Updated at: 12/07/2012 6:35 AM
By SHAWN POGATCHNIK
(AP) DUBLIN - Northern Ireland police rammed a car and seized an Irish Republican Army bomb hours ahead of Friday’s visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a one-day trip being overshadowed by an upsurge in sectarian passions.
Detectives were interrogating four suspected IRA members, all aged in their 40s, on suspicion of transporting the bomb in the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry, 80 miles (130 kilometers) northwest of Belfast. Police arrested three men in the disabled car and a fourth suspect nearby Thursday night. They declined to specify the size of the bomb or speculate on the potential target.
IRA die-hards often try to mount at least one token attack during moments when Northern Ireland is in the world headlines, such as during U.S. political visits, in hopes of attracting attention to their cause. Most IRA members renounced violence and disarmed in 2005, but several splinter groups continue to mount occasional gun and bomb attacks in pursuit of the IRA’s traditional goal of forcing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Republic of Ireland.
Clinton’s first port of call was to meet the Protestant and Catholic leaders of Northern Ireland’s 5-year-old unity government, the central achievement of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord. That landmark 1998 pact emphasized Northern Ireland would remain a British territory as long as most of its citizens want this. She also planned to visit Belfast’s major new tourist attraction, a 100 million pound ($160 million) dockside center devoted to the Titanic, the ill-fated luxury liner built in Belfast a century ago.
Spreading street disturbances this week have illustrated how rival British Protestant and Irish Catholic communities remain fundamentally divided over the road ahead. Protestant hard-liners have clashed repeatedly with police over a vote Monday by Belfast City Council to remove the British flag from atop the city hall. A small cross-community party, Alliance, sided with Catholic council members in deciding that the flag should fly only on 18 official days annually, not year-round as has been the case for the past century.
Protestant extremists have responded by trying to storm the city hall and attacking Alliance offices in two Belfast suburbs, burning one down. More than 20 police and an Associated Press photographer have been wounded in the clashes.
Alliance’s sole member of British Parliament, East Belfast lawmaker Naomi Long, reportedly has received death threats from Protestant extremists. Alliance said in a statement that police had advised Long not to stay in her home Thursday night or go to her constituency office Friday.
The Protestant leader of Northern Ireland’s unity government, First Minister Peter Robinson, condemned those behind the threat.
"Such threats are an affront to democracy and an attack on us all. As someone who in the past has been visited many times by the police to be told of death threats issued against me, I know how difficult and testing a time this is. ... Regardless of political difference, public representatives should not be attacked or threatened in any way," said Robinson, who lost his parliamentary seat to Long in the last British general election.
As First Lady, Clinton championed the cause of promoting women in Northern Ireland’s traditionally male-dominated political arena, and Long was one of those most closely identified with that work.
Police reported more trouble Thursday night in the predominantly Protestant suburb of Glengormley and the town of Ballymena, where Protestants waving British flags and placards denouncing the Alliance Party illegally blocked roads and threw bottles and rocks at police. At least one officer was injured, several vehicles were damaged and four people were arrested on suspicion of riotous behavior.
The Northern Ireland police commander, Chief Constable Matt Baggott, said members of outlawed Protestant paramilitary groups have helped to direct this week’s street protests. Such groups, chiefly the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, officially disarmed and renounced violence in 2009-2010, but their members still seek to impose their will and run criminal rackets in working-class Protestant parts of Northern Ireland.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)