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safety fears Security alert halts Simon Coveney speech during Belfast peacebuilding event

The Houban Centre, on the Crumlin Road, has been evacuated.

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Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney was speaking at the event when it was halted (Screengrab/Hume Foundation/PA)

Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney was speaking at the event when it was halted (Screengrab/Hume Foundation/PA)

Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney was speaking at the event when it was halted (Screengrab/Hume Foundation/PA)

A security alert in Belfast has caused the cancellation of a peacebuilding event attended by the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister.

Simon Coveney was speaking at the event organised by the John and Pat Hume Foundation in Belfast when he abruptly ended his speech and was ushered from the room.

The Houben Centre, on the Crumlin Road, has been evacuated.

The incident, which is believed to centre around a hijacked van, was rapidly condemned by politicians in Northern Ireland.

Mr Coveney had been speaking about the importance of reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

He had told the event: “The patient work of reconciliation and deepening of relationships does need to continue on our own island.”

A spokesperson for Mr Coveney said: “The minister and team are safe, have been taken to a secure location and the PSNI are doing their work.”

In a tweet, 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.”

Tim Attwood, from the foundation, told the PA news agency that the security alert is a reminder “to everyone that there is no role in our society for violence”.

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He added: “A suspect device will not stop the work of the John and Pat Hume Foundation.”

A van was hijacked as part of the incident, according to North Belfast Sinn Fein MP John Finucane.

He tweeted: “The attack on an event involving Minister Simon Coveney at North Belfast’s Houben Centre today is disgraceful.

“Those behind the van hijacking which was left on church grounds have no place in society.

“While they try to bring back the past, we will keep working for the future.”

Local priest Fr Gary Donegan spoke at the event.

He told BBC Radio Ulster that Mr Coveney was about five minutes into the speech when it was interrupted.

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PSNI officers patrol a cordon at the Holy Cross church which is believed to centre around a hijacked van, close to The Houben Centre, Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

PSNI officers patrol a cordon at the Holy Cross church which is believed to centre around a hijacked van, close to The Houben Centre, Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

PSNI officers patrol a cordon at the Holy Cross church which is believed to centre around a hijacked van, close to The Houben Centre, Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

“I saw the close protection team, beckoning towards me, and I was wondering what are they asking me for?

“They turned around and said to me that someone had been hijacked at gunpoint and had driven a van with an alleged device into the ground and we need to get the minister out of there and get the place evacuated.

“So immediately, we had to get the minister away.”

He described evacuating the building, which he said was a “local community hub”, and said that a funeral had been cancelled by the evacuation.

“Whatever mindless people did what they did today, forget about the actual event itself, but there’s a family grieving who now didn’t even have a funeral.”

In a statement, a PSNI spokesperson said: “Police are currently in attendance of a security alert at the Crumlin Road area of north Belfast.

“Motorists are advised to avoid the area and seek alternative main routes for their journey.

“There are no further details at this stage.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described it as a “worrying situation”.

He tweeted: “These mindless thugs won’t deter the John and Pat Hume Foundation from carrying out their work to further peace.”

Earlier this week, the level of terrorism threat from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland was lowered from severe to substantial for the first time in 12 years.

The assessment, announced by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland but made independently by the security service MI5, was praised by Mr Coveney when he appeared alongside Brandon Lewis after a meeting of British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin.

The Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland called it a “deeply disturbing” incident.

Labour MP Peter Kyle tweeted: “This is appalling news and deeply disturbing.

“I had the privilege of meeting the Hume Foundation last week, their work is based on reconciliation and is important.

“I hope Simon Coveney’s presentation resumes safely and soon.”

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