The large van-bomb intercepted in the Irish Republic yesterday was to be used in a major attack on a south Armagh security base, according to reliable sources.
The device, containing 1,300lb of explosives, would have caused devastation and possibly many casualties. Its discovery sent tremors through the Irish peace process.
The authorities on both sides of the border accept that the incident had nothing to do with the IRA despite recent warnings from the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, that the peace process is in crisis because of the stalemate on arms de-commissioning. The IRA swiftly denied any involvement in the incident.
Gardai said it was the work of the Irish National Republican Army, a small splinter group which they regard as the military wing of Republican Sinn Fein party. RSF is led by Ruairi O Bradaigh, the one-time president of Sinn Fein who opposes the peace process and disapproves of the IRA cessation.
Gardai moved in on the van in the border area of Carrickmacross yesterday morning, arresting two men at the scene and a third later in the day. Irish army explosives experts found 1,300lb of home-made explosives in the van and a further 700lb in a nearby building.
The interception showed the effectivness of Garda surveillance on the dissident republicans, but it also demonstrated that the INRA is intent on disrupting the IRA cessation of violence which has been in place since August 1994.
The exact extent of the INRA threat is unclear since the organisation has never issued a public statement. Mr O Bradaigh yesterday denied that his party had a military wing, though he supported the use of force and seemed primarily concerned to convey that Gardai had got the name of the INRA wrong.
The peace process already appears in deep trouble since no progress is evident on the de-commissioning issue which has for months held up the opening of all-party talks. The Carrickmacross incident may now lead to a hardening of attitudes.
The Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, said the discovery of the bomb underscored the need for continuing vigilance and "vindicates our approach of a positive, flexible yet measured security response to the ceasefires, taking into account circumstances in particular areas".
Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party, closely linked to the loyalist Ulster Defence Association, said the discovery of the bomb was a matter of "extreme concern".
"This is the most serious development since the ceasefires and throws a shadow over the peace process. It is clear that this incident represents the intention of at least one republican group to effect an initiation of conflict," he said. "The argument for any form of physical decommissioning becomes a nonsense while such threats remain against the loyalist people."
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