hijacking  | 

Gym owner charged in connection with Simon Coveney bomb hoax revealed

He was described in court as a 'trusted member' of the UVF

Darren Service

Allison Morris

An electrician hijacked and ordered at gunpoint to drive what he thought was a bomb to a church in north Belfast was told his family would be targeted if he didn’t carry out his instructions.

Gym owner Darren Service, with an address in Ballysillan, has appeared in court charged with three offences linked to the hoax bomb alert at the Houben Centre in north Belfast on March 25, during which Irish minister Simon Coveney had to be escorted from the premises by his security staff.

During the incident, an electrician was forced at gunpoint to drive his van – with an elaborate hoax bomb placed inside - to the event organised by the John and Pat Hume Foundation.

The 40-year-old is charged with one count of "preparation of terrorist acts", he is also charged with the hijacking of a Ford Transit Van and a further offence of placing "an article in the vicinity of Holy Cross Church, 432 Crumlin Road, Belfast, with the intention of inducing in some other person a belief that it was likely to explode or ignite and thereby cause personal injury or damage to property."

The accused was arrested on Sunday by anti-terrorism officers after presenting himself voluntarily for interview, he appeared in court via video link.

Service was described in court as a “trusted member” of the organisation that carried out the attack, namely the UVF.

Connecting him with the crime the court was told that £100,000 was found in a safe during searches of Mr Service’s home, along with two balaclavas and three UVF pins.

An air rifle was also recovered along with a small quantity of cannabis.

Objecting to bail police said that a phone belonging to the hijacking victim along with his wallet containing personal details was taken from him at the time and has yet to be recovered.

The court was also told that Mr Service can be seen on footage of an anti-protocol riot on April 7, last year, observing a riot linked to tensions during which a bus was set on fire.

They also said that the incident at the Houben Centre was linked to the anti-protocol protests and ongoing escalations in relation to loyalist activities and that further bomb alerts that have occurred since last Friday’s incident.

This included a bomb alert in Warrenpoint and one on the Belfast to Dublin train on Wednesday.

Defence lawyer Paul Bacon challenged police saying his client owns a gym close to Lanark Way and has never been questioned in relation to last year’s disturbances.

He also said his client owned three gyms and had applied for over £150,000 in bounce back loans offered to businesses as a result of the Covid pandemic, adding his client had given full account of his actions.

A Detective Inspector said that Mr Service could be connected to the case. He said the victim in the case was hijacked by two masked gunmen, one wearing a red shirt.

“The suspects threatened to shoot the IP (injured person) and harm his family if he didn’t do as instructed. They also took his mobile phone and wallet”, the officer said.

The court was told the van driver did as he was ordered and was “in a distressed state” when he told police officers at the scene what had happened, they checked the van and observed what they thought was a bomb.

The court was told a grey Skoda was seen in the Sydney Street area and seen in the area on CCTV on the morning of the hijacking.

“This incident is linked to disturbances around the Northern Ireland protocol and the attack occurred due to the presence of the Irish foreign minister at the Houben Centre at that date”, the detective said.

The officer also referred to statements in the press linked to loyalist paramilitaries, claiming they would carry out attacks in relation to the protocol and Irish ministers, saying in this context the UVF pins found in the defendant’s house were “significant."

Mr Bacon defending the accused challenged the police account said his client “gave a full account in relation to the cash”.

“He made an application for three bounce back loans to the sum of £150,000”, Mr Bacon said.

The accused admitted driving the grey Skoda which was a courtesy car being used while his own car was repaired, but denied his car was the same grey car captured on a recording from a Ring doorbell.

Police objected to bail on the grounds that Mr Service had the means to flee the jurisdiction and the means to interfere with justice, and risk of applicant to “influence others” in connection with the case.

Adding that the defendant’s phone has not been recovered and he has refused to hand it over to police.

Adding that there was a risk to “public order” pointing to press reports threating Irish politicians and heightened tensions in north Belfast.

“On Saturday the UVF claimed to have left a bomb in a bar in Warrenpoint that led to a security alert… loyalist paramilitaries claimed to have left a bomb on a train travelling from Belfast to Dublin … again nothing was found.

“We believe this shows potential, ongoing escalation and if this applicant was released on bail there would be further risk”.

Refusing bail Deputy district judge McStay said it was an “extraordinarily serious matter that is politically motivated”.

“I find that there is a risk in that regard, and it is not a risk of small interferences but of very serious offences.

“In terms of flight it is indicated that he has access to money, jewellery and wealth and I have to say that despite the explanation that he owns three businesses and took out loans that the money is retained in cash, £20 notes rolled up in his house, so there are significant suspicions about that cash”.

Judge McStay added that there were real concerns about interference saying there was a “clear risk in respect of those witnesses”.

“I am not satisfied I can safely commit this man to bail at this stage and accordingly I refuse this application”.

The defendant was remanded to appear again in four weeks.

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