Masked men hijacked and torched a bus in Northern Ireland early Monday in an attack linked to British unionists’ opposition to the post-Brexit trade protocol.
Unionist leaders condemned the attack as counterproductive. Democratic Unionist Party chief Jeffrey Donaldson said such threats and destruction would only “cement the protocol more firmly in place.”
Police said two masked and armed men stopped the bus and ordered the driver off, before dousing the inside of the otherwise unoccupied vehicle with fuel and setting it on fire. Such roadside hijackings, particularly of buses, were common during the three decades of conflict over Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, but are a rarity today.
The attack in Newtownards, an overwhelmingly unionist town 10 miles east of Belfast, comes weeks after Donaldson warned he would withdraw his party from Northern Ireland’s cross-community government — triggering its collapse to be followed by new elections — unless Britain won fundamental concessions from the EU over enforcement of the trade protocol at Northern Ireland’s ports.
Monday was widely viewed as Donaldson’s deadline for such action. But Donaldson suggested that his party’s withdrawal threat was unlikely to proceed this month because London’s own threats to trigger Article 16 of the protocol treaty had produced “fresh proposals” from Brussels.
“Serious negotiations have reopened with the U.K. government. No reasonable person could deny that this represents significant and positive progress,” Donaldson said. “That progress was secured through political action and not violence.”
Police said at least one of the hijackers was carrying what appeared to be a handgun, although there was no way to determine whether the firearm was real.
The hijackers reportedly told the bus driver they were protesting against the protocol, but no paramilitary group claimed official responsibility for the attack.
Newtownards has been a focal point this year for several public protests against the protocol. It also is a power base for the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force. Both are outlawed “loyalist” paramilitary groups that are internally divided over whether to stir up violence as part of unionists’ wider anti-protocol protests.
Loyalists mounted 10 days of street clashes with police in April, when many rioters said they were protesting against the protocol as well as the police and power-sharing with Sinn Féin, the main Irish nationalist party.