Police say a van driver was forced to drive a device he believed to be a bomb to Holy Cross chapel while the event was ongoing.
25 March 2022
The UVF is suspected to be behind a security alert which led to Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney being evacuated from a peace and reconciliation event in north Belfast.
Mr Coveney had been addressing the event organised by the John and Pat Hume Foundation when he was ushered from the room.
The Houben Centre, on the Crumlin Road, was evacuated and a funeral service at nearby Holy Cross church was also disrupted.
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said the driver of a van was threatened by two gunmen and forced to drive a device which he believed to be a live bomb to Holy Cross church.
He condemned the “disgraceful actions” which caused more than 25 homes to be evacuated, disrupted local schools and also a funeral.
Addressing media at police headquarters on Friday evening, he said detectives believe loyalists paramilitaries were responsible, and that the UVF was the primary line of inquiry.
“This morning, some time between 9am and 10am, a van was hijacked in Sydney Street West off the Shankill Road, Belfast,” he said.
“The van driver was threatened by two gunmen and forced to drive his white Vauxhall van a short distance to another street and a device was then placed in the van.
“The victim was then forced to drive the van to Holy Cross chapel.
“Just think about this, the victim believed at this point he was driving a van containing a live bomb and that his family were being threatened.
“The local community were also impacted. Over 25 homes were evacuated, local schools were affected and vulnerable residents in a local nursing home had to be moved to another part of their home.
“Most shamefully, a funeral taking place in the chapel was also disrupted, causing further grief to that family.
“This evening upon further examination, the device has been declared a hoax. It was clearly designed to cause maximum disruption to the local community.
“At this early stage of the investigation, our assessment is that these crimes were carried out by loyalist paramilitary groups.
“We’re keeping an open mind but one of the primary lines of investigation is the UVF.”
Mr McEwan also issued an appeal for information about anyone with any information about the event, gun men or movements of the van, to come forward to police.
The incident has been condemned by politicians.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis described the actions as “reprehensible”.
“Today’s incident at the Houben Centre in North Belfast is a reminder that there is a small minority willing to use violence to advance their goals,” he said.
“My thoughts are with the driver who faced a terrifying ordeal, the family that was holding a funeral, as well as with Simon Coveney and everyone else who was impacted.
“These actions are reprehensible. I utterly condemn those involved and give my thanks and reiterate my full support to the PSNI and security partners and urge anyone with any information to contact the police.”
Earlier, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the widespread condemnation, adding most people “want to get on with their lives and have no truck with those who cling to violence”.
Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill also condemned those involved, adding: “Those determined to cause instability and disruption will not succeed. Those of us committed to peace will not be deterred.”
Church of Ireland Archbishop the Rev John McDowell described the incident as shameful.
“Peace and stability in Northern Ireland are maintained and advanced through good relationships at all levels within Ireland and across these islands, and there is no place for violence or the threat of violence in our society,” he said.
Mr Coveney had been speaking about the importance of reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
He told the event: “The patient work of reconciliation and deepening of relationships does need to continue on our own island.”
A spokesperson for Mr Coveney said: “The minister and team are safe, have been taken to a secure location and the PSNI are doing their work.”
In a tweet afterwards, the Foreign Affairs Minister thanked the efforts of the PSNI.
“In Belfast with the Hume Foundation to honour John & Pat’s legacy of peace for all communities.
“Saddened & frustrated that someone has been attacked & victimised in this way and my thoughts are with him & his family.”
Tim Attwood, from the foundation, told the PA news agency that the security alert is a reminder “to everyone that there is no role in our society for violence”.
He added: “A suspect device will not stop the work of the John and Pat Hume Foundation.”
Local priest Fr Gary Donegan also spoke at the event.
He told BBC Radio Ulster that Mr Coveney was about five minutes into the speech when it was interrupted.
“I saw the close protection team, beckoning towards me, and I was wondering what are they asking me for?
“They turned around and said to me that someone had been hijacked at gunpoint and had driven a van with an alleged device into the ground and we need to get the minister out of there and get the place evacuated.
“So immediately, we had to get the minister away.”
He described evacuating the building, which he said was a “local community hub”, and said a funeral had been cancelled by the evacuation.
“Whatever mindless people did what they did today, forget about the actual event itself, but there’s a family grieving who now didn’t even have a funeral.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described it as a “worrying situation”.
He tweeted: “These mindless thugs won’t deter the John and Pat Hume Foundation from carrying out their work to further peace.”
Earlier this week, the level of terrorism threat from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland was lowered from severe to substantial for the first time in 12 years.
The assessment, announced by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis but made independently by the security service MI5, was praised by Mr Coveney when he appeared alongside Mr Lewis after a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin.
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle tweeted: “This is appalling news and deeply disturbing.
“I had the privilege of meeting the Hume Foundation last week, their work is based on reconciliation and is important.
“I hope Simon Coveney’s presentation resumes safely and soon.”