Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has been taken off stage by officials during a speech in Northern Ireland after a suspicious device had been discovered in a hijacked van in the car park of the venue, according to the event organiser.
The van driver was ordered at gunpoint to drive to the venue in north Belfast, one of the event’s organisers told the Reuters news agency on Friday.
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Coveney was driven away from the venue in his government car after leaving the stage, a Reuters journalist at the scene said.
“There is a security alert and the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] are currently assessing the situation. Everyone has had to evacuate the centre,” Tim Attwood, secretary of the Hume Foundation, the event organiser, told Reuters.
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 (1,300-foot) 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 fighters were making attacks less likely.
A small group of fighters 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 30-year 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.
The UK’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.