By Rebecca Black and Dominic McGrath, PA
A security alert in Belfast which forced Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney from the stage at a peacebuilding event has been slammed as “shameful”.
There has been strong condemnation from across the community after the incident at an event organised by the John and Pat Hume Foundation.
Mr Coveney had been addressing the gathering when he abruptly ended his speech and 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.
The incident, which is believed to have centred around a hijacked van, was rapidly condemned by politicians in Northern Ireland.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said most people “want to get on with their lives and have no truck with those who cling to violence”.
Sinn Féin Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill also condemned those involved, adding: “Those determined to cause instability and disruption will not succeed. Those of us committed to peace will not be deterred.”
Church of Ireland Archbishop the Rev John McDowell described the incident as shameful.
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.
— Jeffrey Donaldson MP (@J_Donaldson_MP) March 25, 2022
“Peace and stability in Northern Ireland are maintained and advanced through good relationships at all levels within Ireland and across these islands, and there is no place for violence or the threat of violence in our society,” he said.
Mr Coveney had been speaking about the importance of reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
He told the event: “The patient work of reconciliation and deepening of relationships does need to continue on our own island.”
A spokesperson for Mr Coveney said: “The Minister and team are safe, have been taken to a secure location and the PSNI are doing their work.”
In a tweet afterwards, Mr Coveney thanked the efforts of the PSNI.
I condemn the actions of those involved in a security alert at an event focused on peace, reconciliation and finding common-ground. Those determined to cause instability & disruption will not succeed. Those of us committed to peace will not be deterred.
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) March 25, 2022
“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.”
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.”
North Belfast Sinn Fein MP John Finucane tweeted: “The attack on an event involving Minister Simon Coveney at North Belfast’s Houben Centre today is disgraceful.
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. My thanks to @PoliceServiceNI https://t.co/bs9LvTKBHW
— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) March 25, 2022
“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.”
Local priest Fr Gary Donegan also spoke at the event.
He told BBC Radio Ulster that Mr 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?
“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.
The attack on an event involving Minister Simon Coveney at North Belfast’s Houben Centre today is 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. pic.twitter.com/4U3tpILDs5
— John Finucane MP (@johnfinucane) March 25, 2022
“So immediately, we had to get the minister away.”
He described evacuating the building, which he said was a “local community hub”, and said a funeral had been cancelled by the evacuation.
“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.”
In a statement, a PSNI spokesperson said: “Police are currently in attendance of a security alert at the Crumlin Road area of north Belfast.
“Motorists are advised to avoid the area and seek alternative main routes for their journey.
“There are no further details at this stage.”
Worrying situation in Belfast today at the Building Common Ground event. These mindless thugs won’t deter the John and Pat Hume Foundation from carrying out their work to further peace.
— Colum Eastwood 🇺🇦 (@columeastwood) March 25, 2022
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described it as a “worrying situation”.
He tweeted: “These mindless thugs won’t deter the John and Pat Hume Foundation from carrying out their work to further peace.”
Earlier this week, the level of terrorism threat from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland 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 the 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.
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle tweeted: “This is appalling news and deeply disturbing.
“I had the privilege of meeting the Hume Foundation last week, their work is based on reconciliation and is important.
“I hope Simon Coveney’s presentation resumes safely and soon.”