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Official informing Coveney of the security threat. Hume Foundation

PSNI investigating if UVF behind hijacking that disrupted Simon Coveney speech in Belfast

A van driver was threatened by two gunmen and forced to drive to another street, where a hoax device was then placed in the vehicle.

THE PSNI ARE investigating whether the UVF was behind today’s security threat in Belfast that caused Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney to be evacuated to safety.

Coveney had been giving a talk at the Hume Foundation in North Belfast when he had to abruptly end his speech. “I’m sorry. I have to leave. I hope to be back shortly,” he told the crowd before being escorted away.

Speaking at Police Headquarters this evening, Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan condemned the “disgraceful” attack which had interrupted the peace and reconciliation event attended by the Coveney.

McEwan said two gunmen hijacked a white Vauxhall van in the Shankill area of the city between 9-10am this morning. 

The driver was threatened by the gunmen and forced to drive his van a short distance to another street, where the device was then placed in the van. He was then forced to drive the van to Holy Cross Church in Belfast. 

“This evening, upon further examination, the device has been declared a hoax. It was clearly designed to cause maximum disruption to the local community,” McEwan said.

“At this early stage of the investigation our assessment is that these crimes were carried out by loyalist paramilitary groups.  We are keeping an open mind at this stage but one of the primary lines of investigation is the UVF.”

He added that 25 homes had to be evacuated and elderly residents of a nursing home were moved to the rear of their building, while a funeral taking place in Holy Cross Church was also disrupted due to the incident.

In a tweet, Coveney said that he was “saddened and frustrated” by the incident and thanked the PSNI for their work.

“Saddened and frustrated that someone has been attacked and victimised in this way and my thoughts are with him and his family.”

Sinn Féin MP, John Finucane, called the attack on the event “disgraceful”

“Those behind the van hijacking which was left on church grounds have no place in society. While they try to bring back the past, we will keep working for the future,” tweeted Finucane.

SDLP MP Claire Hanna, who was attending the event, told CoolFM that the attack was “beyond ironic”.

“It’s an attack on exactly the people who are trying to drive forward a different approach and a consensus-based approach,” said Hanna.

“It’s collectively an attempt to intimidate and deter people from doing things.

“This approach to politics isn’t wanted and never was wanted and it’s time to get off people’s backs.”

houben-centre-incident The PSNI at the scene on Crumlin Road in Belfast PA PA

Local priest Fr Gary Donegan spoke at the event and told BBC Radio Ulster that 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?” said Fr Donegan.

“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.”

Before being pulled away, Coveney was speaking about peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland at the Houben Centre on the Crumlin Road in Belfast.

“The patient work of reconciliation and deepening of relationships does need to continue on our own island,” he told the event.

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.”

The attack has been condemned by senior politicians across Northern Ireland this afternoon.

Former Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill condemned the attack on the peacebuilding event this afternoon, saying that people who seek to find peace will not be deterred.

“I condemn the actions of those involved in a security alert at an event focused on peace, reconciliation and finding common ground,” said O’Neill in a tweet.

“Those determined to cause instability & disruption will not succeed. Those of us committed to peace will not be deterred.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP called the situation in Belfast this afternoon “worrying” and said that “mindless thugs won’t deter the John and Pat Hume Foundation from carrying out their work to further peace”.

“The attack on them and on Simon Coveney this morning is an attempt to drag us back that will never, ever succeed,” Eastwood tweeted.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said it was “good to see widespread condemnation of those behind the hijacking and security alert in North Belfast”.

“Most people want to get on with their lives and have no truck with those who cling to violence,” he tweeted.

With reporting by Christina Finn, Tadgh McNally, Jane Moore and Press Association.

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