Woman arrested and suspected gun seized by police probing in Belfast

The Irish Foreign Affairs Minister had to be evacuated from an events centre after an incident on Friday

Published

A woman has been arrested and a suspected firearm seized following a security alert that led to the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister being evacuated from an event in North Belfast, Northern Ireland.

It is suspected loyalist paramilitary group Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) were involved in the incident at The Houben Centre on Friday, according to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

PSNI said a van was hijacked by two gunmen and the driver was forced to drive a device which he believed to be a bomb to a church next to the events venue.

Minister Simon Coveney was removed from stage during his speech and the audience was evacuated.

A 38-year-old woman has since been arrested on suspicion of possessing a firearm, possessing criminal property and concealing criminal property.

A PSNI spokesperson said she was in custody assisting police with their inquiries.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney being ushered from the room due to a security alert
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney being ushered from the room due to a security alert

It comes after the Serious Crime Branch carried out searches in the Ballysillan and Springmartin areas of north and west Belfast on Saturday evening.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan addressed the incident: “This morning, some time between 9am and 10am, a van was hijacked in Sydney Street West off the Shankill Road, Belfast,” he said.

“The van driver was threatened by two gunmen and forced to drive his white Vauxhall van a short distance to another street and a device was then placed in the van.

“The victim was then forced to drive the van to Holy Cross chapel.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan, speaking to the media at PSNI headquarters in east Belfast
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan, speaking to the media at PSNI headquarters in east Belfast

“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.

“The local community were also impacted. Over 25 homes were evacuated, local schools were affected and vulnerable residents in a local nursing home had to be moved to another part of their home.

“Most shamefully, a funeral taking place in the chapel was also disrupted, causing further grief to that family.

“This evening upon further examination, the device has been declared a hoax. It was clearly designed to cause maximum disruption to the local community.

PSNI officers patrol a cordon at the Holy Cross church where emergency services attended a security alert
PSNI officers patrol a cordon at the Holy Cross church where emergency services attended a security alert

“At this early stage of the investigation, our assessment is that these crimes were carried out by loyalist paramilitary groups.

“We’re keeping an open mind, but one of the primary lines of investigation is the UVF.”

The incident has been condemned by politicians across the political spectrum.

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis described the actions as “reprehensible.”

He said: “Today’s incident at the Houben Centre in North Belfast is a reminder that there is a small minority willing to use violence to advance their goals.”

“My thoughts are with the driver who faced a terrifying ordeal, the family that was holding a funeral, as well as with Simon Coveney and everyone else who was impacted.

“These actions are reprehensible. I utterly condemn those involved and give my thanks and reiterate my full support to the PSNI and security partners and urge anyone with any information to contact the police.”

Earlier, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the widespread condemnation, adding most people “want to get on with their lives and have no truck with those who cling to violence”.

Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill also condemned those involved, adding: “Those determined to cause instability and disruption will not succeed. Those of us committed to peace will not be deterred.”

In a tweet afterwards, the Foreign Affairs Minister thanked the efforts of the PSNI.

“In Belfast with the Hume Foundation to honour John & Pat’s legacy of peace for all communities.

“Saddened & frustrated that someone has been attacked & victimised in this way and my thoughts are with him & his family.”