Police in Northern Ireland said that they are stepping up their visible presence after a bus was hijacked and set on fire in Newtownards, Co Down, on Monday morning.
The incident occurred at about 6.30am in the Abbot Drive area. Two masked and armed men boarded the bus and poured fuel over the vehicle before setting it alight.
Politicians have linked the attack to loyalist opposition to Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol.
The attack in the predominantly unionist area happened on the day set by the DUP earlier in the autumn to pull down the institutions at Stormont if major changes to the protocol had not been secured.
Stormont’s infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said the men “muttered something about the protocol” as they held the driver at gunpoint. The driver got off the bus unharmed but has been left badly shaken.
Addressing reporters at Stormont, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, blamed “paramilitary elements” for the hijacking.
Asked for his response to the suggestion the attackers were marking the deadline that he had previously set to see changes delivered to the protocol, Sir Jeffrey 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 time scale, no policy, that justifies doing that. It’s wrong and it should stop.”
Thugs and hoods
He said the attack may have been designed to damage the political campaign against the Northern Ireland protocol.
“I am very clear, I will not be distracted by thugs and hoods. I will not be distracted by violence. I am totally focused on what I want to achieve, which is to get the best outcome for the people of Northern Ireland to have this Irish Sea border removed. Violence will not achieve that.”
The DUP has not yet withdrawn ministers from the Executive, insisting progress is being made in efforts to dismantle the contentious Irish Sea border.
Opposition to the arrangements that have created trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was a factor behind rioting that flared in several loyalist areas across the region in April.
Ms Mallon told the BBC Nolan Show: “Two masked men entered the bus, they held the driver, a male, at gunpoint, they said something about the protocol and they then proceeded to spray the inside of the bus with flammable liquid, they forced the bus driver off the bus and then they set it alight.
“The faceless, mindless cowards who did this have done nothing more than attack their own community.”
She added: “We understand that they muttered something about the protocol.
“I do not know what these people thought they were setting out to achieve by putting at risk a bus driver just trying to do his job and attacking a bus that is there to transport people in the community. It is mindless.”
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie tweeted: “Utterly disgraceful, depressing and stupid actions of thugs and criminals. In what way does this help address issues concerning the protocol, it simply hurts their own community. Wise up.”
Police have appealed for information following the incident.
Speaking about this incident Chief Insp Trevor Atkinson said: “Our investigation into this appalling incident is in its early stages, and I would urge anyone with information to contact police. Alongside our criminal investigation, we will be stepping up our visible neighbourhood policing presence in this area in the coming days. This is to provide reassurance to the local community.
“I would also like to take the opportunity to echo the words of our local elected representatives in condemning this reckless and futile act of destruction.”– PA