Threat comes as Micheál Martin scheduled to visit Northern Ireland this week
The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) — the loyalist paramilitary group behind Friday’s proxy bomb threat that saw Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney evacuated from a peace event in Belfast — have issued a stark warning, stating that actions against the Irish Government will be “escalated” in the coming weeks.
Describing the incident, in which an innocent van driver was forced at gunpoint to act as a proxy bomb, as a “warning” to Dublin over the Northern Ireland Protocol, a senior member of the UVF claimed that the group was “actively planning” on targeting senior Irish politicians and officials visiting the region.
The Sunday Independent can also reveal the terrorist group had intended to disrupt a visit by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, who was due to speak at an event in Belfast this week. He has been forced to shelve the plans as he is isolating after testing positive for Covid-19.
“Irish politicians such as Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar are not welcome in Northern Ireland. If the Irish Government do not heed the warnings, then loyalists will intensify the threats against all politicians and officials visiting from Dublin. It is time to escalate this,” said the UVF member.
It is understood Mr Varadkar will now attend the business event remotely.
A senior UDA member said loyalists here have adopted a “two-stage strategy” for opposing the protocol.
“One is politics, the other is political violence,” he said.
The loyalist defended Friday’s incident at the Houben Centre, where the ‘Build the Common Ground’ event was being hosted by the John and Pat Hume Foundation.
Police said the van was hijacked in Sydney Street West, off the Shankill Road, and the driver was threatened by two gunmen before being forced to drive to the venue where Mr Coveney was speaking.
“This was the perfect event to hold it, it gets the message across,” the UDA member said. “There is no peace and reconciliation. How can there be, when members of the Irish Government are sabre-rattling and using the threat of IRA violence to get the Brexit they wanted?
“They have short memories. There will be more incidents.”
Last week’s incident follows several months of veiled threats by loyalist factions, as well as heavy criticism of Dublin’s role in the protocol row from unionists such as Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson.
However, Mr Donaldson, who spoke at an anti-protocol rally last Friday night, has rejected any suggestion that his presence at such events with loyalists such as Jamie Bryson — whom the BBC has said has links to the UVF — is irresponsible and an endorsement of the threats against Dublin.
“Jamie Bryson made it clear at the rally that any protest against the protocol must be peaceful. I did not hear anyone on any platform that I have been on suggesting that violence can play a part in opposition to the protocol, and nor would I endorse any such commentary,” said Mr Donaldson.
Bryson told the event in Ballymoney, Co Antrim, which was also attended by Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, that “no self-respecting unionist or loyalist is in any mood to lower the temperature” and that it was “time to politically fire it up”.
Admitting to being “concerned” about the heightened tensions by what appears to be a minority of loyalists who oppose the protocol, Mr Donaldson said “only politics is the way forward”.
When asked about his own involvement in such gatherings, the Lagan Valley MP said: “I challenge those who would suggest that in any way I would endorse violence to read what I said at the rally.
“If there is any suggestion that, by my presence or otherwise, I am endorsing violence, then I will see them in court — and I will see any newspaper in court that dares to suggest otherwise.”
Another peace event hosted by the John and Pat Hume Foundation will go ahead this week in Derry, and will be addressed by Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
Tim Attwood, secretary of the charitable foundation, which was set up in 2020 following the death of the former SDLP leader, said the attack would not put them off their work.
“We are spurred on by what happened on Friday. It is a reminder that there still is a small number of individuals who want to go back to the bad old days — but that is not going to happen,” said Mr Attwood.
“Friday’s event itself was all about hope, about peaceful change and reconciliation. Even during the few minutes that he spoke, Minister Coveney was highlighting that — and that’s the legacy we want to protect for John and Pat.”