Return of Belfast checkpoints to thwart Christmas attacks by dissident republicans
Christmas shoppers face police checkpoints and a huge security presence in Belfast in the coming weeks as the authorities battle to prevent dissident republican terror attacks.
Roadblocks, a familiar sight in the city during the Troubles, are being positioned on arterial routes across Belfast.
Senior police sources have indicated that they believe dissidents will attempt to target the city centre during the busiest shopping period of the year.
More than 1,000 vehicles have been stopped by the PSNI in the past week against the backdrop of the ongoing severe terror threat.
Business owners and shoppers have been urged to be vigilant but not deterred from the city centre.
PSNI Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw said police are taking a robust approach to security.
"Our security operation around the city centre has already kicked-off," Mr Grimshaw said.
"We want to do that in a balanced way, in a way that makes people feel safe but as well as that ensures people with more sinister intent don't get to bring something into the city centre.
"We should see more police on the street, that will include officers on the beat out interacting with the public, interacting with shoppers and that's how it should be.
"We will also, of course, be taking steps checking what traffic is coming in and out of the city centre.
"But we want people to come in and enjoy themselves."
The heightened security presence follows an upsurge in dissident republican terrorism in the run-up to last Christmas.
A senior security source last night told this newspaper there was no intelligence of a specific threat but police were basing operations on terror actions last year.
The source said given the series of high-profile police successes against dissidents in the past year, they may be more eager to attempt to bring disruption to the city.
They also told of an increase in dissident activity in recent months.
Attacks last Christmas included a car bomb at Victoria Square, an incendiary device in a golf outlet and an explosion in the Cathedral Quarter area on a Friday night when it was thronged with revellers.
"Of course we look at what happened last Christmas and I don't want to see that in the city centre and nobody I'm sure in the community wants to see that happen," said Mr Grimshaw.
"So we need to put the policing operation in place to ensure we keep Belfast safe.
"You will see officers on foot in the main economic centre of the town and also you will see vehicle checkpoints at various points around the city.
"That's something we feel is necessary but we will try to do it in a balanced way to make sure it doesn't absolutely bring Belfast to a stop and discourage people from coming in.
"There is a balance there where people feel safe when they see a policing presence and that's what we want to achieve."
Paul McMahon, president of the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, said business owners have been well-trained in how to ensure their premises and staff are vigilant to any threat.
"Any attack on retail is not good for the city and not good for business but there are steps retailers can take and I think police have been very proactive in making sure the information is available.
He added: "It's a common-sense approach.
"Anything which looks unusual they need to take steps to make sure they check out what that is and report it as appropriate.
"I think these measures are reassuring and that's what they are there to do and with that reassurance we are confident that people will be able to trade or visit without any distractions."
David Dornan, assistant operations manager, Belfast City Centre Management, added: "Belfast has a diverse offering of retail and leisure experiences which appeal to a diverse range of visitors and tourists.
"There are some simple steps outlined below that individuals can take when they are out and about to help keep themselves and their property safe."