Loyalist paramilitary elements have been blamed for the hijack and burning of a bus in an apparent act of protest against Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the “thugs and hoods” responsible for the incident in Newtownards had no part to play in political unionism’s campaign to remove the Irish Sea border.
His comments came after Stormont’s Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, who is responsible for transport services in the region, said the two masked men who carried out the attack “muttered something about the protocol” as they held the driver at gunpoint.
The incident happened in the Abbot Drive area of Newtownards at about 6.30am on Monday.
The two masked and armed men boarded the bus and poured fuel over the vehicle before setting it alight.
The driver managed to get off the vehicle unharmed but was left badly shaken by the incident. No passengers were onboard at the time.
The charred and smouldering shell of the vehicle remained in the area on Monday afternoon. A nearby bus shelter was also significantly damaged.
The attack in the predominantly unionist area happened on the date 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.
The DUP has not yet withdrawn ministers from the Executive, insisting that progress is being made in efforts to dismantle the contentious Irish Sea border.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.
Sir Jeffrey said he deplored the latest act of violence.
“Anyone who believes for one moment that burning buses has any impact whatsoever in terms of our campaign to remove the Irish Sea border really isn’t living in the real world,” he said.
“These paramilitary elements are only harming their own community.”
Asked about a potential link to his missed deadline for walking out of Stormont, Sir Jeffrey suggested the attackers may have been trying to damage the political campaign against the protocol.
“There’s no explanation, no timescale, no policy that justifies doing that,” he said.
“It’s wrong and it should stop.”
He added: “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.”
Earlier, Ms Mallon told the PA news agency: “One of our bus drivers just going about doing his job, trying to get people to and from work, was subjected to a horrific attack where two masked men forced their way on to the bus, held him at gunpoint, muttered something about the protocol, and then forced him off the bus and set the bus alight.
“All that has served to do is to intimidate and terrify a bus driver who’s a public sector worker.
“But also it is hurting their local community, depriving them of a bus service, these buses are all about taking people to and from work, taking them to hospital appointments, taking children to and from school.
“So it has achieved absolutely nothing. All these mindless, faceless cowards have done is harm their own community.”
Bus services in the area were temporarily suspended following the attack.
It is understood Police Service of Northern Ireland detectives remain open-minded in relation to the motivation behind the incident, with multiple lines of inquiry open at the early stages of the investigation.
PSNI Chief Inspector 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.”
Alliance Justice Minister Naomi Long also condemned the attack.
“This criminality has no place in society,” she said.
“This is not the image of Northern Ireland that we want for our citizens. This is not what people who are already dealing with concerns about the pandemic and rising costs need to be waking up to this morning.”
Sinn Fein MP John Finucane said there was an onus on unionist leaders to dial down their language on the protocol.
“Words and actions are very important, and I would urge unionist leaders to end the provocative language and dishonesty around the protocol,” he said.
“This is a time for calm and responsible leadership to reduce tensions and ensure there is no further escalation of violence on our streets.”
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.”
Unite the Union also condemned the attack.
Deputy regional secretary Davy Thompson said: “Today our thoughts are with the driver and his family, who will no doubt be very shaken by his experiences this morning.
“This is a bus driver, out doing his best to provide for his family, exposed to the unbelievable horror of being removed from his bus, then watching it burn whilst a local community were left with disruption to their transport links, affecting the ability to get to appointments, school and work.
“This attack is indefensible and wrong. It served no purpose aside from traumatising a worker and undermining access to public transport for a local community.”
He added: “We would call on all those who may have influence in our society to do all they can to ensure that these types of incidents are ended.”