Two suspects were brought into custody on Sunday after a car bomb went off in Derry, a city in Northern Ireland, outside of the courthouse the night before. The men, both of them in their twenties, are believed to be associated with the New IRA underground militant group, known to be responsible for political and vigilante violence in the past.
No one was killed or injured in the attack, which mirrored similar attacks pinned to the group in recent years, many of them fatal. At around eight o’clock on Saturday night, police noticed a vehicle parked suspiciously outside of the courthouse. Soon afterwards, they were notified that a device had been left in the car. “We moved immediately to begin evacuating people from nearby buildings including hundreds of hotel guests, 150 people from the Masonic Hall, and a large number of children from a church youth club,” said Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton during a news conference following the arrests.
The device, according to the police department, was a crude and unstable bomb that could have detonated at any given moment. Luckily, police appear to have cleared the street before the car exploded at 8:09 P.M., some ten minutes after they received the report of a possible bomb.
The car itself was a pizza delivery van that had been hijacked by two armed men about two hours earlier, said police, who called the attack “unbelievably reckless.” On its Twitter page on Sunday, the department released CCTV footage of the van’s arrival and of the explosion, which indeed appears to have taken place only after the area had been deserted, just as the police had finished clearing the area of people.
The department, said Hamilton, was focusing its investigation on the New IRA, an outlawed consolidation of remaining hardline nationalist republican groups in the country. “Our main line of inquiry is against the New IRA,” he said. “The New IRA, like most dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland, is small, largely unrepresentative, and determined to drag people back to somewhere they don’t want to be.”
“Clearly, it was a very significant attempt to kill people here in this community,” he said.
Hamilton’s comments hearkened to growing fears in Northern Ireland of a return to Troubles-era violence, stoked by the debate over the implementation of a “hard border” between the North and its southern neighbor, Ireland, as a part of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. While politicians on all sides have refused to support the implementation of new travel and trade restrictions between the two countries, there has been no workable alternative yet introduced in Parliament. Even Prime Minister Theresa May’s recently rejected Brexit plan had no concrete solution to the issue, but instead proposed, essentially, a temporary extension of E.U. trade rules and barriers in the country along with Northern Ireland’s membership in the European single market pending further negotiations.
Representatives of the police in both countries have reportedly been expressing similar fears, arguing that the re-establishment of a hard border would be likely to instigate such forms of violence.
“There is no doubt that in terms of the Brexit element, there will be a section within our communities who will want to exploit that and use that to further their own objectives but I wouldn’t put that as the sole purpose,” said Gary Middleton, a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) official, in an interview at the scene with Reuters. The DUP, together with Theresa May’s Conservative Party, form the majority bloc in the British Parliament. Despite this, however, the two parties failed to unite behind the prime minister’s plan for departure from the EU largely because of the Irish border dilemma. The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, likewise condemned the bombing as a “pointless act of terror,” arguing on Twitter that it did not and couldn’t possibly have achieved any political ends for the perpetrators.
The Troubles refers to the period of military and paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland and Ireland at towards the end of the 20th century, between (in basic terms) the Protestant loyalists or Unionists, who supported Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom, and the Catholic republicans, who supported Northern Ireland’s independence and reunification with Ireland. Decades of violence that killed some 3,600 people and wounded nearly 50,000, many of them civilians, were brought to an end by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and it is the controversy surrounding that agreement and the politics of the last twenty years that has produced and encouraged splinter groups like the New IRA.
The New IRA itself was formed in 2012 by a number of such republican groups — including the vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) — and may be the largest such organization that remains. They have been accused of carrying out several similarly violent attacks in recent years, including the targeted killing of the two prison guards David Black and Adrian Ismay. Ismay was fatally wounded by a bomb left under his van in 2016, surviving for more than a week after the explosion. His was the last known car-bomb-related death in the country.
In 2018, the assistant police chief in Derry, Stephen Martin, called the New IRA “the most significant threat” in the city.
“Their ambition is not matched by their capability and their capacity,” he said at the time. “That threat is small compared to what the Provisional IRA would have posed during the Troubles, but in today’s context it is a severe threat and we do not take it lightly.”
Sinn Fein, a political party active in both Ireland and Northern Ireland that was once the political face of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and a signatory of the Good Friday Agreement, condemned the attack on Sunday. Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald accused the attackers of “attention seeking” in a brief interview with the BBC. “I would appeal to everybody in the community to remain firm in our collective resolve to move our politics forward,” she said. “And to those who are responsible — shame on you, shame on you and stop.”