The Continuity IRA plotted to blow up a lorry due to cross the Irish Sea for Scotland on Brexit day, police revealed today.
Officers are investigating a link to a ferry crossing to Scotland on January 31 and a bomb found on a heavy goods vehicle at the Silverwood Industrial Estate in Lurgan, Co Armagh.
It is understood that the bomb was discovered on the trailer unit of a lorry owned by a haulage company that specialises in transporting frozen goods across the UK, Ireland and Europe.
Police said today that dissident republicans, believed to be the Continuity IRA, ‘deliberately and recklessly attached an explosive device to a heavy goods vehicle’.
It said they did so ‘in the full knowledge and expectation that it would put the driver of that vehicle, road users and the wider public at serious risk of injury and possible death.’
Detectives received a report, first made to a media outlet, that an explosive device was on a lorry in Belfast docks last Friday, the day the UK left the EU.
The report received by police claimed the ferry was due to travel to Scotland. An intensive search was carried out but nothing was found, and the ferry sailed as planned.
But three days later, on Monday, officers received a further report that a device was attached to a lorry belonging to a ‘named haulage company.’
After a two-day operation, which involved the search of 400 vehicles, an explosive device was found attached to a heavy goods vehicle in the industrial estate. It was made safe by Army bomb disposal officers.
PSNI temporary assistant chief constable George Clarke has said a bomb left on a lorry in Belfast on the night of Brexit was a ‘viable device’.
‘It could have caused death and very serious injury and harm to members of the public.
‘Those who planted this device were reckless or indeed to cause that level of harm.’
Mr Clarke said those who created the device ‘did intend that the device would explode at around the time the UK left the EU’.
Mr Clarke said warning calls were made to media outlets indicating a device had been left in a trailer.
He said: ‘On Friday evening a warning or a call was made to a media outlet indicating a device had been left in a trailer on Belfast docks. It is very important to note that information was exceptionally sparse and limited.
‘Subsequently to that call, a further call was received by a media outlet. That call contained substantially more detail. It gave us more detail of a commercial haulage company.’
‘The calls were made to the same media outlet.’
He added: ‘These bombs are made by terrorists. They are made to a standard that cannot guarantee any form of safety.’
Mr Clarke added: ‘If the device was planted on a Friday, it was between Friday and Monday before they gave us the information that enables us to locate this (device).
‘During that period of time, a viable bomb is in a commercial yard posing a significant risk to anyone who comes within range of it.’
He described the planting of the device in a public place as ‘an incredibly reckless activity’.
Mr Clarke said the device was believed to have been planted by the Continuity IRA.
He said the lorry had not left the commercial yard where it had been parked at the time the bomb was planted.
Police have appealed for anyone who saw anything suspicious on the estate between 4pm and 10pm on Brexit Day to come forward.
Detective Superintendent Sean Wright, from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Terrorism Investigation Unit, said: ‘Had this vehicle travelled and the device had exploded at any point along the M1, across the Westlink (link road through Belfast) or into the Harbour estate, the risks posed do not bear thinking about.
‘The only conclusion that we can draw is that, once again, dissident republicans have shown a total disregard for the community, for businesses and for wider society.’
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne gave members of his oversight body – the NI Policing Board – an outline brief on the incident at their monthly meeting in Belfast on Thursday afternoon.
Afterwards, Sinn Fein’s policing spokesman, Gerry Kelly, said there could have been ‘catastrophic loss of life’ if the device had detonated on board a ferry.
‘The fact is this could have ended up on a ferry,’ he said.
‘If it had exploded, you are talking about catastrophic loss of life, and whoever planted this bomb needs to know that.’
Asked if he believed the attack was timed to coincide with Brexit, Mr Kelly said: ‘From the detail we have here that’s a possibility, but, whatever the reason, there is no logic around it except to cause death and destruction.
‘And to what purpose? There is no purpose and they need to desist and go off the stage and move away from any such actions.’
Ulster Unionist policing spokesman Doug Beattie called on the UK Government to take robust action against the dissidents.
‘This was no minor device, this was a very deliberate attempt to cause an explosion on a ferry, and, given the inherent instability of these devices, it could easily have detonated in the lorry’s yard, on the M1, in the middle of Belfast or on a ferry itself in the middle of the Irish Sea,’ he said.
‘Without a doubt it was an attempt to isolate Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain by creating a threat to on-board ferry traffic.
‘Had it exploded on the ferry, it could have created a fireball that would have taken the route of least resistance and spread through open spaces, walkways and corridors to engulf anyone in its path, be they men, women or children.
‘Had this been on a ferry from Dover to Calais, the UK Government would be mobilising every asset possible to track down the perpetrators – I call on them to do so with this, and treat it as the national security threat which it is.
‘We are dealing with people here who do not give a damn about the safety of anyone else. These are the type of fascists who bombed Omagh and who have taken their cue from those (the IRA) who organised the Bloody Friday, La Mon and Enniskillen bombings.
‘It is clear that violent republicans do not care for the people of Northern Ireland, regardless of what community they come from. They are sadistic, career terrorists who need to be locked up for a very long time.’
Mr Wright said he wanted to hear from anyone who noticed any suspicious activity in the industrial estate between 4pm and 10pm on January 31.
‘In addition, I ask that anyone who was driving in the area and who would have dash-cam footage around these same times that they contact police, as a matter of urgency,’ he added.