Northern Ireland’s political leaders have condemned those behind the hijacking and petrol bombing of a bus in the early hours of Monday morning.
PSNI escalates patrols in Newtownards after the double-decker bus was hijacked and set on fire in an attack linked to loyalist opposition to Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol.
The incident happened in the Abbot Drive area around 6:30 a.m. Monday.
Two masked and armed men boarded the 7a bus at the Bowtown Estate in Newtownards, which was on its way to Belfast’s Laganside Bus Centers.
They poured fuel over the lower tire of the vehicle before setting it on fire.
The driver managed to get out of the bus unharmed, but has been strongly shaken by the incident and is supported by colleagues
It is understood that the masked men “mumbled something about the protocol” as they held the driver under arms.
A nearby bus shelter was also significantly damaged by the fire.
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service said three appliances from Newtownards and nearby Bangor attended the scene and extinguished the fire.
A police barricade was set up around the charred and smoldering remains of the bus with detectives, forensic scientists and officials from Translink remaining on the scene most of the day while the investigation continued.
PSNI 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.
“Together with our criminal investigation, we will intensify our visible presence of neighborhood police in this area in the coming days. This is to provide reassurance to the local community.
“I would also like to take this opportunity to repeat the words of our local elected representatives in condemning this ruthless and futile act of destruction.”
Bus service is temporarily suspended in the area after the attack.
Translink CEO Chris Conway said: “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.
“Our staff is at the forefront every day to keep essential services running and to keep communities connected; support health, education and the economy. Safety is our top priority and we are currently working with the community and PSNI to restore public transport services to Bowtown Estate as soon as possible. “
The union’s deputy regional secretary, Davy Thompson, expressed concern about the driver involved.
“This is a bus driver who does his best to support his family, exposed to the incredible horror of being removed from his bus, only to see it burn while a community was left with disruptions in their transport connections, affecting the ability to get to appointments, school and work, “he said.
“This attack is indefensible and wrong. It served no purpose other than to traumatize a worker and undermine access to public transportation for a community.”
There has also been widespread political condemnation of the incident.
The attack in the predominantly unionist area took place on the day that the DUP had set out to pull down the institutions in Stormont, unless major changes to the protocol had been secured.
The DUP has not yet withdrawn ministers from the Executive Board, and insists that progress is being made in settling the disputed border with the Irish Sea.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “There was never any justification for masked gunmen on the streets of Northern Ireland and there never will be.
“When I outlined the DUP’s action on the protocol in early September, I indicated that action was needed within a few weeks. At that time, the EU said new negotiations were impossible.
“Since then, the EU has agreed to make new proposals and serious negotiations have reopened with the UK Government.
“No sensible person could deny that this represents significant and positive progress. That progress was secured through political action and not violence.”
He added: “Our focus should be on fully restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the UK single market.
“If the EU refuses to agree to the restoration of Northern Ireland’s constitutional and economic integrity, the UK Government will be required to fulfill its obligation under the NDNA Agreement to do so through UK law.
“It is the roadmap to ensure the removal of the border with the Irish Sea. Those who deal with thugs are only undermining these efforts and cementing the protocol more solidly in place.”
Sinn Fein’s North Belfast MP, John Finucane, called the attack “dangerous, ruthless and heinous” and called on 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.
“There are huge opportunities for our local businesses through the job creation protocol, this violence is undermining those opportunities.
“This is a time for calm and responsible leadership to reduce tensions and ensure that there is no further escalation of violence on our streets.”
Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon called the attack “shameful” and said those responsible “should stop now”.
The SDLP MLA said: “I completely condemn this cowardly act. Our transport workers are frontline 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.
‘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. These civil servants, men and women, are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. They transport our healthcare professionals to hospitals, all of us to and from work, children to school, they are a fundamental part of our society.
“They deserve to be safe, and they deserve our respect and gratitude. The cowards who attacked it have done nothing but attack their own community.”
Justice Minister Naomi Long has said: “Spraying the interior of a public bus with liquid and turning it on will do nothing but disperse fear and cause disruption to the much-needed services in the communities. My thoughts go to the driver and everyone affected by this incident. The risk of public safety was considerable, and no one engaged in their business should be subjected to this kind of ruthless violence and destruction.
“This crime has no place in society. That is not the image of Northern Ireland that we want for our citizens. “
Ulster Unionist Strangford MLA Mike Nesbitt said: “This promotes no other cause than to terrorize a bus driver and annoy local people who rely on bus services to get their children to school and get into town to go shopping.
“If this was meant as a kind of protest against the NI protocol, then it is completely counterproductive. Vandalism and ruthless destruction can never be the way forward.”
Anyone who may have witnessed the incident or have information related to it, please contact the police on 101 with reference to reference 444 of 01/11/21.
A report can be submitted online using the non-emergency reporting form.
Information can also be given to Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or online.
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