David Sharrock
From the Times
March 31, 2009

A SERIES of bomb warnings and security alerts paralysed Belfast last night in a show of strength by republican dissidents determined to restart Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

The scale and co-ordination of the bomb alerts marked a significant change in the republicans’ capacity to cause serious disruption in areas hitherto under the de facto control of the Provisional IRA.

It was also being interpreted as a riposte to Sinn Fein and the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s description of republicans intent on pursuing a physical force agenda as “micro-groups” with no support. Scores of people would have been required to organise and carry out the bomb alerts.

They began at 4pm, as the rush-hour traffic began to flow, with a van being burnt on the Upper Crumlin Road in north Belfast, close to the Holy Cross Catholic church and the hardline republican Ardoyne district.

Shortly after that an Army disposal unit was dealing with an abandoned vehicle near Tennant Road police station – setting a pattern that was replicated across the city with more suspicious vehicles left near police stations.

An abandoned vehicle on the M1 forced the closure of Northern Ireland’s busiest motorway as traffic streamed out Belfast towards the city of Lisburn, Co Antrim. Police also advised people to stay away from the Kilwilkie estate in Lurgan, Co Armagh, where a number of vehicles were hijacked. The area is a stronghold of dissident republicans. Rioting broke out on the estate a fortnight ago.

North Queen Street, Tennant Street, Kingsway at Dunmurry, Blacks Road and Stewartstown Road – all arterial routes – were closed because of alerts at police stations. Upper Newtownards Road was closed after the Stormont hotel, which is next to the Stormont Parliament buildings, was evacuated because of a bomb warning.

The incidents caused the worst disruption for years in Belfast and marked the return of a tactic used widely and for many years by the Provisionals as part of their campaign to bring the province’s economy to a standstill.

The Ulster Unionists and the cross-community Alliance Party were the first politicians to react, condemning republicans for the chaos. Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionists, said that “criminals” would not succeed in dragging Northern Ireland back to its violent past if the whole community stood together.

Jim Allister MEP, leader of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice, said the “hijacking and burning spree confirms a pattern which I predicted, that as republican terrorists reassert themselves they will seek to demonstrate they can do everything the Provos perfected. The rundown in the police and security forces, all at the behest of Sinn Fein, has left us ill-equipped to deal with resurgent IRA violence.

The upsurge in unrest on a level not seen in years comes three weeks after the Real IRA said it shot dead two soldiers and the Continuity IRA claimed the murder of a police officer in the space of 48 hours.