Questions are being raised over the role of unionist politicians and media in motivating a hoax bomb attack at an event in north Belfast on Friday morning, 25 March.
A hijacked van was used to transport a suspect device and force the cancellation of a ‘peace-building’ event attended by Dublin’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney. Mr Coveney was speaking at the event when he was forced to abruptly end his speech and be ushered from the room.
The attack was carried out by the unionist paramilitary UVF, but clearly inspired by the rhetoric of unionist and Brexiteer extremists campaigning against the Irish Protocol of Brexit and seeking a hard Brexit and a reinforced partition of Ireland.
The van had been hijacked in west Belfast and the driver forced to transport the device to the area, leaving it on the grounds of Holy Cross Catholic church. The workman later recounted a terrifying tale of driving through city traffic with what he believed to be a volatile bomb, but proved to be an elaborate hoax.
“They told me if I didn’t carry the job out there is a car following and there was a guarantee I would be shot. They said, ‘We know who you are and where we can get you’.” He added: “I thought if a tool drops, I’m going to explode in the van on the Crumlin Road.”
The resulting alert caused the abandonment of the reconciliation event and also disrupted a family funeral taking place at Holy Cross church, forcing the mourners, clergymen and coffin to gather in a car park.
Sheila McDonnell said her family was devastated by the disruption to the service for her late mother, Bridie. She said her mother’s funeral had been “completely destroyed”.
“We didn’t get to give my mummy her final send-off that she deserved because of these people,” she said. “They stole the last precious moments we had with our mummy.”
The mother-of-two said she had been left feeling angry. “I have a 14-year-old niece who has special needs who was devastated, heartbroken. How do you explain to her why we couldn’t get granny into the chapel? We had an order of service with the grandchildren all doing the prayers and we had special music picked for her. We couldn’t even get to thank the nurses.”
SDLP MP Claire Hanna, who was at the event, said: “The irony is lost on nobody that this was an event about reconciliation, about common ground with a genuinely diverse audience of people.”
North Belfast Sinn Fein MP John Finucane described the attack as “disgraceful”, while Sinn Féin Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said “those determined to cause instability and disruption will not succeed. Those of us committed to peace will not be deterred.”
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said it was “good to see widespread condemnation” of those behind the attack but stopped short of condemning it himself, saying only most people “want to get on with their lives” and had “no truck with those who cling to violence”.
The Lagan Valley MP, whose party is struggling in opinion polls, was also criticised for failing to mention the incident during his attendance at an anti-protocol rally in Ballymoney on Friday evening, just hours after the attack.
Speaking at the rally alongside Donaldson, TUV extremist Jim Allister and other anti-Protocol Brexiteers, loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson appeared to actually lend justification to the attack when he said Dublin ministers “come to Northern Ireland and swan around as if they own the place.”
In contrast, Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie issued a clear condemnation of the attack, and issued a statement to say his party would no longer be involved in protests against the Brexit Protocol.
He admitted that recent rallies such as that in Ballymoney were being “used to raise the temperature in Northern Ireland and adding to tensions that now see a resurgence in UVF activity”.
After receiving harsh criticism for his stance from his unionist rivals, a window in his Portadown constituency office by loyalists.
Aontú Deputy Leader Denise Mullen has criticised unionist politicians for ratcheting up the tensions and accused them of inciting violence for political gain. She pointed out that two DUP MPs, Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Jr, had previously suggested there would be violence if the Protocol endures.
She also noted that the offices of Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry MP had been vandalised, and that graffiti had made death threats to the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar saying ‘My Ode to Leo Varadkar: We have a Noose, We have a Tree.’
“The long list goes on,” she said. “These are the tactics of politicians who cannot let go of Orange supremacy, and accept nationalists having a voice in the public square.
“All of these threats and actions are designed to maximise their electoral gain, and to oppose a legal framework for the Brexit they voted for.
“The DUP/TUV must abandon their courtship of paramilitary violence and their ‘at all costs’ opposition to the Protocol negotiated to facilitate their Brexit.”
In recent years, the UVF has fractured into a number of distinct criminal organisations, each with its own associated social groups in receipt of ‘peace funds’ and other grant aid. However, UVF sources quoted by newspapers pledged to increase their attacks on Irish politicians in the run-up to the election. The situation has renewed calls for public funding of UVF-linked organisation to be suspended.
There have also been calls for funding to be withdrawn from the BBC as more and more blame the British state broadcaster for fuelling unionist extremism.
Loyalist spokespersons and extreme unionists have been given an “open mike” on the BBC, Alliance leader Naomi Long said, while SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole also questioned the “level of prominence consistently given to a small section of hardline voices”. Mr O’Toole highlighted that there were occasions last year when Jim Allister appeared on the Stephen Nolan talk show “four out of five days” in a week.
Anti Imperialist Action Ireland blamed a British military agenda seeking to remilitarise the border through Ireland for the north Belfast attack. It noted further attacks were being threatened on both sides of the border as part of an “escalation”.
The AIA said it “fully supports the right of Republicans and Nationalists to defend themselves” against renewed loyalist and British state violence.
“All Republicans and progressives should oppose this British attempt to solidify their control in the Occupied 6 counties and work to build a broad front that can end this cycle of violence once and for all.”