By David Young and Rebecca Black, PA
Bus burning cannot become the new norm for protest in Northern Ireland, a Stormont minister has said.
Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said it was “deeply frustrating” that many evening services had been suspended and rerouted due to the recent incidents of vehicle hijacking and burning.
Ms Mallon, who has responsibility for the public transport network, stated her determination to ensure services were provided to every community in Northern Ireland and vowed not to be deterred by “thugs and cowards”.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill echoed the remarks, insisting there can be no “no go areas” when it comes to public transport.
Two buses have been burned out in loyalist areas in the last nine days in attacks linked to protests against Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
A number of bus services in the Belfast area are set to remain suspended for a second night on Tuesday following the two hijackings.
Some 40-50 per cent of Metro services, mostly in the north and east of the city, were affected on Monday evening while some Ulster bus routes were diverted.
The routes serve some of Belfast’s busiest roads, including the Antrim and Shore Roads, the Newtownards Road and the Crumlin Road. Rail services were not affected.
Ms Mallon said transport operator Translink was working with the police to secure assurances over the safety and drivers and passengers before any decision was made on reinstating the services.
“It absolutely should not become the norm,” she said of the attacks.
“It was wrong in the past, it’s wrong now. Our bus drivers have chosen to be bus drivers because they want to provide a critical service to their local communities where they live, they absolutely have the right to be able to do that safely and they deserve our respect and gratitude, not to be put under threat.
“So, as the Minister for Infrastructure, I will do everything I can to ensure that our bus drivers, our train drivers, our passengers are safe.
“But, for me, I am determined that we will have public transport services in every community in Northern Ireland. I won’t be deterred by these thugs and cowards and I know that our public transport workers won’t either.”
Ms Mallon said there was an onus on politicians to reduce tensions in loyalist areas over the protocol, rather whipping up fears with heated rhetoric.
“It’s about leadership that gives people hope and confidence, instead of instilling fear and hysteria,” she said.
At a later press conference, Ms O’Neill also called on unionist politicians to “dial down the noise”.
She said young being were being incited to take part in disorder.
“Those that are inciting young people to come onto the streets are perfectly comfortable sitting in their homes at night when these young people are going out putting themselves in jeopardy, putting our communities in jeopardy, potentially ending up with a criminal record, and they’re bringing this concern right onto our streets again and none of us want to go back, we can only go forward.”
She added: “There certainly should be never be a stage where there’s ever any no go area in the north and I would sit down with every political leader who has a mandate here to say no, that’s not ever going to happen.
“No bus driver, no worker should ever go to work for fear of being intimidated or being held at ransom or being taken and thrown off their bus and their bus put on fire.
“That’s just totally unacceptable.”
The chief executive of Translink said the service suspensions would be reviewed on a daily basis.
Chris Conway said Monday evening had been a “relatively peaceful night”, adding there were no incidents reported.
“We’re working very closely with local community groups and the PSNI to manage the situation dynamically,” he told the BBC.
“Last night was relatively calm so we’re pleased about that, and the measures we took last night, we will continue to reinforce those in the nights going forward to try and create that stability we are looking for across our services and in these local communities.
“What we really want to do is to reinstate these services, that’s our role, it’s a huge regret we have to withdraw services.
“The bus services will remain as they were last night.
“We will be reviewing that later on today and if there is any change to that we will notify people, but people should, at this point in time, should expect the same level of service as they had last night.”
Drivers gathered in the grounds of Belfast City Hall on Monday afternoon in solidarity with a colleague just hours after four masked men, armed with a hammer and a bottle of petrol, boarded a bus near the loyalist Rathcoole estate in Newtownabbey.
The driver and passengers were ordered off and the vehicle was set alight.
Last Monday, a bus was hijacked and burned in a loyalist area of Newtownards, Co Down, in another apparent protest against the Brexit protocol.
Disorder also broke out at a community interface in west Belfast twice last week.
Mr Conway said the driver is recovering from the incident which he described as “very traumatic for him”.
“He is at home with his family. We have a welfare support team who are supporting him on a daily basis.
“It always takes time to recover from these incidents … sometimes it’s later the impact actually occurs to people but he is getting good support and he is recovering well,” he said.
He described the hijackings as an attack on drivers, passengers and the public transport service.