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Belfast City Council axes plan to remove bonfire after contractor pulls out

The bonfires are lit in some loyalist areas on 11 July across Northern Ireland.

Updated Jul 11th 2019, 5:36 PM

Battle of the Boyne bonfires Two PSNI officers at the site of the bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre Source: Liam McBurney via PA Images

BELFAST CITY COUNCIL has decided not to remove a contentious loyalist bonfire at a leisure centre car park in the city. 

The council met earlier today after a contractor who was due to remove a bonfire from the Avoneil leisure centre earlier pulled out after warnings of possible violence. 

The PSNI earlier warned of possible confrontation if the bonfire was removed and said in a statement last night that it had informed Belfast City Council that its intelligence pointed to the threat that elements of loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) “may seek violent confrontation” at the bonfire site in the car park of the Avoniel Leisure Centre. 

BBC News NI reported that the PSNI said in a letter to the council that they “could not rule out a risk from firearms”.

Following an emergency meeting today, members of of the council decided to back down and agreed to form working group in order to examine how to handle the bonfire issue in coming years.

Bonfire organisers had said they could “guarantee no violence” if and when contractors arrived to remove the material, the BBC also reported. 

Loyalist graffiti has appeared beside the site threatening contractors.

The bonfires are lit in some loyalist areas on 11 July, the night before the Battle of the Boyne is commemorated by Orange Order parades across Northern Ireland.

The organisers of the bonfire at Avoniel earlier this week resconstructed two sites in the city after removing hazardous material from them following a council vote. 

The Avoniel site first attracted controversy over the weekend, when staff closed the leisure centre after reportedly being threatened and intimidated by bonfire organisers.

Battle of the Boyne bonfires Supporters of the bonfire gathering at Avoniel Leisure Centre in Belfast Source: Liam McBurney via PA Images

Robert Girvin from the East Belfast Cultural Collective, a group representing the builders of numerous bonfires, said the Avoniel bonfire wasn’t controlled by the UVF, the BBC reported. 

“It is controlled by the grannies, the mothers, the sisters, the children, the people of the local community,” he said.

“That’s who controls this, that’s who organises it and that’s who wants it – no-one wants violence.”

In a statement yesterday evening, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said police remain ready to assist Belfast City Council and any contractor they employ to remove bonfire materials. 

“It is important to note that the PSNI do not have any legal powers regarding the removal of bonfire-related material from the site,” Hamilton said.

He said a letter received from the council citing aggravated trespass at the Avoniel Leisure Centre is being treated as an initial complaint and the PSNI is engaging with the council to progress its investigation. 

“I would urge people to heed the calls from the community and not to engage in any violent or criminal behaviour,” Hamilton said.

Following the council’s decision today not to remove the bonfire material, Hamilton said: “I utterly condemn the intimidation of contractors and recognise the impact this will have had on them, their families and indeed on the Council who had sought their services. Such intimidation must not be tolerated.”

The complaint from Belfast City Council citing aggravated trespassing at Avoniel Leisure Centre is now being investigated, Hamilton added. 

“The PSNI is determined to continue to support Belfast City Council. We welcome the Council’s decision to establish an all-party working group to put in place a framework to achieve more effective management ofbonfires and would welcome the opportunity to engage with the working group in the time ahead.”

Battle of the Boyne bonfires The remnants of a fire burn at Avoniel Leisure Centre car park Source: Liam McBurney via PA Images

Other bonfires

Tensions have continued to rise in other parts of Northern Ireland ahead of the lighting of bonfires.

In Armagh, a letter was sent earlier this week to residents living near a site in Portadown advising them to “evacuate” their homes before the bonfire is lit.

Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council had informed residents that the bonfire posed a “serious health and safety risk” and that it had secured alternative accommodation for those in the local area.

A Belfast Telegraph photographer posted a video on social media last night of firefighters dousing flats in Portadown with foam due to intense heat from a bonfire. 

The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has said if it is called to a bonfire “it’s because somebody in that area is worried or concerned about the bonfire” and that it will respond. 

“We are not out to spoil anyone’s enjoyment but are there to protect life and property,” the fire service said.

“We also appeal directly to young people to never build huts or dens inside a bonfire, as by doing so they are putting their life in danger.”

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