Loyalists suspected of threatening Irish Foreign Minister with fake bomb

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Coveney, then Tánaiste (right) with then UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson (left) in London on January 31, 2018.
Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
A UVF mural on the side of a building in Carrickfergus, County Antrim on April 1, 2007.
Image: File photo.
Anti-Protocol graffiti in Belfast on February 1, 2021.
Image: Whiteabbey.

Government and police sources suspect the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) are responsible for a bomb threat against Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney whilst he addressed an event in Belfast, Northern Ireland yesterday.

Last night, Assistant Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Mark McEwan told press a "primary line of investigation" indicated the loyalist paramilitary group was behind what he called "disgraceful actions". The scare stopped Coveney mid-speech as he addressed guests at the John and Pat Hume Foundation, and forced over twenty-five homes to evacuate.

Police say between nine and ten in the morning, a white Vauxhall van was hijacked near to Shankill Road. Its driver, allegedly while having his family threatened by two gunmen, was forced to transport what was believed to be explosives. He first drove to a nearby street, where the device was placed inside the vehicle. He then drove to the Holy Cross Chapel beside the Houben Centre where Coveney was speaking.

Coveney was reportedly minutes into his speech at the "Building Common Ground" peace-building event before being pulled away, according to priest Gary Donegan, who spoke before him. Security informed Coveney of the bomb threat and he was evacuated to a "secure location" by the PSNI and Gardaí.

The driver was described by attendee Sarah McKinley from Downtown Radio and Cool FM as a "workman, clutching a toolbag standing outside". He was in tears, apologising to guests at the venue after he told security. McKinley said the victim was "completely shellshocked" and "said he had been hijacked and told to drive to the Centre."

McEwan said the victim was being treated in hospital but said nothing of his condition. He told of the circumstance the driver was placed in: "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."

According to McEwan, a security threat remained in Northern Ireland and "an attack is likely". However, he did not comment on whether the weapons used to threaten the driver were real, only that at the time, the danger felt real. Nor did he say whether Coveney was the target or in need of additional security. Coveney had previously, along with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, been depicted in loyalist graffiti.

A source told The Irish Times loyalists blame Irish ministers, including Coveney and Varadkar for feeling undermined by the contentious post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol. The Irish Independent says the hoax was related to the Protocol, and planned in advance.

It comes after the United Kingdom counter-intelligence agency MI5 lowered its terrorist threat assessment for Northern Ireland from 'severe' to 'substantial' Tuesday. At the time, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis said it reflected "the significant progress that Northern Ireland has made, and continues to make, towards a more peaceful, more prosperous and safer society." But he added vigilance is still needed against the "minority" who threaten the peace.

Politicians in Ireland and the UK condemned the attacks. Coveney himself said he was "saddened and frustrated that someone has been attacked and victimised in this way", referring to the driver. Lewis characterised the hijacker as a member of the "small minority willing to use violence to advance their goals", condemning those involved.

Leader of the Northern Irish Social Democratic and Labour Party Colum Eastwood said the Foundation "is an organisation dedicated to promoting peace and reconciliation" and called the attack "an attempt to drag us back". From the organisation, Tim Attwood assured: "A suspect device will not stop the work of the John and Pat Hume Foundation."

The hoax affected local schools and a nursing home. Donegan added it forced a funeral to be cancelled: "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". McEwan said it was "clearly designed to cause maximum disruption to the local community".

Before being interrupted, Coveney told attendees: "The patient work of reconciliation and deepening of relationships does need to continue on our own island." His address was meant to be followed by a panel discussion.