Northern Ireland news

Hijacking of bus in Co Down 'cynical photo opportunity designed to feed a narrative that Northern Ireland is at boiling point'

The scene on Abbot Drive yesterday morning after a bus was set on fire by masked men. Picture by Mark Marlow

THE hijacking of a bus in Co Down in an attack believed to be linked to loyalist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol has been described as a "cynical photo opportunity designed to feed a narrative that Northern Ireland is at boiling point".

A double-decker bus was hijacked by two masked and armed men and set on fire in Newtownards early yesterday.

There was speculation the attack was timed to coincide with a deadline previously set by the DUP to resolve issues around the protocol and Irish Sea border.

Infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said it is understood the men "muttered something about the protocol" as they held the bus driver at gunpoint.

The attack in the Abbot Drive area at around 6.30am has been linked to the UVF.

SDLP MP Claire Hanna said she believed it was "extremists exploiting the mess of their own creation".

"This was a thuggish attack by thugs, and no doubt seriously traumatic for the bus driver who was doing an honest day’s work, something the perpetrators have probably never done in their lives," she said.

"This was a cynical photo opportunity designed to feed a narrative that Northern Ireland is at boiling point over the protocol, when the reality is that most people don’t love it but accept that protection is necessary against the hard Brexit a minority have been chasing for the last five years.

"Most people want to see business be able to run as smoothly as possible and are completely fed up of extremists exploiting the mess of their own creation."

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson condemned the attack and said he would not be distracted by "thugs and hoods" in his efforts to get Brexit's Irish Sea border removed.

In September, he threatened to collapse Stormont "within weeks" if demands over the NI Protocol were not met.

The party has not yet withdrawn ministers from the Executive, insisting progress is being made in efforts to dismantle the contentious Irish Sea border.

But Sir Jeffrey said that "anyone who believes for one moment that burning buses has any impact whatsoever in terms of our campaign to remove the Irish Sea border really isn't living in the real world".

"These paramilitary elements are only harming their own community," he said.

Asked for his response to the suggestion the attackers were marking the deadline he had previously set to see changes delivered to the protocol, he said: "There's absolutely no justification whatsoever and I'm not going to seek in any way to explain why people go out onto the streets and do what they did this morning.

"There's no explanation, no timescale, no policy, that justifies doing that. It's wrong and it should stop."

He also said he is prepared to hold back on his threat to collapse Stormont over the NI Protocol for a number of weeks more to allow the ongoing UK and EU negotiations to continue.

Challenged about why he was not following through with his threat to withdraw his Executive ministers, he insisted the UK government was making progress in efforts to address the issues created by the protocol.

"It would be churlish in the face of that progress to now move precipitously in relation to what I have warned about if we don't get the outcome that we need," he said.

"Now, I'm prepared to give a little more time for those negotiations to reach a conclusion and that conclusion has to mean agreement on the removal of the Irish Sea border."

Police said they are "stepping up our visible neighbourhood policing presence in this area" following the hijacking in a bid to "provide reassurance to the local community".

Translink's chief executive Chris Conway said the 7a bus had been making its first stop at Bowtown Estate when the "intimidating attack" happened.

"There were no passengers on board when this disgraceful attack occurred, however, our driver is badly shaken and is currently being supported by colleagues," he said.

Davy Thompson of Unite Union said the "attack is indefensible and wrong" and "served no purpose aside from traumatising a worker and undermining access to public transport for a local community".

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