Vicki Hawthorne: Anxious look of close protection officer first sign something wrong

The anxious look of a close protection officer was the first sign that something was wrong. Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney had been speaking for around five minutes when I noticed his security detail on the move at the back of the room. Mr Coveney was speaking at an event hosted by the John and Pat Hume Foundation in the Houban centre in the grounds of Holy Cross Church in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast.

I also caught a glimpse of a tradesman outside. He looked pale. I could see the police and officials speaking to him, someone put their arm around him and walked him to privacy. A close protection officer was then waving at the back of the room to get the attention of Father Gary Donegan. They spoke before the officer walked up to the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister and whispered in his ear.

Simon Coveney's face changed utterly. Something serious was developing. Mr Coveney told the room: "I'm afraid I have to leave, I hope I'll be back in a few minutes. You just have to understand that." He was then escorted to a waiting Land Rover and driven away. It was clear he was unlikely to be back anytime soon. The word soon spread that a van driver had arrived on the site and told police he had been hijacked and forced at gunpoint to drive his vehicle to the event. I understand Minister Coveney had wanted to speak to the driver before he left. His security detail didn't allow that. Both I and the UTV camera operator were evacuated out a back door along with the rest of the audience. Those who had organised the John and Pat Hume Foundation conference were in shock. The theme of the event was 'Building Common Ground'. There was disbelief that a peace building event could end in such a way. I have never witnessed a government minister forced to cut short a speech about building relationships. The security alert has been continuing. Hoax or not, it has left a dreadful sense of anger and frustration that something like this could happen in 2022.