It's understood loyalists opposed to the Northern Ireland protocol were behind the incident
Sources say the bomb attack that coincided with a visit to the centre of Irish minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney, was designed to send a “strong message” to the Irish government over the Northern Ireland protocol.
The minister was midway through giving a speech to the assembled audience of community leaders and Troubles’ victims when he was dramatically removed from the venue by his security and driven off in his ministerial car.
The event had been organised by former SDLP councillor Tim Attwood on behalf of the John and Pat Hume Foundation, with minister Coveney as the keynote speaker.
Mr Coveney has been the target of loyalist harassment in the past, his image was placed on anti-protocol banners that were displayed in a number of loyalist areas at the end of last year.
However, the bomb attack signals a huge and unexpected escalation in violent loyalist opposition to the Brexit protocol arrangements.
The bomb was placed in the back of a van hijacked in the Woodvale area of the Shankill on Friday morning, with the driver forced to drive it to the carpark at the back of Holy Cross Monastery.
No group is expected to claim the attack but there are concerns that this escalation in activity could continue into the summer months.
It is the first major bomb attack carried out by loyalist paramilitaries in almost 20 years and comes in the same week that Northern Ireland’s terror threat was reduced from severe to substantial.
The bomb consisted of a large cylinder, thought to contain flammable liquid along with what appeared to be a detonation device attached.
A controlled explosion was carried out by army technical officers at the scene. A large bang was heard shortly after 1pm on Friday afternoon.
The driver forced to transport the bomb was said to be in a distressed state, but has been praised for raising the alarm so quickly and allowing the venue to be safely evacuated.
A funeral in Holy Cross Church was also evacuated, the local priest was forced to finish requiem mass in a carpark while PSNI officers urged mourners to leave the area.
An extended cordon was placed from the Ardoyne roundabout to the junction of Tennent Street on the Crumlin Road.
Among those in attendance at the event was Alan McBride, whose wife and father-in-law were killed in the Shankill Bomb.
Mr Coveney later posted on Twitter that he was “Saddened and frustrated that someone has been attacked and victimised in this way and my thoughts are with him and his family”.
He also thanked the PSNI for their actions in evacuating the building.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who is due to speak at an anti-protocol rally in Ballymoney on Friday evening also commented on the alert saying: “Good to see widespread condemnation of those behind the hijacking and security alert in north Belfast.
“Most people want to get on with their lives and have no truck with those who cling to violence”.
Professor Colin Harvey, who was at the event said: “This must stop, those responsible need to wise up and respect the fact that people in this society want peace.
“Dialogue, debate and discussion remain the only way forward”.
Ulster Unionist, north Belfast assembly candidate Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston said she was “concerned” at the potential for the situation to escalate.
“This is a worrying development that has left a great number of people shaken — those participating in the event, local residents, mourners that were attending a funeral on the grounds of the chapel, the neighbouring care home residents, staff and their families and of course the driver.
“Tensions are undoubtedly high, but an escalation of this kind is both alarming and abhorrent."
Tim Attwood who was moderating the peace-building gathering said it was “very unfortunate that the event has been cancelled and more importantly the disruption to local community.
“The message of the minister in the short time he was speaking and of the John and Pat Hume Foundation is that you can only achieve your goals through peaceful and nonviolent means.
“Those who think they can drag us back to those dark days are very much mistaken, they are long gone and this will only renew our efforts for peace and reconciliation and our work will continue.”
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly who attended the scene with party colleague and MP for the area John Finucane said language around the protocol needed to be tempered to prevent any escalation of activity.
“I think there is no question that what people say in public has an effect, or at least the cover of their rhetoric will be used as an excuse.
“Whether this is a viable device, and I’ve been told by police that they are treating it as viable, this is being used as an excuse and can be a contributing factor, this is about the future, not about the past and any rhetoric that drives us back is unhelpful.”
The Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, the Most Reverend John McDowell, and the Bishop of Connor, the Right Reverend George Davison, issued a joint statement condemning the incident saying: “Our thoughts are firstly with the people most affected by this morning’s incident in north Belfast.
“It is particularly shameful that a peace-building event held in honour of the memory of John and Pat Hume, and a funeral service, have been disrupted in this way.
“Peace and stability in Northern Ireland are maintained and advanced through good relationships at all levels within Ireland and across these islands, and there is no place for violence or the threat of violence in our society. Violence has nothing to offer and can only push our society backwards.
“We would urge anyone who has any information that may be useful to a police investigation to contact the PSNI.”
Alliance north Belfast representative Nuala McAllister said: “My thoughts are with those who were at the Houben Centre and in Holy Cross Church during this incident,” said Councillor McAllister.
“A relative of mine was in the church during this incident. Thankfully, they and others were safely removed and my thanks go to the security services for their work to do that. My thoughts are also with the driver of the van hijacked, who will have gone through a traumatic experience.
“The overwhelming reaction from the people of north Belfast, who are disgusted by those behind this. They can try and cause fear all they want but they are not wanted here. North Belfast has come so far, and these people will not drag us back to the past”, she added.
SDLP MP Claire Hanna, who was at the event, said “people are frustrated”.
"The irony is lost on nobody that this was an event about reconciliation, about common ground with a genuinely diverse audience of people”.
Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) assembly member Mike Nesbitt, who was also at the event said he was "ashamed and disgusted in equal measure at the people who did this".
"A driver going about his daily business is now traumatised, god knows how badly. What are they thinking?"
Fr Gary Donegan, who was one of the hosts at the peace-building event said: "Whatever mindless people did what they did today, forget about the actual event itself, but there is a family grieving who now did not even have a funeral," he said.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis tweeted that he was in "solidarity" with Mr Coveney and all those affected by the security alert.