The Houben Center spans a once-ephemeral intersection on Crumlin Road. It is widely used by both communities and stands as a symbol of peace in an area with a long history of sectarian violence.
It was precisely for this reason that it was chosen to host the Time to Build the Common Ground event organized by the John and Pat Hume Foundation.
In attendance were a cross section of society, politicians, Troubles victims and guest of honor Simon Coveney, the affable Irish Foreign Secretary.
He’s no stranger to Northern Ireland and has spoken at dozens of events over the years, but it will be Friday’s event that will stick in his memory for all the wrong reasons.
Just five minutes after his keynote address, a member of his personal security team whispered something in his ear and the minister was rushed to safety as news of a bomb in the car park got through and the event was moved to another room first to be evacuated.
Loyalist anger at protocol is well rehearsed. Last year, sporadic rioting swept the streets of the Shankill and County Antrim.
But that mostly affected young people and was more of a sporadic reaction. Friday’s incident, in contrast, was a carefully planned attack, the bomb prepared by someone with experience and a driver abducted in what must have been a horrific ordeal.
We are no strangers to proxy bombs in Northern Ireland, but most would have thought they were a relic of the past and not something to happen on a beautiful spring Friday morning in north Belfast in 2022.
While loyalist paramilitaries remained involved in crime and were also responsible for a number of murders of members of their own community, they were not considered a threat to “national security” for many years.
The attack on a minister in the Irish government will change that dramatically.
What has also surprised the police and intelligence services is the dramatic escalation from online intimidation, the use of banners with the names of EU and Irish politicians, to a declaration of war on the protocol.
This loyalist anger is not aimed at Boris Johnson, who negotiated and signed the Withdrawal Agreement, but Irish government officials require some political gymnastics.
But loyalists accuse Irish negotiators of using the threat of republican violence to move all controls away from the land border and into the ports and airports, creating the Irish Sea border.
You think if it worked for Republicans, why not for Loyalists?
Still, that anger could easily have been vented with a protest at the venue of the peacebuilding conference, but resorting to such serious tactics will ring alarm bells in the highest corridors of power.
If this is a starting point for violence, what is the endgame?
Does this mean another escalation with a long hot summer of discontent and the possibility of a return to old tactics?
There will be political calls for calm after the bomb alert, but action must also follow, with those with influence having a moral duty to try to calm tensions and focus on peaceful negotiations.
A number of other protocol protests have been organised, some with senior politicians speaking from the podium and all eyes will be on their words and how they are tackling the escalation of loyalist violence.
With just a few weeks to go before the parliamentary elections, we find ourselves in difficult territory. It is crucial that calls are made to bring Northern Ireland back from the brink before it is too late.
What loyalist paramilitaries also did through their actions on Friday is unleash upon them a world of law enforcement they have not seen in many years.
With the New IRA on its knees, MI5 with a huge budget and presence in Northern Ireland is likely to divert a sizable resource to combat the loyalist threat.
Within a few hours, on a beautiful sunny spring day, things changed dramatically and not for the better.
Difficult times are coming with only a small window of opportunity to ensure that the downtrend is halted before it gains momentum.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/loyalist-paramilitaries-havent-been-seen-as-threat-to-national-security-in-north-for-years-targeting-coveney-changes-that-41488557.html Loyalist paramilitaries have not been viewed as a threat to “national security” in North North for years – Coveney’s target changes that