The UVF is suspected to be behind a security alert that led to Simon Coveney, the foreign affairs minister, 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 a van driver 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 and disrupted local schools and a funeral.
Addressing media at police headquarters yesterday evening, he said detectives believe loyalist paramilitaries were responsible, and the UVF was the primary line of inquiry.
“This morning a van was hijacked in Sydney St West, off the Shankill Rd, 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. 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,” he said. “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 Coveney has previously been targeted in sinister graffiti in a loyalist area of Belfast. Asked whether Mr Coveney was the target of the incident, Mr McEwan said he would not speculate on motivation at a very early stage of the investigation.
The incident was condemned by politicians. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the widespread condemnation, saying most people “want to get on with their lives and have no truck with those who cling to violence”.
Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said: “Those determined to cause instability and disruption will not succeed. Those of us committed to peace will not be deterred.”
Mr Coveney had been speaking about the importance of reconciliation in the North and told the event: “The patient work of reconciliation and deepening of relationships does need to continue on our own island.”
In a tweet afterwards he praised 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.”
The foundation’s Tim Attwood told PA news agency that the security alert was a reminder “to everyone that there is no role in our society for violence”. He said: “A suspect device will not stop the work of the John and Pat Hume Foundation.”
Earlier this week, the level of terrorism threat from dissident republicans in the North 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 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.