A van was hijacked at gunpoint and a suspicious device brought to the venue where the minister was speaking
The PSNI has said it believes the UVF could be behind a loyalist hoax bomb attack at an event where Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney was addressing.
Government sources believe the Foreign Affairs Minister was the target of the attack which saw an innocent man forced to drive a van containing what was initially believed to be an explosive device to the venue.
Mr Coveney was speaking at the Building Common Ground event by the John and Pat Hume Foundation at the Houban Centre on the Crumlin Road in Belfast.
The Government believe the attack was planned in advance and is linked to the on-going debate over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Speaking at Police Headquarters on Friday evening, Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan condemned the "disgraceful" attack which had interrupted a peace-building event attended by the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney.
Between 9-10am this morning, a van was hijacked near the Shankill Road on Sydney Street West.
The van driver was threatened by two gunmen and forced to drive his white Vauxhall van a short distance to another street where a device was placed in the van.
The victim was then forced to drive to Holy Cross Chapel in north Belfast.
ACC McEwan said: "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."
Over 25 homes were evacuated during the security alert, local schools were affected and vulnerable residents in a nursing home had to be moved to a different part of the building.
A funeral taking place in the chapel was also disrupted.
With the device declared a hoax, ACC McEwan said the goal of those responsible was to cause maximum disruption to the local community.
His early assessment was that loyalist paramilitaries were responsible, with the primary suspect being the UVF.
He appealed for information on the gunman and the movements of the white Vauxhall van, registration XJZ7908.
ACC McEwan said he would not speculate on whether Simon Coveney was the intended target, or whether he would require extra security in the future.
He also could not be certain on whether the weapons used were real, but said the threat felt real to the driver at the time
He said the driver had since been taken to hospital for treatment, and said that a substantial security threat remained in Northern Ireland meaning "an attack is likely".
Politician on all sides of the divide in Northern Ireland have condemned the incident.
A van was hijacked at gunpoint in loyalist area of Belfast before the driver was forced to bring a number of armed individuals to a venue where the minister was speaking.
Mr Coveney had to stop mid-speech after his security team told him they needed to urgently leave the building. He was escorted to a ‘secure location’ by gardaí and the PSNI.
An army bomb disposal team was called to the scene after a canister described as “suspicious” was found in the van outside the venue.
Mr Coveney has been the target of loyalist harassment in the past. His image was placed on anti-protocol banners that were displayed in a number of loyalist areas at the end of last year.
A controlled explosion was carried out by army technical officers at the scene. A large bang was heard shortly after 1pm on Friday afternoon.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson condemned the incident, saying those who cling to violence had little support, while Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis expressed “solidarity” with Mr Coveney.
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said: “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.”
Local priest Fr Gary Donegan, who also spoke at the event, explained Mr Coveney was about five minutes into his 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.
“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.”
After being alerted to a problem, the minister told the audience he had to leave and hoped to be back in a few minutes.
A 400m cordon has been put in place meaning the funeral had to take place on the street.
The driver of the vehicle was in tears inside the venue after alerting security officials to the incident and apologising to attendees for being forced to drive to the site.
Mr Coveney said he is “saddened and frustrated that someone has been attacked and victimised in this way and my thoughts are with him and his family”.
Tim Attwood, secretary of the Hume Foundation, told Reuters: "There is a security alert and the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) are currently assessing the situation. Everyone has had to evacuate the centre."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the Hume Foundation “is an organisation dedicated to promoting peace and reconciliation”.
"The attack on them and on Simon Coveney this morning is an attempt to drag us back that will never, ever succeed,” he said.
Former deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill condemned the actions of those who targeted 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.”
The United Kingdom lowered its Northern Ireland-related terrorism threat level for the first time in more than a decade on Tuesday, with police saying operations against Irish nationalist militants were making attacks less likely.
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said it was “hard to imagine what goes through the minds of people who engage in such reckless, futile behaviour”.
More to follow...