A PICKAXE attack on a airbase runway likely to be used by Queen Elizabeth II when she lands in Ireland next month has heightened fears of dissident republican action during the historic visit.
The possibility that activists opposed to the queen's trip carried out the vandalism at the Air Corps base at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, is one of the theories being investigated by gardai and military police.
A pickaxe is thought to have been used to gouge fist-sized holes in runway 29/11, which is 6,000ft long and the longest of Baldonnel's two runways.
Garda, military police and army engineering experts are examining the damage which has sparked a major review of security at the airbase.
"There is a possibility that it was because of the queen's visit, but there was no evidence to support that, no graffiti, no pickaxe recovered, no claim of responsibility.
"There is a whole range of possibilities. We just don't know at this stage," one security source told the Herald today.
The incident is certain to heighten fears that dissidents may attempt to disrupt the queen's visit and came the same weekend that dissident republicans were being blamed for the booby-trap car bomb in Omagh which killed PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr (25).
The weekend incident at runway 29/11 showed a degree of planning, with the damage inflicted on part of the runway furthest away from buildings and near fields, sources said.
The damage was discovered early yesterday morning when an Air Corps CASA search plane was due to start a search operation for two missing fishermen off the east coast.
The Air Corps closed runway 29/11 and used the base's 4,300ft runway 23/05 instead.
When the queen lands in Ireland next month, a major security operation will be in place involving thousands of gardai and Defence Forces personnel.
She is likely to land at Baldonnel in a four-engined BAe 146 jet aircraft of No 32 (Royal) Squadron of the Royal Air Force.
Hundreds of troops will be needed to secure the more than 10km perimeter of Casement Aerodrome with specialist armed units protecting the queen and her party.
Groups opposed to the queen's visit have vowed to carry out street demonstrations.
In the past, anti-war groups have also protested at the use of Baldonnel by United States Air Force aircraft. After the queen lands at Baldonnel, it is epected a no-fly zone will be in effect over Farmleigh House with the airbase patrolled by armed Air Corps PC-9M planes and AW 139 helicopters.
The queen will be in Ireland from Tuesday May 17 to Friday, May 20.
She is expected to visit Croke Park as part of her state trip to the Republic.