IRA gunmen fired at officers acting as bodyguards for Nigel Dodds, a well-known Belfast politician and secretary of the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party, who was visiting his sick son.
One officer was hit in the foot, the other was uninjured. The gunmen escaped towards the nearby Falls Road. Yesterday a man was arrested in connection with the incident.
Loyalists and others view the shooting as a provocative act. The fact that it took place close to sick children has caused particular revulsion and made retaliation more likely.
The incident brought widespread condemnation in Belfast, London and Dublin and a warning from US Congressman Joe Kennedy that a return to violence in the province could lead to President Clinton losing interest in Northern Ireland. Clergymen have made private pleas for the loyalists to stay their hand, butthere was a sense of pessimism in Northern Ireland yesterday.
The IRA has said the intention was to kill the police officers rather than Mr Dodds who, with his wife, was visiting their seven-year-old son Andrew, who is seriously ill with hydrocephalus and spina bifida. Police sources confirmed this. Both Mr Dodds and the Rev Ian Paisley, however, said they did not believe the IRA claim.
"I don't believe anything the IRA says," said Mr Dodds. "An organisation that can sanction a shooting in a children's hospital is capable of anything."
The attack substantiated indications from both security force and republican sources that an escalation of IRA violence was expected following the recent apparently final breakdown in communications between the Government and Sinn Fein. John Major last month refused republican demands for immediate entry into negotiations in exchange for a restoration of the 1994 ceasefire.
Mr Paisley appealed to loyalists not to resort to force: "I say to anybody who would think to retaliate - put that out of your mind. That has not to be done because it must not be done, because that does not achieve anything. No one should take the law into their own hands."