Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton said on-going protests over the Union flag were creating an “ironic” disruption to the force’s work in trying to curb the activities of dissident republican terror groups.
Mr Hamilton told the Belfast Telegraph that it was “reasonable to assume” dissidents were taking advantage of recent unrest when they planted a booby-trap bomb under a constable’s car parked outside his east Belfast home.
The officer was about to go for Sunday lunch with his wife and two children when he discovered the device during a routine check.
The car was parked outside his home on the Upper Newtownards Road and it is thought the bomb may have been attached to it up to 48 hours earlier. Speaking at nearby PSNI headquarters yesterday, Mr Hamilton described the device as “powerful and deadly” with the capability to inflict “multiple murders”.
He said his “resilient” police officers have recently been working very long hours, with little time off, to deal with protests and riots over the Union flag being removed from Belfast City Hall.
“The flag protests have been an unhelpful distraction,” he said.
“There is a certain irony in the fact that those who feel the need to protest create a distraction from our progress in dismantling dissident groups.”
The police chief described the dissident threat against the PSNI as “severe” and he said the force had an internal awareness campaign to teach officers about the importance of vigilance.
“There has been a relentless targeting of PSNI officers and we have responded accordingly. We are actively pursuing them and will make it difficult for these people in their evil endeavours. They are not entitled to murder men, women and children,” he said.
The officer targeted is said to be a “highly regarded” constable who works at a station in the Belfast area. He joined the PSNI in 2004 from the RUC Reserve, and has a total of 16 years’ experience.
The murder bid brought back memories for Kate Carroll, whose husband Stephen was the first PSNI member killed by terrorists.
Mr Carroll was shot dead on March 9, 2009 after being lured to a call-out in Craigavon.Two men were found guilty of the 48-year-old's murder in March last year.
Mrs Carroll condemned Sunday’s attack and asked: “When will this madness end?
“Why target police officers, their wives and kids? When things go wrong in this country it is police officers who try to resolve the problems and they are they ones who are targeted. This attack is disgusting.
“I have spent most of my Christmas in tears missing my husband. I wish the people carrying out these attacks would put themselves in my shoes. Things have moved on — this is a democratic society, if you have something to say use your mouth and vote.”
UUP MLA for East Belfast Michael Copeland condemned the attempted murder of the police officer, but disagreed that recent protests and riots have distracted the PSNI from fighting terror.
“Anything that distracts police is a drain on resources,” he said.
“However, I don't think officers on the ground dealing with Union flag protests and riots are the same ones that would be investigating dissident republican activity. An attack like this is planned for months and it is not a spur of the moment thing.
“Any type of police work on this type of insurgence is carried out below the radar. I also do not think this revelation will stop protesters.
“They will still want their voices to be heard and do what they have always done.
“The people who planted this device had no care for who was going to get into the vehicle — the police officer, his wife and kids, friends of his kids. It is a horrible thought to contemplate.”
Police have arrested 115 people in the past five years and charged 35 in connection with dissident republican activity in the province.