UVF terror alert: UUP’s Mike Nesbitt asks why Ballymoney anti-Northern Ireland Protocol rally ‘did not condemn terrorist attack’ on Simon Coveney speech

UUP MLA and Policing Board member Mike Nesbitt has asked why no speaker at Friday’s Anti-Protocol rally in Ballymoney - he believes - condemned the terrorist security alert suspected of being carried out by UVF in north Belfast earlier in the day.

By Philip Bradfield
Sunday, 27th March 2022, 8:21 pm
Updated Tuesday, 29th March 2022, 2:27 pm

The UVF is suspected to be behind a security alert which led to Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney being evacuated from a peace and reconciliation event in north Belfast on Friday afternoon. Houses were also evacuated and a funeral disrupted. The PSNI says loyalist paramilitaries were responsible and that the UVF was a primary line of inquiry. Two people were arrested today, a 41-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman.

Later that evening DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, TUV leader Jim Allister, Baroness Kate Hoey, former Tory MEP Ben Habib and loyalist activist Jamie Bryson addressed an anti-NI Protocol rally in Ballymoney.

But Mr Nesbitt claimed the speakers “failed to even mention” that the PSNI has identified the UVF as being most likely responsible for the hoax bomb attack that forced the Republic’s Foreign Minister to abandon a speech on reconciliation organised by the John & Pat Hume Foundation.

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UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt challenged the speakers at the Ballymoney anti-Protocol rally.

Mike Nesbitt said: “An ordinary man, making a living driving a van, was highly traumatised by masked and armed terrorists who forced him to drive his vehicle, allegedly loaded with a bomb, to the venue where Mr Coveney was speaking. But that was not worthy of a mention by the DUP or TUV, even though they claim to support the working classes.

“Simon Coveney is a democratically elected politician, invited to our country to endorse the principle of peaceful politics, only to be censored by unelected, faceless and frankly brainless individuals who think they know better. Yet neither Sir Jeffrey Donaldson nor Jim Allister deemed it important enough to mention.”

The UUP statement came too late to elicit reaction from the DUP, TUV and others named.

The News Letter asked the DUP on Sunday morning if the hoax bomb attack signalled an upsurge in UVF activity - possibly targetting politicians - and whether funding should be cut to groups linked to the terror organisation?

On Sunday evening Sir Jeffrey Donaldon responded. He said: “Violence is futile. It leads to wrecked lives and broken homes. Youthful lives are left tarnished with a criminal record. I urge everyone to make their arguments strongly and powerfully but this must be done peacefully and lawfully.

“Any suggestion of paramilitary groupings using threats or intimidation must be condemned. Politics is the only legitimate path to change and yet the dither and delay of the Government and their failure to act on the protocol is undermining the credibility of this message. Equally, the failure of Brussels and the Irish Government to listen to the concerns of unionists in dealing with the Protocol is utter folly and far from protecting the Belfast Agreement is undermining the stability of the political institutions.”

Former PUP Deputy Leader, now a UUP councillor, Dr John Kyle said the hoax was “reckless, wrong and profoundly damaging to the unionist cause”.

He added: “It makes loyalists look like thugs. The arguments for fundamental change to the Protocol are widely accepted and need to be implemented but action like this makes achieving reform even harder.”

“I would be hesitant to suggest it points to an upsurge. I think it’s more a ‘we haven’t gone away you know’ act. I think this calls into question funding to UVF linked groups. In my view it creates an opportunity to reopen talks about how paramilitaries should stand down with the clear message that violence will isolate those groups, leading to an end of all funding while support is available for genuine moves towards civilianisation.”

Like Mr Nesbitt, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long condemned the north Belfast incident.

“To hijack a vehicle and force someone to drive what was believed to be an explosive device, particularly to a peace-building event, is beyond reprehensible and my thoughts are with the van driver, whose courage is in stark contrast to the cowardice of those behind this incident,” she said. “All paramilitaries should have left the stage long ago.

“Alliance has repeatedly said cool and calm heads are needed throughout the entire Brexit process. Instead, we have continuously seen a ramping up of rhetoric and whipping up of fear, including by public representatives.”

SDLP Policing Board member Dolores Kelly said her party “has always stood firmly in opposition to all paramilitary groups”.

She added: “The scenes at the Hume Foundation event on Friday were a disgrace. It was an attack on the local community and caused significant disruption to people trying to go about their lives.

“We should be focusing our efforts on peace and reconciliation and a tiny element of criminals trying to drag us back to the past will be as unsuccessful now as they were then. I’d call on those within unionism to show leadership and calm the tensions that others are determined to stoke.”

But TUV leader Jim Allister hit back at the UUP.

“I refute and deplore the UUP leader’s slur that peaceful and necessary protests against the Union-dismantling Protocol are raising tensions,” he said tonight.

“Every protest I have attended has been utterly peaceful. Thus to adopt the tone and approach of opposing such protests is not just to echo the rhetoric of the pro-Protocol brigade but is to slight the thousands of concerned unionists who have attended these peaceful protests.

“If Doug Beattie put real effort into opposing the iniquitous Protocol, then he would be serving unionism better. Facing up to the constitutional peril of GB being decreed and treated as a foreign country by the Protocol, with goods originating there being subject to foreign customs checks, would be a suitable starting point for a UUP that has been lack lustre in its ‘opposition’ to the Protocol.”

Two people were arrested today in relation to the bomb hoax, a 41-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman.

Police said the woman had been arrested on suspicion of possessing a firearm in suspicious circumstances, possessing criminal property and concealing criminal property. Her arrest came after searches in the Ballysillan and Springmartin areas of north and west Belfast on Saturday evening.

A suspected firearm, two vehicles, a quantity of controlled drugs and a large sum of cash were seized.

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