A car bomb has exploded near the headquarters of Britain's MI5 domestic security services in Northern Ireland, an attack the police blamed on Irish Republican Army (IRA) dissidents.
The bomb exploded at 12:24am on Monday (23:24 GMT on Sunday), minutes after the devolved power-sharing administration in Belfast resumed control over policing and justice in the province after almost 40 years, and hours before the Northern Ireland Assembly was expected to appoint its first justice minister.
Police said IRA dissidents held a Belfast taxi driver at gunpoint in his home and used his vehicle to carry the bomb to the rear of Palace Barracks.
The former British army base in the Holywood suburb just outside Belfast now houses hundreds of employees working for the Northern Ireland branch office of the British domestic spy agency MI5.
There were no reports of serious injuries and no one had claimed responsibility for the attack, a police spokeswoman said.
Local politicians said about 50 local residents had been evacuated to a community hall after the authorities received telephone warnings of the bomb.
A Protestant politician, Basil McCrea, said one man was hospitalised suffering from suspected shock after he was "blown off his feet" by the shockwave.
Politicians agreed the attack appeared timed to undermine Britain's transfer of policing and justice powers to a new justice department in Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration.
Northern Ireland endured three decades of civil strife between Catholics who wanted the province to become part of the Republic of Ireland and Protestants who wanted to stay within the United Kingdom.
|The blast came as the Belfast administration resumed policing powers [EPA file]
The violence largely ended with the signing of the 1998 Good Friday peace accords, which paved the way for the current power-sharing administration between the Protestant DUP and the Catholic Sinn Fein parties.
The main paramilitary groups, including the IRA, have laid down their arms, but sporadic violence – usually blamed on dissident groups opposed to the peace process - still plagues the province.
The policing and justice powers were transferred from London to Belfast at midnight on April 12, resolving one of the most sensitive issues in Northern Ireland.
When legislators approved the power transfer deal last month, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, hailed it as the "final end" to decades of conflict.
"The completion of devolution... is the final end to decades of strife. It sends the most powerful message to those who would return to violence: that democracy and tolerance will prevail," Brown said.
At the height of the violence known as "The Troubles" in 1972, the British government led by Edward Heath, the then prime minister, seized control of policing and justice from Northern Ireland's local ministers in a bid to control the worsening security situation.
But the move prompted the fall of the devolved administration and the powers remained with London throughout the conflict, in which more than 3,500 people died.