Responsibility for the explosion, which injured no one but could be heard for miles around, was claimed by the Ulster Volunteer Force. However, the Sinn Fein national chairman, Tom Hartley, said after visiting the scene that the peace process would not be derailed by such incidents.
The attack happened just after 9.40pm when two men were seen to drive a car into Sevastopol Street, which runs along the side of the Sinn Fein offices, before jumping out and running off. Wreckage from the shattered remains of the vehicle was strewn across the road and adjoining streets, and windows in nearby homes and a library were shattered by the force of the blast. A number of people were treated for shock.
Sinn Fein officials said there had been little damage to the heavily fortified offices which have been attacked a number of times by loyalists, and which currently are covered in banners declaring that the time is ripe for peace. The bomb exploded only yards from the spot where the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, had addressed a republican rally in the early afternoon.
But although it was, by Belfast standards, a comparatively minor blast, the explosion was seen last night, after a reasonably encouraging weekend for the peace process, as the clearest of signs that not all loyalist groups intend to emulate the IRA ceasefire. Ironically, the Ulster Volunteer Force, which is one of the two leading violent groups, had earlier sent signals indicating that it regarded the IRA campaign as being over.
In its admission last night the UVF said it had 'promoted the cause of democracy'. It added: 'Remember Donacloney, 1991.' It was believed this referred to an IRA bomb attack in the Co Down village at the time of a loyalist paramilitary ceasefire.
Mr Hartley, on the scene within minutes, said he did not think the explosion would derail the peace process, although he 'did not speak for the IRA'.
He said: 'I think the republicans are committed to the process. I think people have been expecting an attack like this and I think it was done by the loyalists who really want to go on warring against the nationalist community.
'Last week was a very historic occasion and I do not think it is going to be very easy to derail it. I certainly don't think that the loyalists will manage it.'
He added: 'There was no warning. It was at a time of the night when the road was fairly quiet. We are very lucky in that respect.'
Earlier yesterday prospects for the Northern Ireland peace process had continued to look encouraging, in spite of the insistence by John Major that the IRA had yet to make it clear that its cessation of violence was permanent.
Mr Major said Sinn Fein was 'edging forwards' to meeting the demand for such an assurance that the ceasefire was permanent. Mr Adams insisted that the IRA had 'definitively' stated there was a 'complete cessation' of military operations.
But Mr Major said that the IRA would have to do 'just a little more' before the Government could be sure of entering talks with Sinn Fein within three months. He added: 'I am not sure it's quite sufficient yet, but there has been progress and we need just a little more.'
Mr Major's remarks came as he firmly denied speculation that Mr Adams could visit the mainland as early as next month, in response to an invitation from Tony Benn, the veteran left-wing MP for Chesterfield, to address a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in Blackpool.
'Mr Adams is subject to a three- year exclusion ban (from mainland Britain) that was imposed some months ago. That runs for a three- year period unless the Home Secretary revokes it. I would not expect the Home Secretary to revoke that in the next few months,' Mr Major said.
Adams rally, page 2
James Fenton, page 12
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