It was terrifyingly reminiscent of the dissident republican bomb which claimed 29 innocent civilian lives in the town of Omagh 12 years ago. And although no one died this time, three children survived the explosion only by sheer luck.
Almost all of Northern Ireland has embraced the peace process, but several small groups – including the Real IRA which bombed Omagh – remain committed to death and destruction. The incident, in the Co Armagh town of Lurgan, showed just how reckless and callous they can be, for although the bomb was aimed at police there was a real risk that passers-by would be victims.
The bombers phoned in what police described as a very vague warning of a bomb at a local school. But the explosion actually came from a bin at a spot where police would be expected to place a cordon. Officers were not there, but three children were. Eleven-year-old Demi Maguire spoke of fleeing with her sister Karla, aged just two, and her 11-year-old friend Lauren as the incident unfolded. "While we were running a big bit of bin landed in front of us," she recalled. "Karla was tripping over her wee feet. I kept pulling her."
They were treated for shock and cuts. Ronda Maguire, mother of Demi and Karla, said later: "Another couple of footsteps and they could have been right opposite the blast. Can you imagine burying two children and their friend?"
This was just one incident in a surge of violence from small republican factions intent on using the taking of life to bring down the peace process.
Their readiness to use almost any means of generating turbulence means that they hope to cause explosions in Britain as well as Northern Ireland, on the theory that one bomb in England has the impact of 20 in Northern Ireland. Extra security is expected to be in place for events such as the Conservative party conference in Birmingham in October.
Yesterday, the MP and former soldier Patrick Mercer said ex-colleagues had told him that several groups wanted to "catapult themselves into the headlines" by attacking targets on the mainland.
Mr Mercer, former chairman of the Commons subcommittee on counter-terrorism, told the BBC: "There are three groups in Northern Ireland which are planning to do something to catapult themselves into the headlines before the party conference season. They wish to kill by the end of the month. They have an aspiration to attack targets on the mainland, including the Conservative Party conference."
However, these dissidents are divided among themselves, with no noteworthy leaders, no votes and no political programme beyond bombing. They have internal disputes which have resulted in their killing four members or former members. Thirty of them, including some notorious figures, are behind bars. Others were recently arrested in the Irish Republic. Yet all the resources of police on both sides of the border, together with the technical expertise of MI5, have so far failed to prevail against groups.
MI5 and Special Branch share responsibility for controlling the agents used to penetrate what are sometimes called the micro-groups. The Branch runs the vast majority of agents while MI5 are the experts in anti-terrorist technology. Both are said to have been given extra resources.
The dissidents upped the ante in March 2009 with the murders of two soldiers and a policeman, triggering a major review by the authorities and increased security force activity. Various arrests and charges followed, but the three main dissident groups – the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann, which means soldiers of Ireland – have remained active ever since. The threat they represent is officially rated as severe.
Their last attacks in England, in the early 2000s, included a rocket attack on the London headquarters of MI6, and a bomb placed at BBC TV centre in west London.
But they have mounted attacks in many parts of Northern Ireland, some of which are not at all republican territory. A recent example came with an attempt to blow up an army officer's car in Bangor, a tranquil Co Down seaside resort. Their arsenal includes mortars, pipe-bombs and the frequent use of suspect devices.
In one day, a dozen alerts were caused by the Real IRA, with vehicles hijacked and left at targets such as a police station, a courthouse, shopping centres and a railway line. The main Belfast to Dublin railway line is particularly vulnerable to dissident attacks since it passes through the town of Lurgan which has a republican stronghold.
Their disregard for human life was evident last month when Lurgan rioters attacked a train with fire-bombs and other missiles. One local man described the scene: "There were scouts, old women, old men, international tourists on the train. I saw a fellow approach carrying a five-gallon can of diesel. I was shouting at him, 'There's women and children on this train and you will kill them.' He looked at me and said, 'Fuck 'em. Let 'em burn'."
The dissidents have also staged attacks with undercar booby-trap bombs, in particular targeting Catholic police officers, one of whom lost a leg in one such incident.
Another such attack, in the Co Down town of Kilkeel, generated particular shock. A Catholic policewoman had just strapped her young daughter into her car when she discovered a booby-trapped bomb underneath the vehicle. Mother and daughter were able to flee and the device, which was viable, was made safe by army bomb disposal experts.
The effectiveness of such attacks fits with intelligence warnings in recent months that former members of the now-dormant mainstream IRA have joined up with the dissidents. Although this has happened only in very small numbers, such veterans are providing dangerous new expertise.
Clearly, there will be no relaxation of security in the face of terrorists who are proving so ruthless and, 12 years on from the Omagh bomb, so hard to eradicate.Reuse content