The PSNI has said it believes the UVF may be behind a loyalist hoax bombing at an event where Secretary of State Simon Coveney was speaking.
Government sources believe the Foreign Secretary was the target of the attack, in which an innocent man was forced to drive a van carrying what was originally believed to be an explosive device to the venue.
Mr Coveney was speaking at the John and Pat Hume Foundation’s Building Common Ground event at the Houban Center on Crumlin Road in Belfast.
The Government believes the attack was pre-planned and linked to the ongoing debate over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
In a speech at police headquarters on Friday night, Deputy Police Chief Mark McEwan condemned the “disgraceful” attack, which had interrupted a peace-building event attended by Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney.
A van was hijacked near Shankill Road on Sydney Street West between 9am and 10am this morning.
The van driver was threatened by two gunmen and forced to drive his white Vauxhall van a short distance to another street where a device was placed in the van.
The victim was then forced to drive to Holy Cross Chapel in north Belfast.
ACC McEwan said: “Just think about it, the victim believed at this point that he was driving a van with a live bomb and that his family was being threatened.”
Over 25 homes were evacuated during the security alert, local schools were affected and vulnerable residents at a nursing home had to be relocated to another part of the building.
A funeral that took place in the chapel was also disrupted.
After the device was declared a scam, ACC McEwan said officials’ goal was to maximize disruption to the local community.
His early assessment was that loyalist paramilitaries were responsible, with the main suspect being the UVF.
He asked for information about the shooter and the movements of the white Vauxhall van, registration XJZ7908.
ACC McEwan said he would not speculate whether Simon Coveney was the intended target or if he needed additional reassurance in the future.
He also couldn’t be sure if the weapons used were real, but said the threat to the driver felt real at the time
He said the driver has since been taken to hospital for treatment and said a significant security threat remains in Northern Ireland, meaning “an attack is likely”.
Politicians on all sides of Northern Ireland’s partition have condemned the incident.
A van was hijacked at gunpoint in a loyalist neighborhood of Belfast before the driver was forced to escort a number of armed people to a spot where the minister was speaking.
Mr Coveney was forced to stop mid-speech after his security team told him they needed to leave the building urgently. He was escorted to a “safe place” by Gardaí and the PSNI.
An Army bomb disposal team was called to the scene after a canister described as “suspicious” was found in the van outside the venue.
Mr. Coveney has been the target of loyalist harassment in the past. His picture was placed on anti-protocol banners displayed in a number of loyalist areas late last year.
A controlled explosion was carried out by Army engineering officers on site. A loud bang was heard just after 1 p.m. Friday afternoon.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson condemned the incident and said those who persisted with violence had little support, while Northern Ireland Foreign Secretary Brandon Lewis expressed “solidarity” with Mr Coveney.
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said: “The attack on an event involving Minister Simon Coveney at the Houben Center in North Belfast today is a disgrace.
“Those behind the hijacking of a van left on church property have no place in society.”
Local priest Father Gary Donegan, who also spoke at the event, explained that Mr. Coveney had paused in his speech for about five minutes when it was cut off.
“I saw the close protection team waving at me and I wondered what they’re asking me to do?
“They turned around and told me that someone had been kidnapped at gunpoint and had driven a van into the ground with an alleged device and we had to get the minister out of there and evacuate the place.
“So we had to get the minister away immediately.”
He described the evacuation of the building, which he says is a “local community center,” and said a funeral was canceled by the evacuation.
“Whatever mindless people have done, what they did today, forget the actual event itself, but there is a grieving family that hasn’t even had a funeral now.”
After being made aware of an issue, the minister told the audience he had to go and hoped to be back in a few minutes.
A 400m cordon was erected, meaning the burial had to take place on the street.
The driver of the vehicle was in tears at the venue after alerting security officials to the incident and apologizing to attendees for being forced to drive to the site.
Mr Coveney said he was “sad and frustrated that someone has been attacked and harassed in this way and my thoughts are with him and his family”.
Tim Attwood, secretary of the Hume Foundation, told Reuters: “There is a security alert and the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) are currently assessing the situation. Everyone had to evacuate the center.”
I am aware of reports of an ongoing security alert in Belfast.
I am kept informed and in regular contact with the PSNI.
solidarity with @simoncoveney and all concerned.
— Brandon Lewis (@BrandonLewis) March 25, 2022
Worrying situation in Belfast today at the Building Common Ground event. These mindless thugs will not stop the John and Pat Hume Foundation from continuing its work of promoting peace.
— Colum Eastwood 🇺🇦 (@columeastwood) March 25, 2022
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the Hume Foundation is “an organization dedicated to promoting peace and reconciliation.”
“The attack on her and Simon Coveney this morning is an attempt to withdraw that will never succeed,” he said.
Former Deputy First Secretary Michelle O’Neill condemned the actions of those who targeted an event focused on peace, reconciliation and finding common ground.
“Those determined to cause instability and disruption will not succeed. Those of us who are committed to peace will not be deterred.”
The UK on Tuesday lowered its threat from Northern Ireland terrorism for the first time in more than a decade, with police saying operations targeting militant Irish nationalists made attacks less likely.
I would say so, but North Belfast is a fabulous place to discuss building common ground.
Minister Simon Coveney speaks at the Hume Foundation event. Part of a dialogue series dealing with 3 relationship groups – within NI, North~South and East~West. pic.twitter.com/4SNd75PYeM
— Amanda (@AmandaFBelfast) March 25, 2022
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said it was “hard to imagine what goes through the minds of people who engage in such reckless, senseless behavior.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/loyalist-bomb-attack-on-coveney-a-hoax-psni-believe-uvf-behind-incident-41486371.html Simon Coveney left the Belfast event after armed kidnappers demanded to be taken to the venue