Real IRA car bomb timed to disrupt policing and justice transfer

The Real IRA has claimed responsibility for a car bomb which exploded at 12:20 this morning outside Northern Ireland headquarters.

The Real IRA has claimed responsibility for a car bomb which exploded at 12:20 this morning outside Northern Ireland’s MI5 headquarters – the exact moment policing and justice powers were fully devolved from Westminster to Stormont. No warning was given for the attack outside Palace Barracks in Holywood, County Down.

Condemning the explosion, Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward said:

“The democratic transition stands in stark contrast to the activity of a criminal few who will not accept the will of the majority of people of Northern Ireland.”

The BBC’s Mark Simpson, in Hollywood, adds:

“The timing and location of the bombing were designed to try to create the biggest possible international headlines and the deepest political impact. Planting the bomb three miles from Stormont, and less than a mile from the headquarters of MI5 in Northern Ireland, was deliberate.

And making it explode just after midnight, less than an hour after policing and justice powers were transferred from London to Belfast, was a key part of the potentially lethal plan. On a day when a new political era is starting at Stormont, dissident republicans wanted to highlight one of the weaknesses the peace process – the threat of further violence.

“The truth is the police suspected something might happen this week. The reality is that they were not able to stop it. That will be food for thought for Stormont’s new justice minister.”

Problems continue to mount, meanwhile, for the Ulster Unionist party, whose pact with the Conservatives continues to cause headaches. Speaking in 2008, David Cameron had described the deal as as the birth of “a dynamic new political and electoral force”.

The rationale for the move, according to a joint statement from the two leaders is to provide voters across Northern Ireland with a choice:

“Five more years of Northern Ireland stuck on the margins of UK politics with the local parties or back into the mainstream of UK politics with a Conservative and Unionist Government.”

Professor Rick Wilford of Queens University Belfast however has concluded that it is a political alliance designed merely to demonstrate Cameron’s efforts at “big tent politics”.

Sir Reg’s gamble is that as Northern Ireland moves forward, so to the electorate will want Northern Ireland to form part of the mainstream of British politics. It is a gamble.

• Last month, the party’s sole MP, Lady Sylvia Harmon, decided to resign and fight her North Down seat as an independent;

• Lady Hermon’s decision was followed very closely after by the resignation of former leadership candidate, and North Down MLA Alan McFarland, who made clear his frustration at his party’s alliance with the Conservatives;

• The UUP’s difficulties were further exacerbated by the description of their links with the Conservatives as a “mongrel relationship”, by the party’s former Deputy Leader, Lord Kilcolooney.

The UUP’s difficulties were compounded still further by its decision to vote against the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont as set out in the Hillsborough Agreement. If polling is to be believed, their decision puts them at odds with 63% of Ulster Unionists who have indicated their support for transferring policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland.

For the Conservatives, they find themselves aligned to the only party to actively oppose the devolution of policing and justice, suggesting that Mr Cameron’s alliance is one which, in the event of a hung Parliament, could see them held to ransom by the UUP. Lord Kilclooney warned:

“There is continuing contradiction between Ulster Unionists and Conservative party position which is going to end up in chaos at the general election.”

The outgoing Conservative Chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, Patrick Cormack concluded:

“It does look odd and it does look inconsistent.”

Furthermore, just last week, the former vice chai of the Northern Ireland Conservative Party, Jeff Peel resigned from the party in protest over the decision by the UUP to support an independent unionist candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. This was despite David Cameron’s unequivocal pledge to stand candidates in all 18 Northern Ireland seats.

Additionally, news that the unofficial UUP grouping, Socialists for the Union will aim “to make as much trouble as possible for the Cameron poodles in our party” and a recipe now exits for a complete mess, not least over Cameron’s political neutrality in Northern Ireland. As Democratic Congressman, Richie Neal, Chairman of the US Friends of Ireland Group has said:

“My experience tells me that to be an honest broker you have to be precisely that.”

As the election draws closer, the new political entity formed by David Cameron and Reg Empey will be judged on three criteria:

• Will the grouping win any seats at all? If not, what mandate would David Cameron then have in Northern Ireland?

• The decision by the DUP not to contest the North Down seat being fought by the now independent unionist candidate, Sylvia Hermon will only serve to boost her chances. As the standard bearer from the anti UUP/Conservative groupings, a victory for her on Election Day would prove a resounding rejection of Cameron and Empey.

• Will Sir Reg win the South Antrim he has decided to stand in, against the DUP’s William McCrea? It is a decision dubbed a “high risk” strategy by the Irish Times, with Empey opting for a seat other than the East Belfast constituency he represents at Stormont. Defeat, according to the Belfast Telegraph would almost certainly lead to his resignation as party leader.

Election 2010 will prove a high risk strategy for both Mr Cameron and Sir Reg. However, given the problems it has caused, even before a vote has been cast, Conor McGinn, Chair of the Labour Irish Society is correct to write:

“The Conservative-Ulster Unionist alliance is an albatross around Cameron’s neck.”

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