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Dozens of Belfast buses suspended amid claim drivers are 'political punchbag'

The wreckage of a bus being removed after it was hijacked and set on fire in Newtownabbey on Sunday night. Picture by Hugh Russell

DOZENS of Translink buses across Belfast were suspended last night after a bus was hijacked on Sunday evening - the second attack in a week.

Five key routes, including the 1, 2, 4, 11 and 12 services, were suspended from 6.30pm amid fears of further attacks.

Other routes, including Glider buses, went ahead with some diversions.

The disruption is expected to last for several days.

Translink met trade unions yesterday afternoon after Metro drivers in Belfast held an impromptu walkout in protest at Sunday's attack.

A Translink Metro bus was hijacked in Newtownabbey at about 7.45pm on Sunday.

Four men ordered the driver and passengers off the double-decker bus and torched it on Church Road, near the Valley Leisure Centre.

On Monday of last week, masked men hijacked a Metro bus and torched it in Newtownards, Co Down.

The attacks have been linked to to loyalist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol - a post-Brexit measure agreed between the British government and the EU which has effectively created a customs border between the north and Britain.

A trade union leader said yesterday bus drivers had become a "political punchbag".

Michael Dornan, chair of Unite Metro bus drivers’ branch, said the driver caught up in Sunday's attack, known only as Bobby, had been "left traumatised".

"Translink drivers are deeply angered that we are always the political punchbag for issues we have no power over or hand in," he said.

"All we do is provide a valuable public service for our communities but we are the ones who are on the front line. All politicians need to act and end these attacks on drivers."

Ian Campbell, Translink's director of service operations, said it was concerned about the safety of drivers and passengers.

"Our staff want to provide essential public transport to keep society connected," he said.

"But this attack on our people and services is simply unacceptable."

He added: "We are very mindful of everyone’s safety and understand the level of concern expressed by our staff and their families.

"We will work closely with the PSNI, the local community, our unions and all stakeholders as we monitor this difficult situation.

"Our plans will always put safety first as we work towards reinstating essential public transport for those who rely on us."

The recent attacks come months after a Metro bus was hijacked and set alight in west Belfast during loyalist rioting in April.

The driver of the double-decker 11B, which operates along Shankill Road, was ordered off the bus, along with his passengers, before it was petrol-bombed at the junction of Lanark Way and the Shankill on April 7.

Dozens of Translink services were suspended or diverted following the attack.

Translink drivers in Belfast later staged a protest.

The scenes were reminiscent of the worst days of the Troubles, when buses were frequently hijacked.

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