Masked gunmen who ordered a terrified bus driver out of his vehicle in Newtownards claimed they were from the “Protestant Action Force”.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that the two masked loyalists who hijacked the bus also told the driver that it was the start of a campaign against the Northern Ireland Protocol.
PSNI said it stepped up patrols in Co Down town after 7a Ulsterbus, which serves Bowtown property, was hijacked and petrol bombed Monday morning, destroying the vehicle. The driver, who at first thought he had been robbed, managed to get out of the bus unharmed but has been “badly shaken”.
The Protestant action force was a cover name used by loyalists, primarily UVF, to avoid directly taking responsibility for killings during the problems. It is believed to have been used to claim the murders of at least 41 Catholics.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has condemned the “fraud and terrorism” behind the incident.
Loyalists claimed the hijacking was done to coincide with a deadline set by the DUP to resolve issues surrounding the NI protocol. A loyal source said a banner with the text “Peace or Protocol”, which was shown at a protest in Newtownards earlier this year, should be taken literally.
“Unless the protocol goes, a couple of burning buses will be the tip of the iceberg,” they said.
The source added that even if the main paramilitary groups did not sanction the attack, they would also not stop “young loyalists from taking violent actions, as politics in our opinion have not succeeded”.
PSNI appealed for information about the attack, which took place at. 6.30 in the Abbot Drive area of Newtownards.
Chief Inspector Trevor Atkinson said: “Our investigation into this horrific incident is in its early stages and I would urge anyone with information to contact the police.”
In parallel with the criminal investigation, he said police would intensify the visible presence of police in the neighborhood in the coming days.
Translink’s CEO Chris Conway added: “We are very disappointed with this intimidating attack on our staff and public transport services in the area. We fully condemn this behavior and will work closely with PSNI to investigate this incident.
“There were no passengers on board when this disgraceful attack took place; but our driver is very shaken and is currently being supported by colleagues.”
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “There was never any justification for people with guns on our streets and damaging property – there never will be. Bullying and terrorism will do nothing to remove the NI protocol. Political action has ensured progress and must have allowed to continue. Violence does not belong in this. “
Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon called the attack “shameful”.
“Our transportation workers are front-line public workers who provide a critical community service, those who seek to instill fear in the lives of ordinary people are criminals and nothing else,” she said. ‘My thoughts go to the bus driver who was the victim of this attack. All bus drivers deserve to feel safe when doing their job. “
She said public servants were “a fundamental part of our society” who worked hard to transport health workers to hospitals and children to school.
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie called the incident a “complete disgrace” and said “the stupid actions of bullies and criminals” were simply harming their own society. His party colleague, Strangford MLA Mike Nesbitt, said there was “absolutely no reason” for the hijacking and destruction of the bus.
Sinn Fein MP John Finucane called the attack “ruthless and heinous” and urged union leaders to stop using “provocative language” around the NI protocol.
“There is absolutely no place in our society for this crime and violence,” he said.
“We need to see a clear condemnation from union leaders over this ruthless and dangerous violence.” Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow minister for Northern Ireland, called it “completely reprehensible” and said her thoughts were with the driver after the “indefensible” attack.
In September, Sir Jeffrey said he would pull his DUP ministers out of Stormont “within a few weeks” if no changes were made to the protocol.
He later proposed a deadline in late October.
Last week, he said he was still prepared to collapse the institutions.