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Bomb rattles British spy HQ in Northern Ireland

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant leaders elected a new justice minister Monday, reaching a new peacemaking milestone despite an audacious bomb attack hours earlier on the province's British spy headquarters.

The Real IRA splinter group admitted responsibility for forcing a Belfast cabbie to drive the bomb to the gates of Palace Barracks, the high-security home of the anti-terrorist agency MI5 in Northern Ireland.

The blast caused little damage to the base or nearby homes, and injured nobody seriously. But it did dramatically underscore the problems facing Northern Ireland's new Justice Department in seeking to build greater support for law and order, particularly in a minority Catholic community that still harbors Irish Republican Army die-hards.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander who is the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, said Monday's election of a justice minister after years of negotiations on the matter would narrow the ground in which dissidents could operate.

The bomb "may well have been placed outside Palace Barracks, but the real target of that explosion was the destruction of the peace process and the political institutions," McGuinness told the Northern Ireland Assembly shortly before the vote.

David Ford, who leads a small cross-community party called Alliance, was elected justice minister thanks to support from Sinn Fein and the major Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists.

McGuinness called the dissidents' sporadic bombings and shootings "a waste of time, totally futile, because the political landscape has changed forever."

Senior police officers said the bomb could easily have killed or maimed civilians living beside the base in Holywood, a prosperous Belfast suburb, but for the bravery of the taxi driver. He had been ordered by three dissident gunmen to deliver the bomb to the base and not raise any alarm — or else he or his family members would be executed.

But police said the man, who was not publicly identified, shouted "It's a bomb!" as soon as he parked outside a perimeter entrance.

Twenty minutes later, officers were still evacuating elderly couples and families from nearby houses when the bomb detonated, showering the roofs and front yards with shrapnel and debris but hitting nobody. Police Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw said the dissidents "showed absolutely no regard for human life."

The blast happened just 24 minutes past the stroke of midnight, when Britain officially transferred authority to Belfast's new Justice Department. That act — the focus of years of painstaking negotiations — ended 38 straight years of British control of Northern Ireland's criminal justice system.

Nonetheless, the Real IRA bomb threw a fiery spotlight on how, despite Monday's transfer of authority, Britain retains primary security powers in Northern Ireland — as exemplified by its imposing four-story complex in Holywood for MI5.

That shadowy spy agency, not the police, retains primary responsibility for surveilling and wiretapping the IRA dissidents and other security threats. And MI5 agents are answerable to the British government in London, not the justice minister in Belfast.

MI5 director-general Jonathan Evans has warned repeatedly of a rise in dissident Irish republican terrorism. In January, he told British Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee that MI5 was pursuing more "life-threatening investigations" in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom combined.

In the committee's annual report, which gave an account of his secret evidence, Evans was quoted as saying that MI5 had failed to anticipate how the "situation in Northern Ireland has degenerated."

The IRA killed nearly 1,800 people in a failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. The outlawed group renounced violence and disarmed in 2005 in support of Sinn Fein's efforts to forge a coalition with their former Democratic Unionist enemies.

But splinter IRA groups keep plotting to wreck the cease-fire and unravel power-sharing. On Feb. 22 they successfully detonated their first car bomb in nearly a decade, causing minor damage to properties beside the heavily fortified courthouse in the border town of Newry.