 1,000lb device found in a van which had been left in the extensive grounds of a local hostelry, the Belfast Castle. It had been placed inside two "wheelie-bins."
They said the intention was almost certainly to lure the security forces into the grounds and then detonate the device. A bomb of such size, if set off close to a patrol, could have been expected to wreck even an armoured vehicle, killing or seriously injuring those inside.
The plan failed, however, when a member of the public became suspicious of the vehicle and reported it to the police. The device was defused in a three-day military operation.
The incident is the latest in a series of IRA operations over recent months which have demonstrated that the organisation is intent on killing members of the security forces. A soldier was killed at army headquarters in Lisburn, Co Antrim in early October, but most of the other attacks have, in IRA terms, been failures.
RUC chief superintendent William Davidson said the device had the potential to cause massive casualties, adding: "There were a number of functions at the castle. This is a densely populated area and also an area where large numbers of teenagers frequent, especially at a time like New Year's Eve.
"The potential for dreadful death and injury with this device doesn't bear thinking about. Anyone would be extremely foolish not to be concerned about the prospects for the coming weeks."
As well as being braced for further IRA attacks, the security forces are also worried about an escalation of loyalist violence. Loyalists have already planted two booby-trap carbombs in recent weeks, and the continuing IRA campaign is generally thought to increase the chances of further loyalist incidents.
Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party, which has links to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, said he regarded the loyalist ceasefire to be officially holding, but warned that tensions were growing.
He said: "This find proves this is all-out war back again in Northern Ireland, with the Provos moving to take life. I don't think that loyalists can hold much longer.
"I would be concerned that if the Provos don't draw back from trying to take life then the loyalists will go back completely and there will be no stopping them. I think it's slipping back by the hour. It's very serious."
The series of both republican and loyalist attacks have increased a general sense of foreboding in Belfast and elsewhere. So far as anyone knows there is no communication between republicans and the British government, with the assumption widespread that all sides are doing little more than marking time before the general election.
In the meantime, however, the IRA appears intent on using violence to keep the Irish issue high on the British political agenda.Reuse content