Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, has been evacuated mid-speech from an event in Belfast after a suspect device was discovered in a hijacked van driven to the venue.
A full-scale security alert was under way at the Houben Centre in north-west Belfast, with a 400-metre exclusion zone cordoned off by police.
Reuters reported sources saying that a van had been hijacked on the nearby Shankill Road and that the driver was forced to drive it to Holy Cross church.
An army team was called to assess the device found in the back of the van.
The driver of the vehicle was in tears inside the venue after alerting security officials to the incident.
Coveney tweeted that he was “saddened & frustrated that someone has been attacked & victimised in this way and my thoughts are with him & his family”.
The incident comes just days after the UK’s Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, lowered the terrorism threat in the country from “severe” to “substantial” for the first time in 12 years.
Lewis tweeted: “I am aware of reports of an ongoing security alert in Belfast. I am being kept up to date and I am in regular contact with the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland]. Solidarity with Simon Coveney and all those impacted.”
A PSNI spokesperson said: “Police are currently in attendance of a security alert at the Crumlin Road area of north Belfast this morning (Friday 25th March).
“Motorists are advised to avoid the area and seek alternative main routes for their journey. There are no further details at this stage.”
Coveney was speaking at the event organised by the John and Pat Hume Foundation when he abruptly ended his speech and was ushered from the room. The minister told the audience he had to leave and hoped to be back in a few minutes, but the centre has since been evacuated.
Tim Attwood, the foundation’s secretary, said the event was the organisation’s first in-person conference to be hosted since the end of Covid restrictions.
“It’s very disconcerting that an important event on the theme of building common ground, which is seeking to build relationships in northern Ireland, was ended suddenly by a bomb alert.”
He told Belfast Live: “Unfortunately, the event has had to be cancelled due to a security alert. Sadly, it seems there are still a few people who do not see the merit in supporting the legacy of John and Pat Hume in continuing to build peace, but our message is loud and clear – we will not be deterred.”
One of those attending the event said: “The event kicked off and all of a sudden Simon Coveney’s security came up and he left.”