Man remanded in custody following security alert that interrupted Coveney’s speech

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A Belfast man has been taken into custody following a security alert that disrupted a peace event addressed by Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney.

Darren Service, 40, of Ballysillan Road, was charged with planning terrorist acts, hijacking and planting a fake bomb last week.

Belfast Magistrates Court heard he was identified by a car he was driving in the area at the time, although he denies transporting masked gunmen who threatened a van driver and the forced to carry what he believed to be a live bomb on Friday, March 25.

Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney is led out of the room due to a security alert (Hume Foundation/PA)

A Detective Inspector described how, at around 10.50am on Friday, the driver of a van was waiting to start work on Sydney Street off Crumlin Road when two masked gunmen got into the car on either side of him.

He said they told him something would be placed in the van and that he had to drive it to Holy Cross Church because the two men got out of the van and something was placed there.

He was told he would be shot or his family would be hurt if he didn’t do what they told him. They also took his wallet and phone.

“Upon arriving at the car park, the aggrieved party exited the van in a state of distress, approached the officers who were at the scene due to the presence of Mr Coveney…the officers checked the rear of the van and discovered what they believed to be an explosive device…the area was evacuated,” he told the court.

CCTV footage showed a gray Skoda Superb in the area, driving behind the victim’s van, before passing it close to where the prank was allegedly placed in the van. The Skoda was traced to a serviced vehicle while his car was being serviced.

The Detective Inspector said two balaclavas, UVF pins, an air rifle, class b drugs and a large amount of cash (£100,000) and high value jewelery were found during the a search of Service’s home.

“We believe this incident is linked to the unrest protesting against the Northern Ireland Protocol and that the attack occurred due to the presence of the Irish Foreign Secretary at the Houban Center on this date,” a- he declared.

“Later statements by loyalist paramilitaries in the press that they would carry out further attacks in relation to Irish protocol and ministers. We think the presence of the UVF pins in his house is also important.

The Detective Inspector said the incident had heightened tensions in North Belfast. He also referred to other recent incidents, including a claim by the UVF that a bomb was left in a bar in Warrenpoint, and a claim that a bomb was left on a train between Belfast and Dublin. Both were hoaxes.

The department voluntarily came to the interview with the police. Although he admits he was driving the vehicle in the area that day, he disputes that it was the same vehicle that dropped off the gunmen.

However, Assistant District Judge McStay said he was confident police had enough evidence to establish the link.

Objecting to a Service bail request, the Detective Inspector said it was on a number of grounds.

He described the incident as an escalation of loyalist protests against the protocol and said they believed the claimant posed a significant risk of re-offending.

“We believe this is a politically motivated crime, aimed at disrupting this cross-community event,” he said.

“For that, he succeeded, he gained significant media coverage nationally and internationally. We believe that someone willing to be involved in such a pivotal role in such activity will not be deterred by bail conditions…and will continue to re-offend.

“We believe he is actively involved in this terrorist attack, he facilitated the masked gunman by going to the scene, hijacking the vehicle. He then drove the hijacked van to where the suspect device was placed in the victim’s van.

The Detective Inspector also said Service was present when a bus was set on fire by anti-protocol protesters on April 7, 2021 on Lanark Way.

The service said he had a gym in the area and was there to protect his property. However, police believe he was part of the orchestration of the unrest.

The court also heard that Service’s phone was not found and that he refused to hand over his phone out of concern for his personal information.

The service’s defense attorney, Paul Bacon, said he was from Shankill Road, “you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out his political affiliation”.

“The defendant has gone well beyond a viable defense. I understand the concerns of the police but it seems to me, I respectfully submit, to be guessing and joining the dots in this case. There is no direct evidence,” he told the court.

“The only connection seems to be that he said, ‘Yes, I rented a Skoda Superb with this VRN number two days before this offence.’

“If you were involved in this hijacking incident, why the hell would you do it in a vehicle that you know you can be connected to?

“There is nothing to connect him to this offense forensically or in any other way.”

He said his client was a legitimate businessman, owner of three gyms with three loans to repay, adding that he had a young daughter he lived with with his partner.

However, bail was denied, with the judge stating, “I am not confident that I can safely admit this man on bail at this stage.”

The next hearing in the case has been set for April 28.