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Armed men attack bus on N.Ireland unionists' protocol deadline

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By Reuters

By Amanda Ferguson

BELFAST – Two masked and armed men hijacked and set fire to a bus in a pro-British unionist town in Northern Ireland early on Monday in an attack that local media said was linked to tensions over post-Brexit trade barriers.

The men ordered the driver to get out before pouring fuel over the vehicle in Newtownards, police said. No passengers were on board, bus operator Translink added.

The attackers mentioned the Northern Ireland protocol, an agreement which introduced trade barriers with the rest of the United Kingdom after Brexit, the Belfast Telegraph reported.

Many unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, say the protocol has cut them off and created an effective border in the Irish Sea.

The BBC quoted a pro-British loyalist source as saying the hijacking was carried out to coincide with an end-October deadline suggested by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for changes to the protocol.

The hijacking was condemned by the DUP and politicians across Northern Ireland, where a 1998 peace deal ended three decades of violence between mostly Catholic nationalists fighting for a united Ireland and largely Protestant unionists, or loyalists.

“There was never any justification for masked gunmen on the streets of Northern Ireland and there never will be,” DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said.

Fresh talks had begun between the European Union and Britain after Brussels tabled fresh proposals to try to smooth out the trade barriers, Donaldson added.

“No reasonable person could deny that this represents significant and positive progress. That progress was secured through political action and not violence.”

Britain’s Northern Ireland Minister, Brandon Lewis, said the incident was “beyond despicable”.

Discontent over the protocol helped fuel the worst violence in the region for years in March and April – including the hijacking and torching of another bus – though there had been little unrest since.