By Amanda Ferguson
BELFAST -Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney was taken off stage by officials during a speech in Belfast on Friday after the event organiser said a suspicious device had been discovered in a hijacked van in the car park of the venue.
The van driver was ordered at gunpoint to drive to the venue in north Belfast, one of the event’s organisers told Reuters. Coveney was driven away from the venue in his government car after leaving the stage, a Reuters journalist at the scene said.
A loud bang was heard at the location two-and-a-half hours after Coveney left. Local lawmaker Gerry Kelly form the Sinn Fein party said police told him that a controlled explosion had been carried out. A spokesperson for the police did not confirm.
“There is a security alert. Everyone had to evacuate the centre,” Tim Attwood, secretary of the Hume Foundation, the event organiser, told Reuters shortly after rushing out of the room.
A spokesperson for Coveney said the minister and his team were safe and had been taken to a secure location.
The PSNI said police are currently in attendance at the scene where a 400-metre (yard) exclusion zone was put in place.
The driver was in tears inside the venue after alerting security officials to the incident and apologising to attendees for being forced to drive to the site, the Reuters journalist said.
Coveney said on Twitter that he was “saddened and frustrated” that someone had been attacked and victimised and that his thoughts were with the driver.
“I spoke to the poor man whose van was hijacked … He’s lost his memory. He’s traumatised. It’s just unreal,” Father Aidan O’Kane, the manager of the Houben Centre where the event was being held, told Reuters.
A funeral in the adjacent church also had to be evacuated, O’Kane said.
The incident comes three days after the United Kingdom lowered its Northern Ireland-related terrorism threat level for the first time in more than a decade, with police saying operations against Irish nationalist militants were making attacks less likely.
A small group of militants opposed to a 1998 peace deal that ended Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” remain active and carry out occasional attacks.
Their capacity is tiny relative to the three-decade conflict between Irish nationalists seeking unification with the Irish Republic and the British Army and pro-British loyalists determined to keep Northern Ireland under British rule.
Britain’s Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis said he was being kept up to date on the incident. “Solidarity with Simon Coveney and all those impacted,” Lewis said on Twitter.