Northern Ireland's police heightened security today, deploying roadblocks in Belfast to deter potential car bomb attacks by Irish Republican Army militants, following the first such failed attack on the capital in a decade.
The 130-pound (60-kilogram) bomb failed to detonate after being parked at the underground entrance to Belfast's biggest, glitziest shopping centre. The attack - the latest and largest in a series of failed bomb attacks using buses, cars, booby traps and letter bombs - illustrated how Northern Ireland cannot take its peace for granted.
Police commanders and security analysts warned that IRA splinter groups opposed to the outlawed group's 1997 cease-fire have increased their bombing efforts in the run-up to Christmas, a holiday that Irish republican extremists long have targeted in hopes of harming Northern Ireland's economy.
But reaction to the latest attack underscored how much Belfast has changed since the major IRA faction, the Provisionals, renounced violence and disarmed in 2005. Attacks by today's IRA remnants are distinguished by their small scale, poor resources and lack of success.
While police were more visible today, they patrolled on bicycles and in normal cars, not armored personnel carriers. And central Belfast remained a hive of shopping, business and tourist activity focused on an outdoor Christmas market, scenes unrecognisable from the 1990s, when workers fled a lifeless city centre by early evening.
Belfast Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir, a member of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party who once supported Provisional IRA violence, met police commanders to discuss how to increase security without deterring business. Since gaining office in June, O Muilleoir has made reconciliation with the territory's British Protestant majority his top priority and describes IRA die-hards as the enemy of the people.
"The people who attacked Belfast want to wreck Christmas, and the rest of us aren't going to let them," he said.
While IRA splinter groups have committed violence in spurts ever since Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998, police have identified an upward trend in recent weeks. Statistics show that October featured 16 attempted bombings, the worst level in three years, including four letter bombs addressed to top policemen and Britain's minister responsible for the province. All were spotted by Royal Mail screening technology or office secretaries.
Already this month, a former police officer dodged likely death in Belfast by spotting a booby-trap bomb under his car. In Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second-largest city, suspected IRA members twice have handed bombs to innocent motorists and ordered them to deliver the weapon to the city's police headquarters.
Unusually, both refused. A bus driver abandoned her bus at a stop instead, while a fast-food delivery man fled on foot from the bombers.
That would rarely have happened in the past, when the much bigger Provisional IRA deployed credible menace and death threats to ensure cooperation. Provisionals typically would take the driver's family hostage, or follow the driver in a second vehicle and threaten to detonate the bomb by remote control if the car wasn't parked outside the specified target.
The latest attack also involved IRA militants accosting a driver and ordering him to deliver a bomb, this time to Victoria Square, an open-air shopping mall opened in 2008 next door to two of the IRA's favored targets: the courthouse and central Belfast's main police base.
Victoria Square features a 35-metre-wide (100-foot-wide) glass-domed atrium - exactly the kind of architectural eye-catcher that would never have been built in the much-bombed, window-shattered Belfast of old.
This time the driver, described by police as terrified that his family might be harmed, did as instructed. But he too immediately ran across the street to tell police, defying the traditional IRA threat to kill anyone who cooperates with British forces. Nobody was hurt when the bomb's detonator failed to trigger the intended explosion.
The Belfast Telegraph in an editorial lauded the three drivers for risking IRA retaliation.
"These people showed enormous courage in standing up for what they believe in. Just like the overwhelming mass of people in this province, they want peace," the newspaper said. "They shun any thought of a return to the violence of the past, which caused untold pain to tens of thousands of people."
Nearly 3700 people have died in the Northern Ireland conflict since the 1960s, including more than 120 in England and 100 in the Republic of Ireland. That toll has slowed to a trickle, with only 33 deaths total in the past decade and one so far this year, an alleged Belfast drug dealer assassinated by an IRA faction as he walked his dogs.
Various IRA factions have killed about 2150 people in pursuit of the goal of forcing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Republic of Ireland, which won independence from Britain in 1922. Protestant "loyalist" extremists hostile to the IRA killed nearly 1100 people, mostly Catholic civilians. British soldiers killed 301, while Northern Ireland police killed 52. Others died in mob violence or disputed circumstances.