A suspect device that forced Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney off stage by officials during a speech in Belfast was a hoax “designed to cause maximum disruption to the local community”, say police.
Pro-British loyalist militant groups were likely behind the hijacking and placing of the fake device in a van whose driver was ordered to go to an event where Mr Coveney was speaking on Friday, officers said.
The device placed by the two gunmen, Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan told a news conference, adding that he would not speculate on the motivation for the crime.
He said the vehicle’s driver thought he was being forced to carry a bomb.
“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,” Mr McEwan added.
“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.”
And he appealed for information about anyone with any information about the event, gun men or movements of the van, to come forward to police.
The event was organised by the John and Pat Hume Foundation and Sky News understands that Mr Coveney was five minutes into his address before he was escorted off the premises and the rest of the attendees were evacuated from the back of the building.
Mr Coveney left the stage in a hurry and responding to the security alert on Twitter, he wrote: “In Belfast with @Humefoundation 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.”
The Irish foreign minister was speaking at The Houben Centre, on Crumlin Road, to address the Building Common Ground event.
Tim Attwood, the chair of the foundation, told Sky News that the incident is “very frustrating for the local community and there may have been a funeral that was cut short”.
“It’s very disconcerting that an important event on the theme of building common ground, which is seeking to build relationships in Northern Ireland was ended suddenly by a bomb alert,” he said.
“This is the first physical event the foundation is hosting in Northern Ireland because of COVID. The days of violence or threats of violence are long gone.
“The Pat Hume Foundation is committed to the values of peace and we continue our journey of peace and reconciliation.”
A bomb disposal robot was later pictured at the scene.
At the time of the incident, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said they were “in attendance of a security alert at the Crumlin Road area of north Belfast”, as they advised motorists to “avoid the area and seek alternative main routes for their journey”.
Mr Coveney was addressing crowds on the importance of reconciliation in Northern Ireland, saying: “The patient work of reconciliation and deepening of relationships does need to continue on our own island.”
A spokesperson for the Irish foreign minister confirmed he and his team are safe, adding: “They have been taken to a secure location and the PSNI are doing their work.”
A funeral being held at nearby Holy Cross Church was also disrupted as a result of the security alert.
John Finucane, the MP for North Belfast, said the incident is “disgraceful” and those behind the “van hijacking have no place in society”.
“While they try to bring back the past, we will keep working for the future,” he wrote on Twitter.
His thoughts have been echoed by Northern Irish politicians including Sinn Fein Stormont leader, Michelle O’Neill, who condemned those behind the attack.
“Those determined to cause instability and disruption will not succeed. Those of us committed to peace will not be deterred,” she said.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said people “want to get on with their lives and have no truck with those who cling to violence”.
Meanwhile Church of Ireland archbishop, the Reverend John McDowell, said the incident was “shameful”.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, said he was aware of the security alert and tweeted his “solidarity” with Mr Coveney.
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Kyle, described the news as “appalling and deeply disturbing”.