Cormac O'Keeffe: Coveney's Belfast bomb alert 'a message' to Government

PSNI blames loyalist paramilitaries for the hoax, which comes after the terrorism threat level in the North was lowered
Cormac O'Keeffe: Coveney's Belfast bomb alert 'a message' to Government

Screengrab taken from a video issued by the Hume Foundation of Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney being ushered from the room due to a security alert while he was speaking at a peacebuilding event organised by the John and Pat Hume Foundation at The Houben Centre, Belfast.

It is the nature of the beast that, as soon as the authorities say the security threat level has been lowered, terrorists seize an opportunity to send a message back.

As Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney spoke about finding “common ground” at the John Hume peace centre in Belfast, he was interrupted mid-speech and whisked away by PSNI officers because of a “security alert”.

The alert centred around a hijacked van, where the driver had been forced at gunpoint to carry a device to the Holy Cross Church on Crumlin Rd, where the centre is located. 

PSNI assistant chief constable Mark McEwan said the actions "caused major disruption to the peace and reconciliation event attended by dignitaries and guests", but declined to say if Mr Coveney was the specific target.

He said at this stage they believe loyalist paramilitaries were responsible, possibly the UVF.

Security fears for ministers

While the device was declared a hoax, the incident raises security fears in the North and for Irish ministers going across the border.

It comes just three days after Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis announced that the terrorism threat level in the North had been reduced from “severe” to “substantial” following an assessment by MI5, the first time in 12 years.

Less than a fortnight ago, the PSNI recorded a significant drop in paramilitary bombings, from 16 incidents between March 2020 and February 2021 to five incidents between March 2021 and February 2022.

Academic Dieter Reinisch, who researches North-related terrorism at NUI Galway, said: “The last three years have seen growing anger among sections of the loyalist population. The Crumlin Rd is not far from the area where riots and disturbances were orchestrated by loyalists almost precisely one year ago.” 

These riots, which were linked to the Northern Ireland protocol, saw buses being hijacked and set alight.

Referring to the reduced threat level, he said: “While the current weakness of militant republicanism explained this move, the potential danger of loyalist threats has largely been ignored.” 

Mr Reinisch said the views of some radical unionists on the impact of the protocol had "radicalised a new, younger layer of loyalists". He said these loyalists could continue to interrupt future visits from Irish politicians.

Last December, the fourth report of the Independent Reporting Commission did flag concerns at the threat from within loyalism.

“Reaction to Brexit, including the protocol, has led to new complexities and increasing prominence around paramilitarism,” it said. 

“Disorder on the streets in the spring and autumn have led to speculation about the potential for a resurgence of paramilitary activity.

“Overall, we remain concerned about the risks posed to society by the continuing existence of paramilitary structures which can be harnessed for the purposes of violence or the threat of violence. 

We stated in our last report and we repeat now: paramilitarism remains a clear and present danger.”

The report cited interesting trends in recent years. Bombing incidents attributed to dissident republicans fluctuated from six in 2018/2019 to 13 in 2019/2020 and to three in 2020/2021. But bombing incidents attributed to loyalist groups rose from six to eight and to 11 in the same years.

The impact, if any, on the future work in the North for Mr Coveney, the Taoiseach, and the President, among others, is not clear.

PSNI officers carry out all security for Irish ministers in the North. Assistant chief constable McEwan would not comment on whether Irish ministers would need more security or if they would be discussing the matter with gardaí. 

The Garda Special Detective Unit driver has no role other than to bring a minister to and from an event. Garda Security and Intelligence may seek a briefing from the PSNI.

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