A bomb that exploded just inside the Northern Ireland Border has heightened fears of renewed violence if a no-deal Brexit goes ahead.
Garda and PSNI chiefs are working together to try to establish who was behind the “sinister and potentially murderous attack” in Fermanagh.
Dissident republican groups the New IRA and Continuity IRA are the main suspects.
PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin appealed to political leaders to take action rather than simply condemn the attack, adding that the “terrorists have spoken”.
“We all want to reclaim the prosperity we felt a number of years ago, because people are feeling progress is slipping back and views are becoming more entrenched,” he said.
It is believed police officers were lured to Wattle Bridge close to Newtownbutler – less than 2km from the Republic.
Bomb disposal officers had been called to examine a suspect device. That item was a hoax but another device exploded close-by while officers were at the scene.
Mr Martin said the attack was “indiscriminate and reckless” and while it was designed to target police “the reality is that anyone could have been caught up in the explosion”.
As the investigation went on last night, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke by telephone for almost an hour.
They came no closer to breaking the Brexit impasse but Mr Johnson agreed to visit Dublin in early September.
While police have not identified a direct link between the attack and Brexit, they say the ongoing political uncertainty around the Border is feeding a dangerous atmosphere.
Garda checkpoints were set up on roads south of the Border in Co Cavan close to the bomb scene last night.
Deputy Chief Constable Martin said the situation “underlines the difficulty of policing in and around the Border area”.
“We have two and half years of no devolved institutions. We have unresolved issues around legacy and we saw an aspect play out in parading in Derry/Londonderry last weekend.
“We have had tensions on the ground around bonfires. We have the uncertainty around the EU exit. We have had five attempts to murder police officers this year.
“When you add all that up, there is a time for reflection, a time to question what type of society we live in,” he said.
“Terrorists have spoken, in response the police service will continue to do its job. It will investigate this attack, men and women of the PSNI will be in every community today and tomorrow and the next day serving. But as I said in response when I went to Derry the day after Lyra McKee, and I appealed to people to have conversations, I think we now need action.
“We need as a society, led by our politicians, to absolutely set out not just our condemnation to these people but to work collectively together as a society right across the piste, police playing their part but police on their own not being sufficient to actually say ‘you do not represent the type of society we want to live in and we want to reclaim actually the prosperity I think we all felt a number of years ago’.
“But many of us sense things are becoming more entrenched and progress that had been made is maybe slipping back a bit.”
Political sources in Dublin said they are worried that further attacks could follow and leaders on this island and in London have a responsibility to help lower tensions.
There are fears of small, but potentially lethal attacks occurring more frequently.
“To set up attacks like this doesn’t require huge resources or big ‘armies’ but they have the potential to create a huge impact,” a source said.
Last month, a booby-trap bomb was left in Craigavon, Co Armagh, as police attended a call-out from a member of the public.
In June, a serving police officer had a lucky escape when he found a bomb attached to the underside of his vehicle in a golf club car park in east Belfast.
In April, the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry made headlines around the world.
Sources said dissident groups are “taking advantage” of the ongoing political uncertainty in Stormont where there has been no devolved government for two and a half years.
This combined with the threat of a hard Border after Brexit is giving them a new platform.
But DUP leader Arlene Foster last night rebuffed suggestions the political vacuum is fuelling violence.
“These people should not get any excuses for what they have tried to do here with the intention of hurting and maiming of what they see as legitimate targets, and of course there have never been legitimate targets in Northern Ireland and there certainly aren’t now.”
Asked by the Irish Independent whether the Garda checkpoints were a sign of things to come, Ms Foster said: “We have to have a cordon in place when incidents like this happen. This road is normally opened and as you know is a route from Northern Ireland to the Republic. This will be lifted once police have finished their investigations.”
She said the relationship between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána “has never been stronger and I think that is very good and undoubtedly they’ll be working together to try and bring these people to justice as well”.
Meanwhile, counter-terrorism expert Ken Pennington predicted a series of attacks against officers between now and October 31 – the deadline for the UK leaving the EU.
The retired PSNI officer, who helped foil a car bomb attack at Victoria Square in Belfast city centre in 2013, believes dissident groups will use Brexit to seek the “oxygen of publicity”.
JJ O’Hara, of the Border Communities Against Brexit, said: “We condemn it and we do not want to go back to the conflict, and we have been saying this for two and a half years.”
He said incidents like yesterday will also affect the tourism sector in the area.
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