Lorry bomb injures 13 in Belfast city centre attack: IRA marks local election count with 1,000lb device

THE IRA yesterday marked the first day of counting local government election results by exploding a large bomb in Belfast city centre, injuring 13 people and causing widespread damage.

None of the casualties, who included three Royal Ulster Constabulary officers, was seriously hurt. But damage was caused to a wide area, and the fact that the IRA was able to penetrate the police and military cordon will probably result in a new security clampdown.

The bomb, said by the IRA to contain 1,000lb of explosives, was left in a rubbish skip on the back of a lorry in Glengall Street, where a similar device exploded 18 months ago. Two controlled Army explosions failed to destroy the bomb.

The Europa hotel, described as Europe's most bombed building, was again badly damaged. A large hole was blown in the wall of the Grand Opera House, the restored Victorian theatre which has been the centrepiece of Belfast's modest cultural revival in recent years. Damage was also caused to the headquarters of the Ulster Unionist Party and to several large office blocks.

The bombing coincided with the start of counting in Northern Ireland's council elections. Although councils have next to no powers, the elections are regarded as a highly accurate opinion poll showing the mood of the electorate.

The results are being keenly watched by the Government in the hope of a move towards moderation since Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, intends to press for a speedy resumption of political talks.

Since the elections are held under the proportional representation system, the multiple counts take two days to complete.

The Sinn Fein result is always watched with particular interest, but the boxes from its west Belfast stronghold will not be opened until this morning. There were signs in both north Belfast and Tyrone, however, that its vote has held and, in some cases, increased.

The Conservative Party, which has extended its organisation to Northern Ireland in recent years, has fared badly. The party only held a dozen of the 582 seats, but it looks set to lose some of these. By contrast, the middle-of-the-road Alliance Party fared better than had been expected and claimed yesterday that its total of councillors is set to rise. The Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party notched up some sizeable personality votes yesterday, but traditionally does less well on the second day of counting.

The larger parties, in particular the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, seemed to hold their votes. They tend to do better on the second day, attracting lower preference votes as other candidates drop out of the running.

However, in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, the council seat of Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionist MP, was in danger last night. He had advised a number of voters to give their first preferences to party colleagues in order to have three party members elected in his area, but it appeared that he might have left himself with too few votes.