DUBLIN (AP) — Irish Republican Army die-hards tried to kill a Belfast prison officer with an under-car booby trap bomb and are plotting to kill Northern Ireland security forces as the 100th anniversary of an Irish rebellion against British rule approaches, a police commander warned Friday.
Stephen Martin, assistant chief constable of the Northern Ireland police, issued his threat assessment hours after a 52-year-old prison officer was wounded when a small bomb partly detonated under his van.
The man had just left his home in Protestant east Belfast to go to work when police believe the bomb fell off of the vehicle as it drove over a speed bump. The officer, a 28-year veteran of the prison service, underwent surgery for unspecified wounds and was reported in stable condition.
For decades, IRA factions have used bombs attached to a vehicle's undercarriage to target politicians, judges, off-duty police, soldiers and prison officers while they're driving personal vehicles. Such bombs typically detonate under the driver's seat when the vehicle travels uphill or downhill.
Easter has been a focal point for Irish republican militancy dating to 1916, when 1,500 rebels seized key Dublin buildings in a bid to overthrow British rule. The Easter Rising, though militarily futile, inspired a 1919-21 war with Britain that won independence for the predominantly Catholic south of Ireland but kept the fledgling state of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.
The Republic of Ireland government plans major public commemorations and cultural events in Dublin for the 100th anniversary later this month, when government leaders don the traditional symbol of Irish rebellion on their lapels, the Easter lily.
Martin said he expected IRA splinter groups still active in Northern Ireland to mark the approach of Easter "in an entirely more sinister way ... by killing police officers, prison officers or soldiers." He said police were raising their threat level anticipating more attacks to "the upper end of severe."
The British domestic anti-terrorist agency MI5 has maintained Northern Ireland's terror alert rating at "severe," the second-highest level, for several years, meaning the next attack is highly likely soon.
The British Parliament lawmaker for East Belfast, Gavin Robinson, said the linkage of today's IRA attacks to the bloody rebellion a century ago "once again demonstrates the dangers of glorifying such past violence."
While the major IRA faction, the Provisionals, has observed a cease-fire since 1997 and officially disarmed in 2005, smaller rival groups all styling themselves as the "true" IRA continue to plot gun and bomb attacks in hopes of undermining the British territory's 1998 peace accord and its Catholic-Protestant government.
"There are still people out there who hate the peace process, who don't want to see our society moving forward, who pursue a hopelessly futile cause," said Martin McGuinness, who once commanded the Provisional IRA and today is the senior Irish nationalist in the Northern Ireland government.
The past decade's arrests of IRA figures and weapons seizures have shown that these splinter groups have attracted former Provisionals who seized some of that group's Libyan-supplied weapons stocks, including Semtex explosives, before disarmament officials could destroy them.
The IRA splinter groups' last deadly killing in Northern Ireland happened in 2012, when a prison officer was shot on the territory's major highway as he drove to work. But attacks, hoax threats and police discoveries of bombs still happen periodically.
In November, police seized a weapons cache including components for booby trap bombs in Catholic west Belfast. The following night, a police car in the area was riddled with bullets but officers escaped injury.
In October, an under-car bomb dropped harmlessly off a soldier's vehicle. The previous June, a policeman discovered another bomb hidden under his car in his driveway.